The launching of an enquiry by the Lords Select Committee into women in news and current affairs broadcasting has got to be a welcome sign. It demonstrates that this subject has slowly risen up the agenda.
When I was asked to write about Women and Journalism for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (Oxford) in 2012 and started to research this area in detail it was surprising how little attention had been paid to these issues. Yet over the past couple of years there has been a rising interest – online abuse faced by female journalists, the disappearance of older women on screen, the prevalence of gender segregation by subject areas and the disparity between the numbers of women studying journalism and their prevalence in the higher reaches of the newsroom. One area of interest has been the role of expert women. City University has been doing research on this and the findings show a gender ratio of one to four (and sometimes far more than this) favouring men when it comes to who is being asked to comment and give expert opinion on air. A high profile conference in Spring 2014 highlighted these findings and brought together a range of parties to examine the portrayal of women in news and current affairs broadcasting.
So the House of Lords enquiry has come in the wake of this growing interest in the subject and will undoubtedly help to focus concern about how surprisingly little progress there has been in some areas. When I was asked about giving evidence to the Communications committee it felt like a scary prospect. For some years in the late 1990s I had been running the televising of all Parliamentary proceedings and had spent hours in committee rooms or in the TV control room watching them interrogate witnesses. But the thought of having to sit there facing questions myself amidst all the gilt and grandeur felt quite different.
On the day itself any nervousness disappeared. The clerks and advisors were immensely helpful and their Lordships, under the Chairmanship of Lord Best, were full of reassurance. Unusually the makeup of this committee is almost 50:50 men and women which was encouraging. Each member had been primed to ask about a particular topic – ranging from the way that young women progress in the newsroom to the fate of older onscreen presenters and the preponderance of male experts.
I was particularly pleased to see Joan Bakewell there – over 80 but still fighting hard to ensure the voice of ignored groups should be heard. Many years ago she was the only female reporter on BBC’s Newsnight programme and I had been her producer; responsible for making films about the arts. It was great to weave that recollection into the start of my testimony.
Karen Ross and I spent an hour being questioned but it was overall a pleasant experience and we had the sense that we were genuinely being listened to. It just remains to see what the report will now produce.