Media, Royalty, Embracing Change and Women's Equality | A Q&A with Catherine Mayer

20 August 2018

Catherine Mayer  is a journalist, best-selling author and the co-founder and President of the Women’s Equality Party.

Catherine popped into Speakers Corner HQ during the summer to bring us up-to-speed on her journey into politics. It was an incredibly fascinating discussion covering the media, royalty, how to embrace change and of course the reasons behind co-founding the Women's Equality Party.

It was so fascinating we wanted to share some of the highlights with you below

Hi Catherine, you spent 30 years as a journalist working for some internationally renowned titles. What moments stand out for you?

A big part of journalism is figuring out how things work: people, institutions and systems. That means moments of revelation, when you find your way behind the curtain and discover who or what is pulling the levers. Those moments can happen anywhere.

I remember in Afghanistan suddenly grasping the extent to which the British class system still played out in the military, not only between the ranks but in different services, and how that might impact decision-making. I interviewed many famous people and became at least as fascinated by the ways their fame distorted the behaviours of the people around them as by the subjects themselves.

That syndrome is particularly acute when it comes to royalty. In my biography of Prince Charles, I revealed a competition amongst female courtiers to see who can curtsey the lowest. They do this to amuse each other, but he is too often surrounded by people who tell him what they think he wants to hear. That’s part of the experience that has shaped him, but he is also the product of a strange and isolating childhood and a profound detachment from ordinary realities. To identify what makes people tick, you have to look wider and deeper.

For example, I spent time at Manchester City, researching a profile of the club’s mercurial star, Mario Balotelli. Beyond the insights into top-flight sport and the tales of fast living, this was a story about vulnerability, defining talent, and racism in football and in Europe. There’s another revelatory moment that stays with me too.

For years I lurked like a David Attenborough in the political jungle, observing politicians in their natural habitats. One day I suddenly realised that I was tired of those politicians paying lip service to gender equality but never actually delivering it. So I proposed setting up the Women’s Equality Party.

When you came to visit our office this summer we were enthralled by your journey to co-found the Women’s Equality Party in March 2015. How have you been able to help audiences identify the path to an equal society?

When Sandi Toksvig  and I set up the Women’s Equality Party, we took unlikely inspiration from UKIP. People still try to argue that newer, smaller parties can’t make a real difference because the electoral system is rigged against us.

It’s absolutely true that the first-past-the-post voting system used for Westminster elections is shockingly undemocratic, favouring old parties and incumbent MPs and helping to exclude women and minorities.

It also dampened the UKIP surge in terms of formal political representation. Despite winning over 4 million votes in 2015, they only ever managed to get one MP elected and he was a former Tory.

But as we lurch towards Brexit, it’s also clear that UKIP succeeded in its core objective and did so because the biggest parties are so weak and divided that rather than challenging UKIP, they often echoed and sought to appease it.

In creating the Women’s Equality Party, we deliberately sought to exploit the weakness of those big parties. And we were right. The more they see us grow and flourish and win substantial numbers of votes—one in four voters backed us in several recent council polls, for example—they try to neutralise us by copying our policies. Which we encourage them to do.

When I talk to audiences about the Women’s Equality Party, I often tell them how in 2017 we hand-delivered beribboned copies of our manifesto to the other parties, with a note reading “Please steal me”.

I also set out the route to equality that we have mapped out in our manifestos and that I explored in greater depth in my book Attack of the 50 Ft Women. It’s a compelling message because the route is actually quite straightforward and if we followed it, the benefits to everyone, not just to women, would be enormous.

You are a best-selling author as well as a politician. You mentioned the royals. How did the opportunity to write a biography on Prince Charles come about?

I first met him in 1986, when I was a very young journalist working for The Economist. He invited himself to lunch with some of my older colleagues to discuss how he might best use his influence. It was such an odd thing to do and he seemed so ill at ease in his own skin that he caught my attention.

Later I found myself covering the royals, at first without much enthusiasm but then I began to understand that they weren’t just a living tourist attraction but had far more heft, reach and meaning. I also realised that covering the royals properly was difficult because it was tough to get any direct access at all and though exposed in the public gaze, they are also protected by layers of secrecy.

That made me want to see behind the curtain. I spent years working to gain access, not just to Charles but to the Queen and other members of the family and to the courts. It is a peculiar and interesting world I dubbed Planet Windsor.

Your speaking topics include embracing change. What tips or strategies could you share to help us prepare for, and indeed embrace change?

Throughout my life, I’ve observed what happens when people and institutions stand against change. The change still happens, but without their input and often leaving them at its mercy. Think about journalism and media organisations, for example.

The digital revolution came along and shredded the economic model that sustained print titles, by simultaneously destroying their gatekeeping role—now everyone could publish online, now everyone could advertise online—and encouraging a culture in which people believe that content should be free.

This has become further complicated, of course, by the rise of social media and the decline of trust in public institutions, so now we have more “news” swirling around and less inclination to believe any of it.

There isn’t one organisation or person I can point to and say that they have navigated these profound changes entirely successfully, but the early victims of the digital revolution were those who ignored or opposed it. And there is a huge opportunity in change, even when it arrives in the form of frightening turbulence, because that turbulence signals the breaking down of old certainties and systems.

The reason it was possible to set up a new political party and see that party grow so fast is because of the space created by turbulence, and it is that same turbulence that makes me optimistic about our chances of effecting real and positive change.

If there was one phrase, perhaps in 10-15 words, which summarises your vision, what would it be?

It’s shorter than 10-15 words. It is simply this: seize the turbulence

Thanks Catherine for your time and a fascinating discussion!

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