The gap between experiences and (media) representation

On Sunday, the Guardian published an article reporting that “Dr Richard Curtis is under investigation following complaints over treatment of patients seeking gender reassignment”. Zoe O’Connell offers important context and I urge anyone who reads the Guardian article to also read her response.

Mainstream media pounces on anything with a whiff of malpractice or trans regret but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article in the mainstream media about the everyday struggles trans* people experience in trying to access care. Sarah Brown playfully demonstrated how eager the media is for stories about trans regret by referring to an operation she regretted – unfortunately for the newspaper that phoned her within minutes of her tweets, the operation in question was on her hand.

Stories framed as “trans regret” are not harmless, but are used to deny trans* people necessary treatment. Trans* people must undergo months and years of psychological assessment and “Real Life Experience” tests (without hormones or surgery, thus placing them at risk of transphobic abuse and attacks) to test if they really want to transition. It is apparently better to make thousands of trans* people suffer than to allow a consenting but mistaken cis person access to hormones and surgery.

On Tuesday, Sarah Brown highlighted this discrepency in media attention and urged trans* people to tweet about their experiences using the #TransDocFail hashtag. The response was incredible – thousands of tweets and hundreds of participants – but the stories were depressingly similar. Zoe has collected the lowlights, grouping them under the headings “The NHS doesn’t do that!” (GPs’ insistence that specifically trans* care is not offered by the NHS), “The long wait”, “At least delays are not outright refusal to give treatment or right letters”, “The Transsexual broken arm” (every medical condition will be related to your gender), “Pointless abuse”, “Doctor knows best”, “Administrative errors and misgendering”, “Jumping through hoops” and “Non-binary genders don’t exist”. There are clear patterns to this data – at best, medical professionals are ignorant of trans* issues, at a bit worse they directly and deliberately put obstacles in the way trans* people’s attempts to find health and happiness, and at their very worst they abuse people both physically and mentally.

The following comment pieces have been published:
New Statesmen: As the #transdocfail hashtag showed, many trans people are afraid of their doctors
Guardian: The real trans scandal is not the failings of one doctor but cruelty by many

On the same Tuesday, Suzanne Moore’s piece on female anger was published on the New Statesman. It included the observation that

We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.

This observation is all the more crass for the sheer number of Brazilian trans people who are murdered each year. As this articles notes,

On the last Transgender Day of Remembrance, out of the 265 reported cases of murdered trans people between 15th November 2011 and 14th November 2012, 126 of them were from Brazil.

Moore’s response on twitter was shameful: among other things, she declared that transphobia and Islamophobia simply did not exist, stated that she doesn’t “prioritise this fucking lopping bits of your body over all else that is happening to women” and that “People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me”. She then followed this twitter rant with a Guardian comment piece. Stavvers has an excellent response, as does leftytgirl.

Bear in mind that Moore’s twitter rant was concurrent with #TransDocFail. Had she wanted, she could have easily found tales of horrifying medical abuse perpetuated against women.

What I find so interesting about this is how difficult it is to publish things that don’t fit a desired media narrative of trans* experiences, but how apparently easy it is to publish problematic things if you’re a noted feminist. There’s a lot to say here about access to platforms – Suzanne Moore, as an established writer, has built up a network of contacts which many trans* people don’t have. She can pitch things to them, or is invited to comment on issues or write response pieces.

However, there is something else going on here. Trans* writers and journalists have pitched articles on the difficulties of accessing treatment. It is something that clearly affects a lot of people, perhaps everyone who has been under the care of a Gender Identity Clinic. If this was happening in another NHS department there’d be outrage – not just that treatment is inadequate, but that gatekeeping is built into the system and the patient is forced to prove that they want the treatment enough before it is offered to them. And yet this goes unreported. Instead, what are the media narratives of trans* people? This is something I hope to explore in my next research project, but a quick survey of the articles @TransMediaWatch links to, I’d suggest that as well as medical malpractice, there’s interest in personal, “unusual” transitions. I pulled the two most recent transition-related stories from @TransMediaWatch’s timeline and they’re pretty typical:

Dame of two halves: I was a 24-stone football hooligan but now I’m going to be a woman
‘Having Harry Styles as a role model has helped’: Transgender girl reveals on This Morning why she wants surgery on NHS to look like One Direction star

Note how, in the last article, the person is referred to as a “transgender girl” and the article consistently uses the wrong pronouns. Best is presented as being superficial and transitioning only to resemble a pop singer when his quoted speech suggests something different. In both, the individual is foregrounded and their current situation is emphasised. Focus on the individual, not the system. Focus on the surgery, not the hoops jumped to get it. Focus on surgery as the moment when you “become a woman” rather than the years spent worrying, thinking, shifting, unfurling yourself within a wrong, alien body. This difficult, lengthy process and a system that gatekeeps and denies is not a news story and the media does not, apparently, want to hear it.

As I write this on Friday afternoon, “the Left” is busily shutting down valid criticism of Moore’s transphobia – another reminder that there are some experiences that no one, apparently, wants to hear.

Police infiltration, then and now

Protests outside Parliament

Suffragette photo by Victoria Gray, taken 24/10/2012; other photo by K Gupta taken 9/12/2010

POLICE SPIES AMONG THE MILITANTS.

LETTERS FROM A DETECTIVE.

The Suffragette this week says that in the attempt to repress the militant women’s agitation, the Government has enrolled an enormous number of plain-clothes political police, hundreds of whom prowl round the dwellings and meeting-places of suffragist leaders. It adds:-

At private meetings at times police spies are found, having gained admission by first becoming members of the Suffrage Society, under whose auspices such meetings are held, and gradually wormed their way into the confidence of staunch friends.

When it is difficult for some reason for a detective to join a suffrage society, the plan of employing spies is adopted. For a consideration these hirelings will do their best to find out the plans of the militants. The following specimens from correspondence duly authenticated will furnish some idea as to the methods of the so-called political department of Scotland-yard. The letters were sent through the post to a spy who had joined one of the men’s unions for woman suffrage, and were written by a well-known detective who has on more than one occasion participated in the arrest and trial of suffragists.

The letters quoted contain the following passages:-

Don’t fail to let me know if you are going to Town Hall, Battersea, on Thursday, and if S. P. will be there.

Sincerely trust that you suffered no ill effects from the wrestling bout in which I hear you took part, – old boy, try and go up and find out all you can re G- and D- (the names of two officials of a men’s union), or anything else going and let me know either by letter or tell me where and what time I can see you as I want to defray your out of pocket expenses. I am enclosing a postal order for you to have a drink, and hope you got the one I sent last week. In the meantime, – old boy, send anything you get to hear of concerning intentions of your union addressed to me at Scotland-yard, which will be opened and afterwards sent to me.

P.S.-In case anything is on during opening of Parliament, don’t forget to lot me have a line at office.

The same journal announces that Mrs. Pankhurst’s next public meeting will take place at Lowestoft on Wednesday, April 15.

The content of this article is startlingly contemporary: police gradually infiltrating activist organisations, gradually gaining trust and acceptance of their members and becoming trusted friends, but reporting everything to their handlers. This article, however, was published in 1914. I was reminded of it as I read this article about present day surveillance of activists. In it, Ellie Mae O’Hagan describes a conversation she had with a friend:

And then the conversation turned to something less unremarkable; something most people will never talk about with their friends. What if none of the memories we share, the secrets we’ve told each other, or the histories we’ve disclosed to one another were real? What if everything we knew about each other was based on a lie, so that one of us could extract information from the other that would eventually be used against them?

I am also based in Nottingham, and the uncomfortable fact remains that while I never met Mark Kennedy/Mark Stone, I have marched and occupied and planned and stood in the cold alongside those who did. In light of that, why should they trust me? Why should I trust them?

While there are lots of things activists can do to guard against surveillance – the Reporters Without Borders Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents offers a good introduction to online and digital security – infiltration is very difficult to guard against. Is there much point in setting up elaborate email encryption if an infiltrator has access to the account password? Is there much point in carefully setting up meetings or using clean SIM cards and phones if someone has your details anyway?

Closely linked to police infiltrators is the role of the agent provocateur – someone from outside the activist organisation pretending to be part of the organisation and engaging in or encouraging acts that the activists themselves would be wary of. This can range from an agent provocateur slipping in amongst the black bloc to an embedded police infiltrator helping to plan and organise acts of direct action.

One of the posts I’ve read about police infiltration is this one discussing four main dangers resulting from infiltration. The problems of evidence gathered by the infiltrator, the emotional harm to activists and the potential for an infiltrator to disrupt, divide or derail the activist organisation seem pretty obvious but there’s a fourth danger – that of activist organisations becoming less trusting, more closed and more difficult for newcomers to get involved. As the article points out, it’s not newcomers who pose a threat; it’s our friends, lovers, co-workers, housemates – people embedded in our community – who are more likely to be infiltrators. As Mark Kennedy shows, it’s the people who put money into funding campaigns, dedicate a lot of their time and energy towards campaigns and are most enthusiastic about direct action who should worry us.

No Police Spies campaigns for an end to “political policing”; however police infiltration has been going on for a very long time. Suffrage campaigners were among the first to have their photos taken as part of police surveillance. These days, we call them Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT).

This newspaper article indicates a different form of police surveillance that again continues to be used today. It also raises interesting questions about the nature of police surveillance almost a hundred years ago – who was doing it? how extensive was it? were women among the hireling spies? and, perhaps inevitably, what was the relationship between the police infiltrators and direct action?

CDA and me

It’s a busy time in the world of Kat! I finished my marking a couple of weeks ago (horror, despair, consumption of an inadvisable amount of chocolate hobnobs) and since then it’s been trying to beat my thesis into shape. Add to that family illness and a sick pet, and well. I’m sure you can imagine.

One of the things I’ve found most difficult about my thesis is reconciling a data-driven approach with theory. My instinct is to let the data guide me as much as possible rather than approaching the data with the expectation of finding something if I look at a particular, pre-selected word. On a methodological level, I’ve found looking at mutual information really useful because it shows links between words that aren’t necessarily obvious but often worth further investigation. This is especially true of the texts I’m working with. While suffrage-produced texts have been studied closely by lots of people, newspaper reporting and discussion of the suffrage movement isn’t something that’s been researched in depth. I’ve tried to let myself go of assumptions about whether or not they’ll behave like suffrage-produced texts. In some ways, letting go of the conviction that they’d be radically different is harder – every researcher wants to find something completely new, after all! However, as Lesley Hall might say, “it’s always more complicated”.

In my first year I tried to learn as much as possible about early 20th century British history so I could contextualise my data. Instead of looking at it simply as machine-readable data, I can recognise the discourse it draws upon – that of separate spheres for men and women, the effect engaging in public life was thought to have on women, ideas about who should choose a government of Empire. I’ve found evidence of these in the Times texts I work with and it’s been exciting to find these – little moments where things click into place, where the historiography and the data align. Bringing together these two fields has been rewarding and I hope my research is better for it.

Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and I, however, are a different story. I’m sure at one point I could do Critical Discourse Analysis – indeed, I got a 75 for a CDA essay as an undergraduate. I like the concepts underlying it – after all, recognising ideologies, examining power relations, questioning assumptions and destabilising cultural hegemony is interesting, not to mention very relevant to my research. However, I’ve realised that one of my problems lies with the nature of the texts I work with. Analysis of news discourse – things like newspapers, TV, radio – seems to rely on some assumptions about how news discourses are organised. For example, one theme that recurs in analysis of (written) news discourse is that news texts are organised by importance rather than chronologically. This means that you can read the headline and first paragraph of a news story and have a pretty good idea of what the news story is about.

Here’s a news text selected at more-or-less random. The headline, “US teen survives spear through brain” and first sentence, “A US teenager’s survival after a spear was shot through his brain is a miracle, doctors say” answer a lot of the “wh- questions”:

Who? A US teenager
What? Survived being shot through the brain with a spear; doctors say it’s a miracle.
Where? In the US

The next sentence, “Yasser Lopez, 16, is recovering after he was accidentally hit with a spear gun by a friend during a Florida fishing trip this month” answers some more of these questions:

When? This month
How? Accidentally hit with a spear gun by a friend.

Most of the key information is contained in the headline and these two sentences – you could read this much in a news in brief article and it would make sense. At the article continues, the information offered becomes more detailed and less “key” to understanding the news story. By the end of the article, we’re getting information about which part of his brain the spear passed through. Obviously this is a pretty basic analysis and looking at moves in news discourse can be much more elaborate.

However, what do you do when even these basic tenets of news discourse – that information is organised in terms of importance rather than chronologically – cannot be relied on? One of the ways early 20th century news texts are different from present day news texts is that they are often organised chronologically. In fact, quite a lot of assumptions about news discourse don’t work when it comes to these texts – after all, this was a period when printing 17,500 word Parliamentary transcripts in the Times was normal.

The style of CDA I’m going with, therefore, is not entirely news discourse analysis. And, having thought about it in the writing of this post, I’m okay with that. That a big chunk of news discourse analysis doesn’t work for me isn’t a failure on my part, but demonstrate that my texts are, once again, doing something different. This is okay, and in fact something interesting to add to my discussion of CDA.

Anyway, at the moment I’m in Leeds for IVACS. Some people are presenting using data from Old Bailey Online which sounds fascinating – historical forensic linguistics and corpus linguistics? Sounds good to me.

7 February 1918

My supervisor and I shared a moment of somewhat nerdy joy today. Her current research focus is Charles Dickens and today marks the bicentury of his birth. However, this February marks 94 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed and I was pleased to see that today the Guardian published the article about the Act from its archives.

As the news report notes, the Act did not extend to franchise to all women, and not on the same terms as men; men could vote from the age of 21 and without property restrictions, but women had different restrictions in place. From the introduction to the Act:

As regards the Parliamentary franchise for women, the Act confers this only on women who have attained the age of 30. In constituencies other than university constituencies there are two alternative qualifications which are as follows :

(1) the woman must be entitled to be registered as a local government elector in respect of the occupation of a dwelling-house (irrespective of value) or of land or premises (other than a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not leas than 5/. ; or

(2) she must be the wife of a man who is entitled to be so registered.

The university franchise is conferred on all women of the requisite age who have obtained a degree, or, at Oxford or Cambridge, have passed the final examination and kept the necessary residence.

So women had to be over 30 and either have a degree (not easy to come by for a woman then) or own, rent or be married to someone who owned or rented property in order to vote. It wasn’t equal franchise but this Act did pave the way for the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which gave women and men equal voting rights.

The Guardian article is rather lovely in its optimism and I can’t resist sharing this section:

We may mourn for what we had hoped for and have not got, but that need not prevent us from rejoicing at the gains which have been won. The adoption of women’s suffrage is the signal victory of an electoral struggle stretching over two generations and represents the greatest triumph in our day of a generous good sense. It is much more than political victory. Measured by purely political results, it may prove to be of less effect than either its friends or its opponents anticipated, though in certain directions, and particularly on all that concerns the position and interests of women before the law and in the State, it is bound to tell, and in time to tell heavily. But beyond that it will modify the whole attitude and outlook of women in society. It will in a real sense bring spiritual as well as political emancipation. Women will realise themselves a little differently and will be differently regarded by others. We are a political people, and the recognition of political equality is the first step to the recognition of equality in every other field where nature has not set up her own barriers.

Of course it’s a product of its time and there’s stuff in there that’s dated by 21st century standards, but it’s amazingly progressive compared to some of the stuff it was contemporary to.

Suggestive placement isn’t dead!

In the early 20th century, news reports were grouped into articles. These articles often shared a theme – for example, being about the same or related events. What I find interesting is when these news reports aren’t all explicitly about the same thing, but the grouping primes the reader to expect a link or common factor shared between them. For example, one of the articles I’m looking at places a report about the funeral of Emily Wilding Davison (the suffragette knocked down and killed when she crossed the Derby racetrack), a report about two suffragettes suspected of setting fire to a racecourse as part of the WSPU arson campaign, a report about a woman injured at a WSPU meeting in Hyde park, a report about a bomb found in a ladies waiting room at a train station, and a report about the “vivisection question”.

Some of these links are obvious, but some are less so. I think the report about vivisection is there because prominent anti-vivisectionists were also members of the suffrage campaign – notably Frances Power Cobbe, who founded the British Union for Abolition of Vivisection and was involved with the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage. There’s also a link in that there was staunch opposition to the anti-vivisection campaign.

However, the report on the bomb found in the station waiting room doesn’t explicitly mention suffrage campaigners. Instead it relies on the audience’s familiarity with the arson campaign and the report’s proximity to other reports about suffrage disorder to guide the reader into an interpretation they might not otherwise have made. Placing that particular report alongside those other reports is suggestive – it doesn’t say that suffrage campaigners were responsible for the bomb, but that’s the conclusion a reader will probably reach.

Suggestive placement can also be used to form resistant readings, to provide commentary or to encourage a critique. It doesn’t actually put anything into something so explicit as words, but an editorial stance can be made clear through placement and juxtaposition.

I suspect it’s used less often now because of the different way newspapers are organised (and reading the news through online news articles again changes things) but I am utterly delighted by the Guardian‘s sublime front page today. Nothing as crass or explicit or likely to obtain furious reactions as actual words, but there’s a news editor out there who put this together with a wink and a gleeful grin.

After all, they’re both important news stories. No one can actually complain that the Guardian put important news stories on the front page. And that’s a dramatic shot of the Costa Concordianews reports from around the world are using similar. It’s totally justifiable why they’d want both news stories on the front page and why they’d use that particular photograph. And yet…

Suggestive placement: the art of saying something without saying anything at all.

I’m impressed.

How to erase identities and make everyone bad guys

A couple of months ago, I posted about the politics of representation. I found the observation that representation in the media can involve “crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power” particularly striking. What you see here is me trying to work out the process of how it happened in the suffrage movement.

Here’s an admittedly simplistic table of differences between suffragists and suffragettes. Of course, it’s not that simple – see Sandra Holton (1986) for more – but for the purposes of this argument, let’s run with this.

Suffragists Suffragettes
considered the more inclusive term members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament prepared to engage in direct action

However, what I’ve found in the texts I’m working with looks a bit more like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

I found that suffragette and suffragettes were comparatively low frequency terms and didn’t have many words associated with them. Instead, there were lots of words associated with suffragist and suffragists – even the direct action words like disturbance*, disorder, outrage*, violence and crime* which I then focused on. This seemed out of keeping with the historiography.

What seems to happen is that there’s a process where the two are conflated:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Galtung and Ruge (1965) work out a set of principles they call “news values”. These decide how likely it is that something will be reported as news, and include factors such as whether the incident forms part of a pre-existing narrative, how recent it was. how unusual it was and so on. Some of the relevant factors to this are conflict, negativity, personalisation and continuity: basically, well-known suffragettes scuffling with the police and getting arrested is more interesting to newspapers than a deputation of nice ladies handing in a petition to their MP.

Therefore, because of news values, the stuff about the constitutionalist approach gets erased:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Because we’re now not talking about constitutionalists, it doesn’t make sense to characterise a group by its opposition to constitutionalists, so that can go too:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Ta-da! You have now ended up with something like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

This, if you’re in a position of power, is pretty awesome. If you can label everyone in the suffrage movement as violent and dangerous, you don’t need to listen to their concerns about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about ill-treatment in prison and police brutality. Hurrah!

The suffrage movement is unusual because the term suffragist, in the Times at least, comes to mean something very different to how it was understood amongst those within the movement. However, I think the process – of conflating a range of motivations, organisations and individuals under one term, erasing the less newsworthy bits, using the term in such a way as to imply it still covers the full breadth of these motivations, organisations and individuals, then dismissing everyone as irresponsible and destructive – is still very relevant today.

As I write this, there are riots in Tottenham, Wood Green, Enfield, Brixton, Walthamstow, Hackney and possibly Peckham. The people involved are being described as looters, protesters and rioters. In light of what I’ve illustrated here, I wonder what’s being erased through using these descriptions. Obviously it’s in the interests of those in power to portray those involved as vandals, thieves and general undesirables – it stops them having to pay attention to legitimate concerns…about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about police brutality.

References:
Galtung, J & Ruge, M. 1965. The Structure of Foreign News. The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers. Journal of Peace Research, vol 2, pp 64-91
Holton, S. 1986. Feminism and Democracy: Women’s suffrage and reform politics in Britain, 1900-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

it lives! it liiiiiives!

I’m currently working on something that seem to have mutated out of a chapter. No, wait, that’s a rubbish description.

In Chapter 4 I examined words derived from Mutual Information for the words suffragette, suffragettes, suffragist and suffragists. Between the historical research and my data-driven categories, I identified the following categories: constitutionalist vs militant, class, geography, gender/gender roles, origins, direct action, legal and prison, proper names, organisational, politics and opposition. I then investigated the direct action category in more detail.

The terms I looked at (disturbance*, outrage*, violence, crime*, disorder and incident?) were evaluative on a lexico-grammatical level. However, upon reading the texts, I realised that there were other types of evaluation at work in the texts. These were longer and more analytical, operating at the discourse level and could only be discovered by reading the texts. So I read texts. One of the themes that emerged was the tension between organised actions and individual actions. I started planning out Chapter 5, worked out which period to focus on, worked out which articles in that period I was going to analyse, and read a lot of discourse analysis.

I then started to analyse the articles, only to discover something a bit interesting in the arrangement of texts within the articles. It wasn’t mentioned in the scholarship about historical newspapers I’d read. I’m still searching to see if someone, anyone has researched it. I thought it was interesting though, and talked to my supervisor about it. She encouraged me to explore that idea a bit more; maybe it would be interesting in its own right, maybe it would make another chapter stronger.

It’s now becoming something that I think makes the link between Chapters 4 and 5 stronger, but which I think ought to be a chapter itself. This is very much data-driven research; I thought I’d be doing some fairly straightforward (critical) discourse analysis and I wasn’t expecting to find something like this, but instead I’ve found something that makes me reconsider the structure of my thesis.

In a way, I like the chaos. I like having a sense of freedom to explore things, I like being able to say “wow, this is interesting, I should pursue it”, I like getting excited about new things and part of me is going what, wait, how has no one else discovered this? Am I really the first?. I’m a perfectionist, and I have a hard time committing to something because I’m convinced that if I fussed over it just a little more it would be even better. But at the same time, I’m incredibly conscious of the time restraints and the fact that I need to knuckle down and get this thesis done.

Does anyone else feel like this about their thesis? How do you decide between sticking solidly to your plan or haring off after something interesting? Am I setting up a false dichotomy here and it’s possible to have a compromise?