Last Tuesday the Daily Mail’s front page featured a photograph of the leaders of Scotland and the UK meeting to discuss Brexit, and particularly Scotland’s role in the process.
The meeting took place in Glasgow and came just two weeks after the Scottish First Minister had demanded another referendum on the question of Scotland’s independence. The demand had created some tension — the British prime minister has kept repeating the refrain that “Brexit means Brexit”, while the Scottish leader has kept highlighting that Scotland did not vote in favour of Brexit and so should be given the option of remaining in Europe.
But despite the political significance of the meeting, the Mail chose to focus on the leaders’ legs. Their headline was ‘Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!’ Inside the paper the headline read, ‘Finest weapons at their command? Those pins!’ And a column by Sarah Vine (who, by the way, is the wife of Michael Gove, a leading player in the whole Brexit campaign), proclaimed “what stands out here are the legs — and the vast expanse on show” and her ‘analysis’ of the position of the leaders’ legs, described Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s as “altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed… a direct attempt at seduction”.
Obviously the paper’s tone attracted a barrage of criticism. And expressions of astonishment and outrage that this attitude should prevail in this day and age: Labour MP Harriet Harman tweeted “Moronic! And we are in 2017” while Yvette Cooper, also a Labour MP and former Minister tweeted, “It’s 2017. Two women’s decisions will determine if United Kingdom continues to exist. And front page news is their lower limbs. Obviously”.
By Tuesday evening the first official complaint had been filed with the press regulator by the Green Party’s deputy leader Amelia Womack. She reported the Mail’s front page to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), and said that the paper had broken the editors’ code and treated women with “contempt”.
In her complaint she accused the paper of breaking Clause 12 of the code which says that editors must “avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to… physical or mental illness or disability”.
She pointed out that bringing the politicians’ appearance into this story is “not only entirely irrelevant but incredibly disrespectful”.
The Mail’s response to the outrage seemed to reference the “political-correctness-is-stifling-us-good-citizens” school of thought that US President Trump and Brexiteer Nigel Farage have propagated so successfully. The paper put the criticism down to their critics lacking a sense of humour saying critics should “get a life” and raising the question: “Is there a rule that says political coverage must be dull or has a po-faced BBC and left-wing commentariat… lost all sense of humour… and proportion ?”
And the Prime Minister Theresa May seemed to play down the row too, calling it “a bit of fun”. Specifically she told a Wolverhampton paper “if people want to have a bit of fun about how we dress then so be it”. She did, however, acknowledge that as a woman in politics she had found that what she wore had been more remarked on than what she did but she thought that “most people concentrate more on what we do as politicians”.
The prime minister’s lack of an emphatic response to an issue of inappropriate and sexist coverage might endear her to ‘Little England’ and Mail readers, but it is bound to be a disappointment to rights activists.
The Mail’s Tuesday front page and its response to the criticism of it is perhaps yet another example of how sexist or bigoted remarks are now being turned into a free speech and ‘rights’ issue. In this subversion of equal rights activism, offensive remarks are presented as humour or opinion. According to this logic, it okay to express offensive opinion because, well, bigots have rights too…