New Year’s Eve, 2009. It’s 11pm and I’m walking down Newcastle’s busy Newgate Street. It’s snowing. A photographer (my lovely colleague) and I are fighting to get our work complete on time. I’m 21, six months into my first-ever job as a journalist and wondering what on earth I got myself into.
The assignment I had been set had come in from the national newspapers in London. My colleagues and I covered news for them in the north of England. We worked hard and reported on sometimes huge, sometimes important stories. The men and women I worked with were good – good people, and good at what they do – and they were passionate about news. They looked after me and taught me skills I lacked as a cub hack. Most of the time, though it wasn’t easy, I liked my job. Most of the time.
That year was the first time I’d experienced the formulaic coverage of New Year’s Eve. A tabloid newspaper had put me and a photographer on order to report what I now recognise as the annual shit-show of women drinking on New Year’s Eve. We were asked to “find the woman, crawling on the pavement with vomit-flecked hair” (a line which has always stayed with me). They wanted fights. They wanted bodily fluids. They wanted short skirts and high heels – anything that fitted the “scantily clad” caption they’d already written.
That was seven years ago and, every year since, there has been the same story on New Year’s Eve – and on the May bank holiday and the August bank holiday, and on Halloween and Christmas Eve, too. The identikit story of the “shameful” women doing “immoral” things, like getting drunk, the same ones who Sarah Vine at the Daily Mail said this week that she “weeps for”. She says that it is more depressing to see drunk women than drunk men, though strangely offers no reasoning for her statement. It’s almost as if the Daily Mail is using these pictures to cause faux outrage and objectify young girls.
The true reflection of the night – the hundreds of other people having a brilliant time, aside from that one girl who fell over and is subsequently ridiculed – doesn’t fit the mould they’ve already created for young British working-class women: brutish, unladylike, 'indecent'
And, let me tell you, those stories are not easy to find. The spread of stories each year, from the same towns, the same areas, the same working briefs sent down from the same papers, make “booze Britain” look alive and kicking. But, while there’s no denying that there is a boozy culture in Britain (upheld and esteemed when it’s white middle-class blokes propping up the bar) – and alcoholism is no joke – actually, the nights I was sent out on these jobs were intensely dull.
It took forever. We walked the streets for hours, around and around. We were looking for women like my friends – the girls and guys in the pub two doors down, drinking pints and laughing. I was acutely aware that I could easily be on the other side of the story and for what? For enjoying a night out? For wearing whatever the fuck I want to wear and going out in a predominantly working-class area (or, at least, one seemingly perceived by the London desks as such. Ever seen any “revellers” being sick outside pubs in Kensington, where the Daily Mail offices are? I have, just not in the papers). We saw one fight, eventually, at around 4am and it was over in a matter of seconds – hardly the fractured, violent streets full of staggering youths you’re expected to buy into.
The pictures you see are sought out; there are no coincidences. The desks know the pictures they want. The true reflection of the night – the hundreds of other people having a brilliant time, aside from that one girl who fell over and is subsequently ridiculed – doesn’t fit the mould they’ve already created for young British working-class women: brutish, unladylike, “indecent” (so says Sarah Vine). Prime material to be slut-shamed, laughed and ogled at. Prewritten, repetitive captions and headlines devised in an annual show of smug, scathing superiority; desks that don't want to hear if the story depicting “nice” young women succumbing to sinning – the good-girl-gone-bad narrative – isn’t there.
The result is the torrid mix of misogyny and lazy, misleading journalism. Like most journalists, I’ve begrudingly done a few of these jobs over the years – especially as a trainee reporter, when there is often little choice unless you want to lose your job – but I wouldn’t ever say that with pride. At the time, I just didn’t understand it well. I didn’t understand that these pictures that roll around every few months do unfairly target women and do feed into an insidious culture of shaming and belittling women. How they contribute so unflinchingly to the objectification of women, and how objectification puts women at increased risk of violence. That the papers that still perpetuate victim-blaming subtly back up the dangerous rhetoric with these sought-out scenes. The malicious notion that women remain targets for public flogging for cheap thrills, regardless of the sore consequences on their stature within society. And, sometimes, I think it’s cynical enough that it worked in their favour that I was a female reporter – it’s harder to label the work sexist. It was. It still is.