Analysis: Media accused of fuelling ‘fear culture’

Labour conference fringe slams macho politics and inflammatory crime reporting, says Ravi Chandiramani

The media came in for widespread criticism at the Labour Party conference fringe this week for having a macho reporting culture, turning women off politics and breeding fear of crime.

At 'What puts women off politics?', an event organised by the Electoral Reform Society, Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley said: 'Columns I have written on carers and women's pensions have had bigger email responses than any other. My bosses didn't like that. As a journalist you have to play the man's game.'

She added that 'most papers have only one female lobby correspondent, who is usually the "number four"'.

Opinion Leader Research director Graeme Trayner said women perceived politics as 'boorish and masculine' and disliked the 'adversarial, yah-boo' nature of Westminster. He said the suggestion that the other 'PR' – proportional representation – could lead to a more consensual government 'gets a more positive reaction from women than men, who have more hang-ups about coalitions'.

Meanwhile, Barbara Follett MP called for polling days to be moved from Thursdays to the weekend to make it easier for women to vote.

Corrosive questioning
There was a stinging attack on the interviewing style of Jeremy Paxman at an event entitled 'Faith, politics and the media'. London Institute of Contemporary Christianity executive director Mark Greene said: 'No one has done more in the past five years to corrode the quality of political discourse than Paxman.' He added that the BBC Newsnight presenter's 'discourse of derision' had 'poisoned the whole atmosphere with the sulphur of suspicion'.

But some at the meeting defended Paxman's role in 'taking politicians on', while pensions minister Stephen Timms said: 'Politicians in the UK are careful and rigorous in getting things right, so we end up with a more effective government than if the media were nice to us.'

The media – and the Daily Mail was often singled out – were identified as major culprits in fuelling fear of crime at an Institute of Public Policy Research event entitled 'The Crime Gap: Perception vs Reality'.

Roger Howard, CEO of charity Crime Concern, claimed the risk of being a victim of crime was 25 per cent lower than ten years ago while sentence lengths are up 30 per cent on average. 'We have got much tougher but everyone thinks we have gone soft on criminals,' said Howard. 'We lump low-level anti-social behaviour [with more serious crimes] into one big amorphous mass.'

Ben Page, director of MORI's research institute, called for 'more clarity from police forces' on crime issues, because the police are trusted more to 'tell the truth' by the public than ministers.

Home Office minister Hazel Blears bemoaned that 'a story about young people building a skate park won't be written up, but hoodies will'. But the tide could be turning: 'Since 7/7, one or two commentators have said the media have a role to play in not stoking up fear.'

Trust in politicians might be at an all-time low, but one message resonated clearly from the fringe: the media also have much to answer for.

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