This month the European Union had a controversy on its hands when the Financial Times got hold of a secret 26-page draft directive being prepared under the auspices of the European Commission’s Social Affairs Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou.
Article 4 of the draft proposed sweeping censorship of the media in order to banish any and all sexual stereotypes of men and women. As Richard Pollock noted in an op-ed for the Cato Institute on the proposal, Diamantopoulou’s office said that the goal was to,
. . . avoid throughout all forms of mass media notably all stereotypical portrayals of women and men as well as any projection of unacceptable images of men and women affecting human dignity and decency in advertisements.
Some European commentators noted that in order for such proposals to go into effect, they would have to go through a series of ratification processes including among member countries, but just the fact that freedom of speech is seen as something that can be casually interfered with to obtain some social goal or another is disturbing enough in and of itself.
As Pollock, who obtained a copy of the draft, noted,
The document is well thought out, indicating a sizable amount of work had progressed within the European Commission to advance to this late stage. It was not the work of an aberrant or idle commissioner. Apparently, no member of the European media knew of its existence as it passed through the EC labyrinth of bureaucratic offices, reviewers and officials.
This sort of legislation is exactly what feminist group such as the European Women’s Lobby have long been lobbying for with the European Union. European Women’s Lobby policy coordinator Cecile Greobval was quoted by Australian newspaper The Age as saying, “We want action by the EU in areas other than employment.”
The European Women’s Lobby openly called for government monitoring and censorship of mass media in a March 2003 policy statement on the subject,
2.1 Mass media and gender equality
Comprehensive policy frameworks and regulatory mechanisms need to be put in place in order to make the media a useful tool to promote a and contribute to greater gender justice, respect for women?s human rights, sustainable development, and a culture of peace.
- Governments need to formulate standards, based on equality between women and men that should be reflected in all communication productions, including programming and media portrayal.
- Monitoring and evaluation mechanisms should be put in place in order to halt sexism and gender-based stereotypes in mass media, including strengthened policies against sexist images in publicity.
- Governments must develop policies for the safeguarding and development of public broadcasting, community based media, women?s alternative media, and alternative print media in order to counteract the negative trends of the commercialisation of information in national and transnational media and ICT corporations.
- Governments and relevant bodies should implement programmes that will increase women’s access to media, including assigning resources to promote gender equality through the use of both mainstream and alternative media.
- Governments should put in place policies and financial support, including within international cooperation programmes, with regard to support the strengthening of women?s communication and media initiatives.
- Gender balance need to be established at all decision-making levels within the media industry. This could be achieved through measures such as affirmative action and quota systems.
- A media critical analysis should be supported, in order to raise awareness of both audiences and journalists on how gender power asymmetries are at play in the media. Feminist analysis should be made an integral part of the curriculum in journalism schools.
Back in 2000, it summarized its views on government media regulations as follows,
While the role of governments is weakening, the media is becoming more powerful and complex, therefore, it is essential to re-establish a balance, in order to secure respect for women?s human rights and dignity. In order to impose restraints on sex stereotypes and sexist image in the different media and in the world of publicity, measures, mechanisms and bodies to regulate the content of media productions are essential. Currently, the media is auto-regulated which is often reduced to closed consultation with the managers and the proprietors of the media industry.
Many years ago in the United States, movies would be reviewed by quasi-governmental film boards before being released to the general public. The film boards would order the elimination of anything that might offend anyone in the audience, focusing especially on anything of a sexual nature. The Pennsylvania Film Board, for example, required that all images of a pregnant woman be excised from Cecil B. DeMilles’ “Kindling” on the grounds that it would raise questions of sexuality among the children who might see the film.
Some European feminists apparently believe that system was so good that they would like to replicate it for all mass media and have government regulators determine what is and is not fit for audiences to see.
Sexist ads face ban in gender agenda. The Age (Australia), June 24, 2003.
Human Dignity At The Eu Stomps On Degrading Women / Men. Grant Swank, Ameircan Daily, June 30, 2003.
EU: Tabloids’ Topless Attractions Safe. Paul Ames, Associated Press, June 27, 2003.
The New Europe Looks a Little Like ‘1984’. Richard Pollock, Cato Institute, July 8, 2003.
Contribution of the European Women?s Lobby to the CSW, New York, 3-14 March 2003. European Women’s Lobby, March 2003.
Women and the media. Europan Women’s Lobby, 2000.