Diane Abbott: Political icon or Angry Black Woman?

A recent article entitled; ‘If only Diane Abbott had a job! Then we wouldn’t all have to describe her as “Corbyn’s former lover”’ by Maya Goodfellow for the Independent discussed Telegraph newspaper headlines which refused to name Diane Abbott, instead referring to her as “Jeremy Corbyn’s ex-lover”. Goodfellow labelled these headlines as ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’… but I’ve seen much worse.

I studied newspaper articles mentioning Diane Abbott MP from 2004 to 2014, surveyed her constituents and interviewed her colleagues, this is what I found.

1. The media does not treat Abbott like other women

  • Research[1], shows that the media usually use gender stereotypes and gendered language when writing about women, however this is not the case when it comes to Abbott.
  • In the 106 articles about Abbott there was no mention of her clothing, and she was rarely referred to as a “female politician” (as those in the research were). 
  • Female politicians are often marginalised in the media[2] — they are rarely quoted directly unlike their male counterparts, which means they are offered little space to oppose the dominant argument of a given article with their opinion[3]. In contrast to this Abbott was quoted often in the stories about her, and given a chance to reply to scandals.

2. Abbott is side-lined and only invited to speak on controversies

  • Articles about Abbott were often linked to scandals, newspapers were keen to quote her when she spoke about racism and ethnicity for example the Finnish nurse’s controversy. 
  • Forty-seven per cent of the articles studied were in the news section, which is the first section in each of the newspapers, this shows that the stories in which she is mentioned are important, but likely to be shorter and she is not the focus of many longer in-depth features. This could be seen as evidence of her being side-lined by these popular newspapers.

3. Findings

  • Only 3% of the articles studied showed Abbott in a positive light. But an overwhelming 70% of residents have a positive opinion of her. 
  • Abbott’s personality is more important than her politics; only 26% of the articles studied mentioned any of Abbott’s political ideas and policies.
  • Hackney residents see Abbott as a good role model for girls and young black people, as someone who is present in her community (40% know her from the local area). 
  • But the media present her as an outspoken single mother who is constantly undermined and has no real power.

4. OK, but why should anyone care? 

  • The way the media presents Abbott has an impact on how people outside her constituency, who know little about her, see her. The media plays a vital role in forming our opinions of minority groups or people, especially when the public have limited knowledge of them.[6]
  • Additionally, in a democracy newspapers should reflect the people’s views, biased coverage of women harms democracy by influencing the reader’s opinions.[8]
  • Coverage should at least be impartial in accordance with the Press Complaints Commission’s Editors’ Code of Conduct. Clause 1 (3) of this code states; “The press, while free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. In none of these articles was there a clear indication that what was being written was merely the opinion of the journalist. 
  • While the overt racism of the past may not be as prevalent today, the media has developed more subtle ways of ostracising ethnic minorities[4].
  • The lack of black journalists is the root of the problem of negative presentation of ethnic minorities.[5]
  • In this project, none of the articles with bylines were written by an ethnic minority journalist. This is not only worrying for diversity in the workplace but also validates van Dijk’s 1991 claim that the media writes from the perspective of the white man, a staggering 89% of the articles were written by white men.

[1] Ross and Byerly, 2004

[2] Welch and Studlar, 1986

[3] Adcock, 2010

[4] Cottle, 2000

[5] van Dijk, 1991

[6] van Dijk, 1991

[7] Ross and Byerly, 2004

[8] Ross and Byerly, 2004

NOTE: These ideas have been adapted for publication on www.phoebeparke.com. They were first published on September 17 2014 under the title “The media construction of a political icon: A case study of Diane Abbott MP” by Phoebe Parke for a Brunel Masters qualification in Journalism.

2 thoughts on “Diane Abbott: Political icon or Angry Black Woman?

  1. Phoenicia says:

    Interesting article. Diane is definitely portrayed as outspoken but aren’t most female politicians? I think it is unecessary for the media to highlight her as Jeremy’s former lover.


  2. africanherbsman1967 says:

    The overall press coverage of Abbott has been disgusting. She was at her best when on the Treasury Select Committee during 1990s when Ken Clarke was Chancellor. Sadly Gordon Brown sidelined Diane from the committee when he became Chancellor and her talents as a MP were underused. You rarely see a positive article in the Tory leaning media on Diane, Harriet Harman and these days Nicola Sturgeon.


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