When the Space Shuttle programme was grounded I wrote this big newspaper feature about how it left a generation, reared on the promise of deep space exploration, on the gantry of broken dreams. It was rather fine, I thought, and so did a lot of readers. But of course someone in the online comments whined that it was wrong to write about it at all when there was poverty and disease and war out there.
By this simplistic logic of a news hierarchy, of course, we should currently be reporting on nothing except the crisis of Syria. After all, what’s the misery of weeks of flooding in the Somerset Levels compared to the humanitarian crisis there? What’s the slashing of benefits? What does it matter if Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing has resulted in the US Government being forced to admit to the scale of data that it’s probing?
So it was interesting to see this argument deployed in the strange mess around fair legal process concerning the Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard and his refusal to apologize for alleged sexual harassment against 4 women; allegations which he denies.
In a piece headlined: “Lord Rennard case overshadows more serious issues of sexual politics”, the Guardian’s veteran political journalist Michael White claimed just that. While saying no one should have to put with harassment, he wished for more of the gumption of a generation of tough postwar women MPs such as Barbara Castle who, in his view, ploughed through the challenges of the 70s cop-a-feel culture to stay focussed on passing important legislation on equal pay and child benefit that transformed the lives of millions of women. He argued in the conclusion to his piece that “Homophobia remains a lethal fact of life in many parts of the world…slavery, female genital mutilation and other horrors are still widely inflicted on women, even in Britain. A clammy hand on the knee is not quite the same.”
A number of prominent women in politics and journalism from a range of ideological view points objected on Twitter, including Beatrix Campbell who wrote: “You polarize economic versus culture. Feminists don’t.”
Michael White replied:
“We all have to choose. Today media (and you) have chosen this issue over ( say) Clegg’s speech yesterday on mental health issue.”
White was spot on in observing how Clegg’s enemies in the national press were exploiting the Rennard story to undermine him. But his claim of a lack of “proportion” in how the story was being reported, revealed the double bind of tackling sexual harassment and indeed sexual discrimination. How often they are pushed down the pecking order by this logic.
Take the recent news that Birmingham Council is considering selling the NEC (National Exhibition Centre). The headlines suggested a poor local authority besieged by greedy lawyers. The more complex reality is that the council had for years insisted on fighting a legal battle against thousands of its women employees – many of them dinner ladies and care workers — who were paid significantly less than men doing jobs on the same grade, in blatant defiance of the Equal Pay Act. The council eventually gave up and has been negotiating settlements with 11 thousand workers. From the start of the case though, the women were regularly accused of being “greedy” and of threatening their male colleagues’ jobs; both by the council and in some cases even by their own unions. It’s why some chose to pursue it via private lawyers; notably Stefan Cross, who, was dubbed in one newspaper profile The Most Hated Lawyer in Britain. He told The Justice Gap online magazine last year:
‘Throughout the entire period that we have been running these cases, that kind of bullying has been levelled at women to frighten them off…The worst of it has come from trade unions…In Leeds there were trade union officials going around kitchen by kitchen telling people not to put in claims. When we were organizing publicity, we were getting picketed by the unions. We had branch secretaries and stewards infiltrating meetings and bawling out our clients… They always want to protect the position of the men and they always keep that a secret.”
Barbara Castle, who pushed through the 1970 Equal Pay Act isn’t around to tell us what she thinks of either the Lord Rennard row or Birmingham Council’s woes. But these two stories of women making a “fuss”, remind us to beware of who in politics is defining the pecking order and the battles worth fighting.
This article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine