A few years ago, a then executive at the BBC and I went head to head in Sydney, debating the motion that the BBC is an ethical broadcaster. He argued for. I against. Despite the audience being initially almost militantly pro BBC, out of a packed auditorium, he only managed to secure two votes. There were no abstentions. It was his arrogance, rather than my perspicacity, that was his nemesis. I asked him why only 18.7% of participants on panel programmes (where there’s ample opportunity for balance) were female and why 89.2% of them were chaired by men. I asked if he thought it was ethical to exclude women from the Question Time panel that had previously been broadcast from Belfast. The home of two female winners of the Nobel Peace prize. The defining moment in the debate came when said executive dismissed my questions saying, “Ethics have nothing to do with editorial decision making”.
Despite a decade long campaign to persuade Question Time to give women an equal voice on the panel, the BBC has doggedly resisted. When I asked an executive at Mentorn, who produce QT for the BBC, why women aren’t more equally represented, her acerbic response was “you can’t blame us if there are hardly any women in parliament”. I challenged the logic that their criteria for inclusion of women, and minorities, should be based on parliamentary representation. I suggested that their obligation was to license fee payers, over 50% of whom are women. Besides, once the three main political parties are represented, there are two further places, usually filled by male commentators, or Monty Don. Last Thursdays ladies night just added insult to injury. Hackneyed hollow gestures just won’t do.
The issue of female representation pervades the BBC. Week-end TV is a veritable lads fest. Here’s a snapshot: Top gear, Have I got news for you (an occasional token woman on the panel), QI (ditto), Match of the day, A Question of sport (box ticked with female chair) and Mock the week (AKA Mock the Women). Either there are no funny women or they are even more threatening than intellectual ones. The BBC’s contempt for female licence payers was at its most blatant when it defended Frankie Boyle’s vicious attack on Rebecca Adlington (for the audacity of not conforming to his stereotype of what a woman should look like). He was eventually given time out on the naughty step but never apologised. Some reward for bringing back two Olympic gold medals.
Elsewhere, the BBC’s This Week recently invited Brooke Magnanti, or Belle de Jour (famous for being a “happy hooker”), to talk about the rise in teenage pregnancies. The fact that she knew little of the subject didn’t get in the way of an opportunity to promote her book, which glorifies female degradation. Magnanti’s first “job” as a prostitute involved going to the house of a man she’d never met before, getting drunk on two bottles of Chardonnay (classy), having sex, sleeping there, then giving the client her direct number. This is the person the BBC thought appropriate to lecture teenagers on safe sex? Sadly the BBC didn’t spot the disturbing irony.
Thursdays Question Time stopped short of an all female panel. The idea of replacing a Dimbleby, even for one show, would be a step too far. What if a woman could do the job just as well, or even better? The very idea. If QT wants to appeal to female viewers it’s not rocket science. Regularly put more women on the panel (maybe even outnumber men occasionally) and take more questions from female members of the audience (men are generally invited to speak more frequently than women) If you’re really keen, appoint a female chair, such as Janet Street-Porter.
In 2003 the BBC published research indicating that where women have a less than 20% representation in any group they are reduced to stereotypes. Its response to this shocking finding? Drop more women (Moira Stewart, Arlene Phillips, the pregnant Denise Van Outen, Martha Kearney moved from Newsnight to radio 4, the list goes on).
The women who survive, particularly at decision making level, are unlikely to have done so by challenging the status quo. The print media in particular is awash with women willing to demonstrate their masculine credentials. Rebecca Wade didn’t get where she is by tackling sexism (see p.3) in the Sun. Until there are sufficient numbers of women in top jobs to break free of the dreaded stereotype, the malestream media culture will prevail.