Satirical magazine Private Eye has depicted the former News International chief executive as a Salem Witch on the cover of its current issue (May 31, 2012) following charges made against her of perverting the course of justice during investigations into phone hacking.
Whatever Private Eye’s intentions, Rebekah’s Brooks’ representation as a female folk devil is vehemently justified by some journalists and academics on the grounds that her papers have doled out full-scale vilification to individuals without proof.
The Daily Mail has been particularly keen to wheel out the type of ‘career girl’ cliches than went out of fashion in the 1980s (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2142997/Leveson-Inquiry-Rebekah-Brooks-complains-sexist-questioning.html). BBC media correspondent Torin Douglas provides a round-up here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18043885
As a teacher of ethics, I share the concerns of many that some national news brands have cumulatively created a climate of prejudice and misapprehension towards certain groups and figures. And few could be averse to be jumping on any signs of double standards. But the disparaging of Brooks by virtue of her gender is a direct attack on her as a powerful female figure.
Compare her treatment to that of the other goliaths in the hacking story and you get the distinction. Rupert Murdoch is characterised as a ageing, table-thumping incompetent, while his son James is someone who only got his job through nepotism. They, Hunt and Coulson – I’ve never read an intricate description of their clothing, hairstyle not seen a metaphor or adjective alluding to their masculinity.
Whatever Brooks is alleged to have done as a newspaper executive, her alleged misdeeds have been compounded by the combination of her gender and ambition. Media coverage has devoted far more attention to painting Brooks as a folk devil than it has to the male players. While the somberly be-suited men accord with society’s expectations, a female leader can expect to be castigated for the sins of not conforming to her allotted role.
Brooks’ symbolic annihilation came in the wake of another media moral panic about crimes against femininity. ‘Britain’s worst mother” Karen Matthews was photographed and her new appearance scrutinised following her release from prison for staging the kidnap of her daughter.
The ‘phone hacking scandal is only a part of the motivation for presenting Brooks this way. Men have failed all along the way. But woman are expected to behave perfectly at all times. So whether you are 50-something, weight-lifting pop star, a bad mother (note mother not parent) or a powerful industry figure, you can expect far tougher media treatment than your male counterparts.