Is media coverage of B.C. Premier Clark sexist?

Is media coverage of B.C. Premier Clark sexist? Or is it fair comment? Katie Hyslop asks reporters, politicians and academics to weigh in. By Katie Hyslop, for The Tyee It's no surprise that Premier Christy Clark has been the centre of media attention and criticism in her short tenure in the province's top job. But how much…

Is media coverage of B.C. Premier Clark sexist? Or is it fair comment? Katie Hyslop asks reporters, politicians and academics to weigh in.

By Katie Hyslop, for The Tyee

It's no surprise that Premier Christy Clark has been the centre of media attention and criticism in her short tenure in the province's top job. But how much of the criticism is fair comment and how much is sexism against a female premier?

Liberal supporters have leveled charges of sexist coverage of Clark at the media since she took office in 2011. In February, former Liberal MLA Sheila Orr wrote a letter to the Victoria Times Colonist accusing press gallery reporters of ignoring the premier's accomplishments because "the [sexist] narrative was established."
That month Madam Premier, a Tumblr site with a collection of screenshots and links to sexist comments about female political leaders, was created. The most recent post is a sample of Iain Hunter's March 10 Times Colonist op-ed on Clark, where he suggests much of her political trouble "has to do with her sex. Political leadership makes hard demands of women. Trying to be more like men throws away the only advantage they have."
The Tyee spoke to Hunter, who said he wasn't suggesting women shouldn't be in politics, but rather was attempting to show women are often harder on female politicians than men despite disadvantages women in power face from sexism. But some didn't read it that way.
Less recent, but more notorious, is the coverage of Richard Branson's invitation for Clark to join him for naked kitesurfing; a radio host's question about what it was like being a "MILF," to which Clark responded "better a MILF than a cougar" (the former a vulgar term for a desirable older woman, the latter a term for a woman who goes for younger men); and former NDP MLA David Schreck's public complaint about her cleavage showing in the legislature. No other current provincial party leader has had to deal with this kind of coverage.
But does the media have an overall sexist bias towards Clark? If you ask those outside of her support base, there isn't enough evidence of sexism to make a definitive case.
The Tyee asked Kathleen Cross, co-director of News Watch Canada and associate professor of communications at Simon Fraser University, if an alleged lack of coverage of Clark's accomplishments was sexist. While Cross agrees that Clark, like all female politicians, has been subjected to sexist coverage, she wasn't sure any lack of coverage of the premier's accomplishments is sexist.*
"It's really hard to tell if it's sexism or if it's just the media jumping on the bandwagon of a failed government," she said.
"There are some issues around sexism, but the criticisms about her government are fair criticisms. So you can't say, without looking at other examples and doing a real comparative analysis, that the negative coverage that the Libs have been getting is because of sexism."
'They don't take her seriously': Orr
Diamond Isinger, a communications consultant who's worked for both the federal and BC Liberals and Vision Vancouver, created the Madam Premier site because of the amount of sexism and misogyny she sees directed towards female politicians online.
Most of the examples on Madam Premier are from members of the public through social media sites like Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook, while others are from news site comment sections.
But while the sexism in online public commentary is hard to miss, Isinger says there is more subtle sexism being practiced in the mainstream news media.
"I think there's a lot of gendered language that gets used to describe women in politics," she told The Tyee.
"There's been a variety of coverage on different TV stations and different newspapers where the premier's been referred to as a lightweight or something similar, (or) said that she lacked substance, and that's a very convenient way of using sexism in coverage without being so explicit."
On Madam Premier, Isinger deconstructs some of the statements in Hunter's Times Colonist op-ed. She quotes from the column and makes these observations:
"If the legislative precinct makes her sick, as she has said it does, why is Christy Clark so keen, apparently, to stay there as premier? Is there such a thing as political bulimia?" Hunter makes casual jokes about bulimia.
"A lot of it has to do with her sex." Hunter suggests that her unpopularity is because she's a woman.
"Political leadership makes hard demands of women." Hunter condescendingly suggests that all women aren't up for leadership.
"Trying to be more like men throws away the only advantage they have. Floppy grey pant suits don't suit."
Hunter implies that "the only advantage" women in politics have is their sexuality and appearance.
"…delegates chose a leader, not for leadership abilities, but because they thought a woman had the best chance of keeping their party in power."
Hunter says that BC Liberal Party members — who democratically elected Premier Clark as leader — only picked her because they decided to take a "chance" on a woman.

But Clark hasn't been the only victim of sexism in B.C., Isinger told The Tyee. Carole James faced a lot of nastiness and a lot of buzzwords that were used to describe her: she was often called shrill or similar things to suggest she was a little bit too harsh as a leader or not feminine enough," she said.

Sheila Orr, who represented Victoria-Hillside for the Liberals from 2001-2005, told The Tyee she wrote a letter to the Times Colonist because she couldn't stay silent about the media bias she sees towards Clark.
"I don't think she's had a fair shake. I think some of the things that she has accomplished as a female leader in this province have been as good as any I've seen and she gets no credit. She's just brushed off," she said, referring to the legislature's press gallery as "the old boys network."
"I think they dismiss her; they don't take her seriously."
But longtime B.C. press gallery member Vaughn Palmer, who has reported from the legislature for the Vancouver Sun for almost 30 years, disputes Orr's claims.
"I think it's common for members of government parties that are in political trouble to claim that their accomplishments aren't recognized and that their failings are overemphasized," he said.
"[Orr] also claimed that there's been no reporting on what Adrian Dix would and would not do: that's just simply not true. There's been extensive reporting on the things Dix has promised to do. There's also been a fair amount of reporting on where he's said, 'Wait for the platform.'"
Palmer also added labeling the press gallery as an "old boys network," is inaccurate, citing younger reporters like Stephen Smart, Rob Shaw, and The Tyee's own Andrew MacLeod as reporters who weren't even covering the legislature when Orr was in office.
Then there's the presence of a couple of female reporters like Justine Hunter, who has covered provincial politics for 25 years, or Sophie Rousseau with Radio Canada TV.
To read more of this article, please head on over to The TyeeKatie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society.



Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.