When I was a 20-something cub reporter in the late 90s and early noughties, sexism was rife. And I don’t just mean in journalism, although there was plenty to speak of.
I was a financial hack, first at a trade paper and later at The Times. I can recall numerous examples of both condescension and rampant sexist behaviour, although given the circles I moved in it was mostly from contacts in the business world. On one occasion I made a formal complaint after a black tie dinner at a posh London hotel. For the duration of the meal, the fund manager seated next to me stroked my thigh. I was young and inexperienced and had no idea what to do. It was only later, after speaking to colleagues, that I lodged my grievance with his boss. I can also recall the evening when a financial PR undid the back of my blouse in a packed bar. Another time a marketing manager stroked the inside of my leg at the theatre.
I have countless more stories like this, too many to mention here. And I guarantee that every young female journalist of that era has the same tales to tell. I wasn’t a prude, and I did have fun living in London and doing my dream job, but this was unwarranted attention from (mostly married) men twice my age. It was all so smutty. To say these unpalatable males took advantage of fresh-faced woman journos but would be an understatement. Thankfully, after a 20-year career in journalism, I know how to handle these situations, although thankfully they are now relatively rare. Or so I thought.
Yesterday marked the launch of the annual Manchester Food and Drink Festival. Now in its 20th year, this is a fantastic city-wide event that puts paid to the myth there’s nothing good to eat in the North of England. One of my colleagues (a woman) attended the press launch on behalf of Northern Soul for what promised to be a celebratory few hours.
Within moments of arriving, a senior journalist (I use the term ‘journalist’ loosely) had, in front of everyone, congratulated the event’s PR on her great “tits”. I’ve heard him use the same language in public before but never in earshot of more than a handful of people. His reputation precedes him so I’d bet a sizeable sum that anyone familiar with Manchester media knows exactly who I’m talking about. Shortly afterwards, his colleague began grilling my Northern Soul writer about our website, including readership stats, how we make money (and how much), how we treat our contributors etc etc. This is commercially sensitive information and, quite frankly, none of his damn business. But on he went, even as my friend politely deflected his questions.
Later, during drinks, he started up again. But now it had turned nasty. He decided to tell my colleague that Northern Soul was crap. Apparently we don’t have an opinion (whatever that means) and are always nice. Well if being ‘nice’ means not writing nasty reviews and launching personal attacks, then I’ll settle for nice. He wasn’t finished, though. His attack became intensely personal as he accused my friend of being a poor writer. As a journalist who was worked with some of the top talent in the country, I can say that is categorically untrue. I won’t publish the other things he said (and they were extremely damning and disrespectful to women) because, oh yeah, Northern Soul is ‘nice’. Alongside all this was the distinct implication of “pipe down girlie, you’re playing with the big boys now”. I’ve been on the receiving end of it too, as have many other women I know in the Manchester media.
I don’t want you to think I have a thin skin. I spent ten years in the newsroom of The Times which isn’t exactly a job for the faint of heart. I’ve conducted interviews with the families of terrorists through letterboxes in the dead of night, followed blood trails through London housing estates, and spent months at the Old Bailey writing about honour killings. I don’t upset easily.
But this pisses me off. I can sort of understand why PRs are reluctant to confront them – they need these people to plug their clients. I sympathise with young female journalists who have no idea how to handle this type of behaviour. And maybe there’s an argument that a lot of it happens after a boozy meal. But I still want to ask the question: why are men allowed to get away with this repugnant behaviour time and again? I don’t have a satisfactory answer.
And as for Northern Soul not having an opinion, put that in your pipe and smoke it.