It’s not older women the BBC lacks. It’s women in general

Independent on Sunday, 12 February 2012

It’s official: the BBC has a problem with older women. The director-general, Mark Thompson, has admitted as much, acknowledging that the BBC’s treatment of Strictly judge Arlene Phillips and former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly – she won an age discrimination case against the corporation – has damaged its image. There are “manifestly too few older women broadcasting on the BBC”, Thompson admitted. The only bit of that sentence I take issue with is the word “older”.

The BBC has a problem with women, full stop. In recent weeks Radio 4′s Today programme has come in for a pasting because so few of its interviewees are female. Four of its five regular presenters are men, and so are the presenters of Any Questions, Start the Week and Question Time. After the 2010 general election, I remember asking whether women broadcasters had succumbed en masse to a virus which kept them off air while their male colleagues talked themselves into a state of exhaustion.

To be fair, it isn’t just the BBC where women don’t have the visibility you would expect in the modern world. When Lord Leveson held seminars for senior journalists before his inquiry into the media got under way, I was astonished by how few women were present. So was a shadow minister, who asked me where they all were. But the BBC is publicly funded and we have a right to expect “a higher standard of fairness and open-mindedness in its treatment both of its broadcasters and its audiences”. Those are Thompson’s words, not mine, and I’d say the BBC is failing on both counts.

I’ve been appearing on BBC TV and radio for years. I’ve got used to being the only  oman – it’s happened to me on Start the Week and Question Time – and I’m also used to being heavily outnumbered by men. It doesn’t bother me much, but I know other women feel unnerved by the prospect of walking into a male-dominated environment. Nor is there any doubt in my mind that this gender imbalance affects the tone of programmes, which can be sneering and hostile. On last week’s Moral Maze on Radio 4, Michael Portillo began by insulting me and then talked over me each time I started  answering a question. It reminded me of an edition of Newsnight – hilariously, I’d been invited on to talk about religious intolerance – when an imam tried to shout me down.

The gender breakdown on Wednesday evening’s Moral Maze (it was repeated last night and is on iPlayer) was seven men and two women. On that bizarre edition of Newsnight, the other four guests were men: the imam, a bishop, a Muslim convert and someone from Christian Voice. In the event, the man from Christian Voice got stuck on a train (I assumed it was God’s will) and the final line-up was three against one. As well as having the best arguments, I was definitely wearing the best shoes.

As I once explained to Robin Cook, who was one of the best speakers of his generation, I am unusual in having a formal training in rhetoric. I grew up on Cicero, which isn’t a background many women can draw on when they find themselves in a BBC studio. But I don’t think they should have to, any more than I believe that this combative style of broadcasting appeals to female audiences. I’m not sure men like it much either, judging by the messages I got after the Moral Maze. So perhaps the real problem with the BBC is this: too few women, too many alpha males.


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