Front page of the Mirror, with photo captions "WPC Nicola Hughes" and "WPC Fiona Bone" Front page of the Daily Mail, with headline "Murdered WPC and grieving boyfriend she left behind"

Above are two front pages, from today’s Mirror and Daily Mail, each carrying stories about one or both of PC Fiona Bone and PC Nicola Hughes, murdered while on duty in Manchester this week. The Mail refers to Constable Hughes as a “WPC”, while the Mirror uses “WPC” as the title of each officer.

Hughes and Bone were not WPCs. They were PCs.

To make such a basic error in writing about a murder victim, killed on duty, is deeply insulting in and of itself. You will remember the lynch-mob attitude of The Sun in particular when Gordon Brown, who is partially sighted, appeared to misspell some words in a hand-written letter of condolence to the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan, including her surname.

But this is not just a thoughtless mistake. The WPC title was withdrawn thirteen years ago because it is obviously, nakedly sexist. These papers brought it back for sexist reasons.

The Mirror wish to shock, in order to better sell a story about the easy availability of weapons. To do this they seek to feminise, even infantilise, the officers as much as possible. As well as adding the patronising ‘W’ to the front of their rank, they choose pictures of them not in uniform. They are encouraging us not to think of the women as officers of the law but as juvenile assistants, almost civilians.

The Daily Mail front page bears being taken as a whole to understand the depth of its sexism. The headline concerning the shooting reads, “Murdered WPC and grieving boyfriend she left behind”; above that is the main story, “Doctors sent from UK as Army girl – who didn’t even know she was pregnant – gives birth after Taliban raid”.

Here are two stories – one joyful, one tragic – that in other respects are closely similar. Two women, serving in uniform, thereby confounding the expectations of the Mail, but both redeeming themselves by demonstrating they can have boyfriends and babies too.

In the case of PC Hughes, the archaic ‘W’ serves, amongst other things, to restore a natural hierarchy to the relationship being described. A police officer is a dominant, authority figure; to think of one in a relationship with a man is uncomfortable to some (unless that man is a higher-ranking officer) because it is the man who should be senior. But fortunately, in this treatment, Nicola Hughes is not a police officer, which is a figure of authority; she is a WPC, which is a girl who dresses up in a uniform.

The story of the pregnant soldier, or “Army girl”, is interesting, and I wouldn’t expect it to go unreported. But why is it splashed on the front page of the Mail, Britain’s most misogynist paper? Because it proves to this paper’s satisfaction that no matter how much you may think women can do men’s jobs, they cannot. From Camp Bastion to the boardroom, the only thing keeping the Mail from freaking out at the prevalence of women is the cast-iron certainty that these women are living a lie, they are on borrowed time, they are only pretending to be fully-rounded humans because sooner or later they will get pregnant and the charade of a woman living a complete adult life can be ended.

Front page of The Sun, including headline "Why? Unarmed women cops were sent to area where cregan hid".The Mail is pursuing a poorly-concealed agenda here. While on the face of it these are heroic stories about women in uniformed service, they both serve to constrain women by insisting that their domestic life is their most significant characteristic. Sure enough, the article on the artillerist reports that the event has “led to calls for extra medical checks on women” – we must respond by further questioning women’s ability to serve.

Meanwhile, the Sun asks, “Why? Unarmed women cops were sent to area where Cregan hid”. Leaving aside the fact that Bone and Hughes were responding to a routine burglary report, not knowingly confronting a killer, the Sun obviously find something significant and scandalous in the decision to put women in harm’s way. “Women cops,” presumably, should not be sent to areas where gunmen may be hiding; they should be doing the filing and making tea for moustachioed detectives in Ford Capris.

These insults show how powerful the sexism of the newspapers involved is. Even respect for the dead and the media’s veneration of uniformed service combined are not sufficient to persuade them to treat women as people. Not only do they disrespect the individuals involved through their coverage, they manipulate their deaths to support an anti-feminist, back-to-the-50s political agenda whose essence is disrespecting all women.

Gary Dunion

About Gary Dunion

Gary Dunion is the Communications Coordinator for the Scottish Green Party and works for the independent MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.