Three-D Issue 23: The campaign to increase the number of women experts on TV and radio news

VPza3v1oLis Howell
City University, London

On the face of it, the campaign to get more women authority figures on to TV and radio news could be construed as having had a good year. The Broadcast Magazine campaign, which began in 2012 with monthly figures provided by City University, came to a resounding conclusion in the summer of 2014, with interviews with news editors from the four public service broadcasters, all vowing to try and increase the female expert ration. In April there was the “Women on Air” Conference at City, where Tessa Jowell made the keynote speech, and panellists included Dame Carol Black, Professor Suzanne Franks, Caroline Criado Perez, Helen Goodman, and Krishnan Guru Murthy. Again, news editors pledged to increase the numbers of women on air, in all roles. This autumn the BBC received an award for its Expert Women training initiative, where 164 women were given confidence building training and encouraged to go on TV and radio. And in September the House of Lords Communications Committee announced that its next enquiry would be into the representation of women in TV and radio news and current affairs.

So the people who had been campaigning in this area could be forgiven for feeling pretty good. Until the actual figures were looked at again – and those figures are the only real measure of whether the 51% of the UK population which is female, gets a fair showing on TV and radio news. Sadly despite all the rhetoric, the figures are still pretty dire. Between October 2013 and March 2014, students at City University measured the number of women who appeared on flagship news as opinion formers, achievers, advisers, politicians, academics, and leaders. In journalistic parlance these are the ‘pundits and players’ who form the backbone of our news, and endorse our news values. The programmes that City University surveyed where BBC News at Ten; ITV News at Ten; “Today” on BBC Radio 4; Sky News (a selection of evening programmes) and Channel 4 News. The figures came up relentlessly at a ratio of four authoritative men to every one authoritative woman contributor, not counting the professional journalists working on the programmes.

The knee-jerk response of news editors was that this replicated the number of authoritative women in society. The Pope, they said, as if playing a trump card, could not be a woman. Nor in most cases could prime ministers, heads of state, leading businessmen, military commanders, aviation experts and academics, be women. That was just the nature of society – tough, then! Since getting the vote in 1928 women hadn’t really even cracked the glass ceiling, never mind broken through. It wasn’t, they claimed, the fault of broadcast journalists that there weren’t enough authoritative women on air, It was the fault of society.

And of course that argument seems eminently reasonable – until you start asking about why broadcast news, which has at its core the need to reflect the population, reflects instead the power systems which are perpetuated by men. In business news for example, why is talking to male executives, more relevant than talking to female consumers? Why in politics, where male politicians only outnumber women 3-1 are there 10 times as many male contributors on air, as women? The answer seems to be that we have all bought into male dominated news values, and that broadcast journalists who believe their role is to hold authority to account, actually reinforce conventional authority by only wanting to talk to “top men”. How ironic.

And as for the argument that there are four times as many authoritative men as authoritative women in wider society, that is questionable. When you look at, say, expert witnesses used in courts, men outnumber women – but only by 2-1. So why are male experts four times as likely to appear on the TV or radio?

Figures also showed that within newsrooms and with those people working in broadcast journalism, men dominate the profession, with no sign that the increasing number of women coming out of journalism courses, are catching up. A national TV reporter is still three times as likely to be a man as a woman. Presenters are nearly twice as likely to be men. And executives and senior management roles are male dominated.

With all this in mind, in the summer the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, chaired by Lord Best, decided to start an inquiry into the representation of women in TV and radio news and current affairs. Members of the Committee include Baroness Joan Bakewell, a former TV presenter and currently a radio anchor hosting programmes like “Inside the Ethics Committee”. There are thirteen members. The call for evidence went out in September and written evidence was submitted by broadcasters and organisations like Creative Skillset, and Ofcom. Oral evidence was presented by academics Professor Suzanne Franks and Professor Karen Ross (see seperate articles in this issue about their experiences); by Women in Film and Television; Women in Journalism; and the NUJ. Individual women who had broke through barriers at different levels also spoke to the Committee – Miriam O’Reilly; Cathy Newman and Penny Marshall. The broadcasters were represented, and Government Ministers Nicky Morgan and Ed Vaizey appeared.

But perhaps the most surprising evidence appeared not in front of the Committee but in the Guardian newspaper. Miriam O’Reilly, the former Countryfile programme presenter on the BBC, told the Committee that she believed at least six women beside herself had been forced out of the BBC because of their age, but couldn’t talk about it because of “confidentiality agreements”. Olenka Fraenkel, an award winning current affairs reporter in her fifties, then was contacted by the Guardian and agreed to talk. She described how, despite being an award winning journalist, she believed she was systematically squeezed out of the BBC because of her age.

The Committee is still drafting its report which will include conclusions and recommendations. It’s hoped it will be published early in the New Year. Yet again, the broadcasters have paraded their good intentions and their records, this time in front of their Lordships, and have faced questions about why they don’t employ equal numbers of male and female reporters, why there are virtually no woman over fifty on air in British broadcasting and why male experts outnumber women experts by such a huge margin. The previous reports, studies, campaigns and surveys have also been itemised for the Committee. What happens next is that the Committee will complete a report, currently in the draft stage, with conclusions and recommendations.

The findings of an inquiry from a House of Lords Select Committee have to get a Government response. Whatever their Lordships recommend, it cannot be ignored, and there may well be press interest too.

So watch this space in January. Whatever happens the inquiry report will make interesting reading and may persuade people who think this isn’t really much of an issue, to take notice. If thirteen members of the House of Lords can spend four months inquiring into the issue, then it cannot be just another negligible media flurry. This is a very real issue which is gaining traction, and engaging a lot of people who might, a few years ago, have written it off as something irrelevant, or something which time would cure. The facts seem to indicate otherwise. Perhaps time needs a helping hand and maybe that will come in 2015.

Professor Lis Howell, Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications. December 2014.

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