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Was the media fair to this cop?

The release of Christine Nixon's autobiography has sparked fresh debate about the media's treatment of women in positions of authority. Helen Lobato examines the former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner's complaints.

In July 2010, Christine Nixon resigned as chair of Victoria’s Bushfire Recovery and Reconstruction Authority, effectively retiring from public life.

But the former Victorian chief police commissioner is well and truly back in the media spotlight. In her new book ‘Fair Cop’, Nixon accuses News Limited of running a ‘vendetta’ against both her and her successor Simon Overland.

Fair Cop details the life of this police chief who wished to make policing more accountable and less hierarchical.  Nixon felt that the culture had to change and one of her more daring feats was to remove the popular well-stocked bars from police headquarters.

The autobiography, co-authored with The Age journalist Jo Chandler, delves into the tragic events of Black Saturday, the day when widespread and raging bushfires swept through the state of Victoria, causing 173 deaths and injuring hundreds.

The Royal Commission held into the Black Saturday bushfires found that the Victorian police commissioner’s co-ordination on February 7th 2009 ‘left much to be desired’ and condemned her performance as ‘hands off’.

Nixon admitted that she had abandoned the bushfire control centre and dined with friends.

The facts of the day are well know.  The survivors are still recovering and so is,  I suspect, Christine Nixon, who suffered a gruelling public grilling at the hands of Rachel Doyle, counsel assisting the Bushfire Commission.

Nixon also endured weeks of public scrutiny and derision led by a horrible media campaign.

The former police commissioners’ claims that she was the victim of a sexist and fattist campaign are well grounded.  Between the 7th and the 19th of April 2009, the press published over 110 articles about Nixon, some of which were old images which emphasised her large body size.

I remember vividly the photo of Christine Nixon attending a birthday party and enjoying a piece of cake. The intent was clear – here was the police chief ‘shoving a piece of cake in her mouth’. But she’s no ordinary woman – she’s our top police officer and if she can’t control what she eats and what she looks like, then how can we trust her to control the force and keep us safe.

To appreciate the media representation of Christine Nixon is to understand the spectacle of woman, created and sustained in western culture.

Cyndi Tebbel, the author of The Body Snatchers- how the media shapes women says that when prominent women appear in the media, matters of attractiveness and clothing become the focus, whereas there is scant interest in the body shape or attire of the male counterpart.

The image of Nixon as a large, middle-aged woman attracted a huge media interest that was as focused on how she looked and what she ate as any error of judgement she may have made on Black Saturday. We need to ask whether the male head of the CFA, Russell Rees was subjected to such scrutiny over his image and attire.

Christine Nixon was the first woman to become a Commissioner of an Australian Police force and regards her way of leading as doing it ‘not as a bloke and not as someone else – but as just a woman would.’

In an interview on ABC television Nixon told Peter Thompson, ‘I’m a product very much of the women’s movement. I’m very strongly committed to women and to the rights of women.’

The media does not portray feminists positively and Nixon is cast as ‘bad’ in this example.  In an article in The Daily Telegraph Clare Harvey wrote:  ‘Melbourne’s Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt saw Nixon’s strife as the police’s comeuppance for sending a girl to do a man’s job’.

According to Bolt, ‘She was hired from the NSW force not because she’d succeeded, but because she seemed fresh, honest – and an agent of fashionable feminist change.’  Bolt said that what we got was ‘a feminised and demoralized force’.

But what the police force and Victoria really got was a feminist leader who challenged the patriarchy, and for that she is still being vilified.

Helen Lobato is a final-year Bachelor of Media Studies student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter: @allmediamatters

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