Gender Balance in Broadcasting

– in the House of Commons at 10:15 pm on 23rd January 2012.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire 10:16 pm, 23rd January 2012

I was inspired to apply for this debate when, at a Christmas party, I met a very successful and very well-known BBC broadcaster who shall remain anonymous. What I was told shocked me, not least because that very famous individual told me that should he raise the issue within the BBC, life would be made so difficult for him that the end of his career would be just around the corner. I was given a quick resumé of how the BBC behaves with regard to women and female broadcasters, and the sexism inherent not only in the BBC but throughout the broadcasting arena and journalism in general. It was a shocking story.

What is even more shocking is that in the case of the BBC, the general public, 52% of whom are women, pay a licence fee to endorse the behaviour in question. According to the Library, the BBC receives £293 million a year in Government grants, £3.5 billion in licence fee revenue, £888 million from commercial business and £12 million from selling content overseas. It could not earn the last two figures without the Government’s subsidy and the licence fee.

Before I cite some of the examples that highlight the disparity in gender balance in the BBC, may I ask the Minister whether, when the next round of negotiations with the BBC begins and he decides whether to hand over another lump sum of taxpayers’ money and agree the licence fee settlement, he would like to tell the BBC that until it gets its house in order it will not be getting the dosh? In fact, may I go further? I think it is about time the Minister set up a parliamentary Committee to scrutinise the decision-making process within the BBC. Whatever it is doing at the moment, it is simply wrong.

I am not advocating degrading quotas; I am talking about basic commercial common sense. I have only half an hour, so I will cite just a few examples of what I am talking about. First, however, I wish to name-check Kira Cochrane and Alexander Campbell, as I have taken some of what I am about to say from work that they have researched and published, and Frances Rafferty from the National Union of Journalists, who has been very kind and helpful in sending me useful links and information.

Let us begin with radio, and Radio 2. The most listened-to music radio station in the world has not a single female daytime broadcaster. Is that not shameful? Radio 1 has one daytime female presenter. However, Radio 2 has “Sally Traffic”, whose job seems to be moving in and out of one studio after another to massage the egos of the male presenters who are there throughout the day. Although she outstrips most of the presenters in wit and rapport, I imagine that she earns a fraction of what the male egos that she massages do. Sally appears far more intellectual and witty than every male broadcaster whom she has to humour. However, the BBC bosses, whoever they may be, appear not to have noticed that.

Photo of Tessa Munt Tessa Munt Liberal Democrat, Wells

As far as I could see when preparing for this evening, there is not one woman with children in Radio 2’s management above assistant producer level. That includes the producers, the executive producers, the head of programmes and the controller of Radio 2. That situation may not come as a surprise.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution. I have that table of figures, but I decided to concentrate on what the general public see from the BBC. However, I thank her very much for that intervention.

Even though the BBC is wholly funded, one way or another, by taxpayers, half of whom, as I said, are women, the BBC bosses seem to feel that the person who pays the piper does not need representing on daytime radio.

Mr Speaker, I am sure that you remember the amazing Annie Nightingale, and that you grew up, as I did, listening to her on Radio 1. She has more music knowledge in her little finger than the majority of radio presenters today on Radio 1. Do you know what Annie Nightingale does now, Mr Speaker? She presents one programme, one night a week, from 2 till 4 am. That is where the BBC has consigned Annie Nightingale. Jo Wiley is on Radio 2 three nights a week from 8 till 9.30 pm. That is as good as it gets. It is a double travesty. Vanessa Feltz is on Radio 2 weekday mornings from 5 till 6.30. Another music legend—I am sure you remember her name, too, Mr Speaker—Liz Kershaw, is on Radio 6 on Saturday afternoon from 1 till 4. That is where the BBC has placed those fantastic women.

Let us consider the male presenters on the BBC. Some of them are in their 70s and still in primetime spots, yet those women have been consigned to the graveyard. If the BBC placed a banner on top of Broadcasting House and wrote on it, “The BBC does not believe that women deserve to be represented on BBC radio”, that banner would be 100% accurate.

It is frankly amazing that Annie, Liz, Vanessa and Jo have kept hold of their jobs at all, because we all know what the BBC attitude is to women of a certain age. One female radio presenter was not so lucky. We have all heard about the treatment of Sarah Kennedy, who was harassed out of her Radio 2 early morning spot in the most appalling way after 17 years’ service. Mocked by Radio 1 male presenter Chris Moyles in a tribute evening to yet another male presenter, Terry Wogan, Sarah eventually threw in the towel, citing a campaign by two BBC male employees to get her out of her job. Sarah was not so lucky: someone was after her job. It is only because of the public outcry and anger that that graveyard spot, which was a good platform for a new male presenter trying to climb the ladder, is now hosted by Vanessa Feltz.

Let us move to news and current affairs. The “Today” programme on Radio 4 has 7 million listeners a day. Many of them are influential and decision makers. Yet only 16% of the voices heard on the “Today” programme—comprising both contributors and presenters—are women’s. As Jane Martinson states on the women’s blog, and as others have pointed out, if the female presenter is away from the presenting team, one can go two whole hours in the morning when listening to the “Today” programme without a single female voice, and have male voices speaking at you throughout all that time.

Photo of Tessa Munt Tessa Munt Liberal Democrat, Wells

When we look at the structure of the radio system and the controllers of Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio 5, we see that only Radio 4 has a female controller. The director of radio and the director-general are both male. I am sure that the hon.

Lady agrees that in local radio, it is horrific that only one woman presents a breakfast show, out of 43 such flagship programmes.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Perhaps the hon. Lady and I should apply for a joint Adjournment debate.

When questioned about the fact that there were no female voices on Radio 2 for two hours on one particular day, BBC editors said that that was okay because they did not receive any letters of complaint. I wonder whether they thought for a moment that the nation’s women are far too busy to write letters to male BBC editors. I suspect that most women believe that the BBC is so male dominated that there is no point in writing. Most women have read about the high-profile cases of Sarah Kennedy, Miriam O’Reilly, Anna Ford, Selina Scott, Moira Stuart, Arlene Phillips and others. Sensible women will think, “What’s the point of writing to such an ageist, sexist organisation—even if I am paying for it?”

If radio is not bad enough, one can only cringe at television, especially the BBC. Let us consider the more popular and highly rated programmes. It would appear that in the minds of TV bosses, the viewing public only enjoy watching ageing male hosts accompanied by young blonde females. I shall list some of the names: Forsyth and Daly, of “Strictly Come Dancing”; Chiles and Bleakley; Schofield and Willoughby; and Cowell and Holden. Even on sensible “Countdown”, we find Stelling and Riley. “Elderly male, young female” is an unchallenged formula.

It is not just that women’s representation on radio and TV is woeful, but that sexism and ageism are combined, and at their worst, in current affairs and politics. Only one in 10 women working in television are aged over 50. As the number of people that TV employs shrinks, the biggest losers are women, by two to one.

I note that on the day of this debate the “Daily Politics” show invited three female MPs as guests—a rare day indeed, and a sticking plaster over a gaping wound. At least this debate had a tiny effect, even if for just one day. Perhaps it is time the BBC took a long hard look at its political news and current affairs programmes on both radio and TV, because the way in which they are presented says, to me and everyone else, that the BBC believes that women are not capable of presenting such programmes, and therefore by implication that they do not watch them.

Perhaps if women did watch such programmes, they could relate to the people presenting them. Let us forgive Andrew Marr’s line-up of the best 20 political moments of 2011, and the fact that each and every politician was male. Let us not include David Dimbleby or Jeremy Paxman or Jeremy Vine; let us give them an exemption, because all three are undeniable experts and silos of historical political knowledge, and considered to be more national treasures than presenters. I will do a quick round-up of the men who present TV news and current affairs: Robinson, Naughtie, Webb, Campbell, Marr, Craven, Davis, Snow, Stewart, Murnaghan, Boulton, Sopel, Mair, Simpson, Mason, Pienaar, Stourton, Portillo, Esler, Edwards, Matt Frei, Murphy, Austin, Gibbon, Crick, Thompson and Islam. That is just the top layer of news and current affairs. I challenge any hon. Member to start a list of women. They would get stuck at three names.

Hon. Members may have noticed that the name of Mr Andrew Neil was not in that list, but I will give him a quick mention. I have had an outburst against this particular gentleman; I am not proud of the fact that I described him as an ageing, overweight, orange toupee-wearing has-been. One could describe a number of male presenters in those terms. However, I made that outburst because of the outwardly sexist comments that that particularly rude man has made about female politicians on his “This Week” programme, which almost every week features three ageing men and a token woman. Why are we women paying for that? Not only do we not want to watch it; we object to paying for it.

Mr Neil has a verbose style that is aggressive, abrasive and often rude, which massively turns women off. He uses the shadow public health Minister as his token female only to attack her on the programme, which he does frequently, including last week. Because she declined to appear, he again made unpleasant sexist comments about her.

I remember the first time I appeared on his programme. I was asked to appear on a Monday morning; all the MPs were on their way to the House of Commons and they could not get anyone else to speak. I ran over to College green and did a little piece to camera and gave a quick quote on David Cameron’s election campaign. Mr Neil thought I could not hear him as I finished, but I still had the earpiece in, and heard him say, “Well, she looked tired and out of breath there didn’t she?” Would he have said that about a male politician who had run over to College green to do that piece? No. It was another sexist, negative Mr Andrew Neil pearler, saved just for the women politicians. How can we possibly encourage more women into Parliament, when what they see are men like that, and the media in general, making sexist comments about female politicians? The Home Secretary was on the front of Total Politics magazine today, but all anyone has spoken about is how she looked and what she was wearing, not what she had to say or the substance of the article. Why would any woman want to join us in this place when that is how they are regarded and spoken about?

The BBC is seen as the holy grail by the left. I believe that an irrational desire by the left to protect the BBC and not attack it or highlight its faults has allowed the present situation to occur, under the prolonged former governance by Labour. It is a worrying theme that the left irrationally protects what it regards as the issues on its turf, sometimes to the detriment of women. MPs are also loth to challenge the BBC, for fear that they will no longer be invited to make their points on television or BBC programmes—and I will probably be living proof that they are right. However, such considerations are cowardly.

In conclusion, the left may have ignored the behaviour of the BBC while it was in government, but if the Minister continues that pattern of behaviour, I and others will view it as a dereliction of the duties of his office. I would like him to tell us in his response what steps he will take, apart from using the financial hammer—which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech—with which he can hit the BBC over the head. What else is he going to do to end the culture of ageism, sexism and poor-quality male-dominated programming that we women are paying for, and are subjected to?

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 10:31 pm, 23rd January 2012

I am grateful for the chance to respond to this important debate. My hon. Friend Nadine Dorries has a formidable reputation for bringing difficult issues to the House and raising subjects that others might fear to bring to public prominence. The representation of women across the media, but particularly at the BBC, is an important issue that is worth addressing.

Many of the statistics that my hon. Friend quoted are very much a cause for concern. Some of them came from a recently established campaign group called Sound Women that aims to support and celebrate the work of women in UK radio. It published an important report called “Tuning out”—which one can find on its website,—that was commissioned by the training agency Skillset, which I work with closely to promote skills in the creative industries. The report found that women are less likely to make it to the top of radio, making up just a third of senior managers and less than a fifth at board level. It will not surprise the House to hear that women in radio are more qualified than men, with three quarters having degrees, compared with less than two thirds of men. However, women are still paid less, by an average of £2,200 a year.

Older women with children are less well represented, as Tessa Munt said. In fact, a lot of women abandon the radio industry after the age of about 35. As was also pointed out by the hon. Lady, who supported my hon. Friend so ably in this debate, out of 50 BBC local radio breakfast shows, only one is presented by a woman. Some 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s “Today” programme are men. Indeed, on 5 July 2011, one would have had to wait from 6.15 am until 8.20 am to hear one female contributor, alongside the 27 male contributors to that programme. My hon. Friend therefore raises an important point.

Having raised those issues of concern, let me make it clear that I am nevertheless an admirer and respecter of the BBC, which forms the cornerstone of public service broadcasting in this country. Personally, I for one think it is the finest public service broadcaster in the world today. We want to ensure that the BBC remains a national asset, but as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, if it is to maintain its pre-eminence and prominence, it must address the issue of gender imbalance. We are well aware of the criticism that too many of the presenters at the BBC are men, and of the calls for more women presenters.

I want to make an important point; I am sure that my hon. Friend will regard it as a cop-out, but I am going to make it anyway. It is that the BBC is independent of the Government, and I do not think that Members would want to have it any other way. I do not think that they would want politicians to use a particular issue as an excuse to interfere too closely with the operational or editorial independence of the BBC. There is therefore, quite rightly, no provision for the Government to become involved in the BBC’s day-to-day operational and editorial decisions. For the same reason, the Government are equally committed to the independence of other broadcasters, and will not seek to intervene directly in their on-screen or staff gender balance.

The BBC agreement does, however, place a duty on the BBC executive board to make arrangements for promoting the equality of opportunity between men and women. The BBC executive board is accountable to the BBC Trust, and it is the duty of the trust to ensure that the duty on equality of opportunity is met. The BBC, Channel 4 and S4C are all subject to the Equality Act 2010, which seeks to eliminate discrimination and harassment and to advance equality of opportunity. Under the terms of the Act, all those broadcasters must publish equality objectives every four years, and publish information to demonstrate compliance with the general equality duty.

Photo of Tessa Munt Tessa Munt Liberal Democrat, Wells

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I find myself amazed that, while six of the 39 DJs at Radio 1 are women—all those DJs are forming the opinions of young women and young men across the country—that station had a greater number of female DJs in 1987. Setting four-year objectives does not seem to be having any impact whatever, if nothing has improved in all the intervening years.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Lady makes her point forcefully, and I shall come to the points that she and my hon. Friend have raised.

I have mentioned the editorial independence of the BBC, and it is important to point out that all broadcasters’ content and output services are exempt from the provisions of the Equality Act, to ensure that politicians do not interfere in the editorial independence of those broadcasters.

Ofcom, the independent regulator, also has a duty in regard to the promotion of equal opportunities, and we are in the process of reforming that. I must emphasise that that does not mean that we will take those obligations any less seriously. However, with the Equality Act 2010, we believe that equality duties will be undertaken more efficiently with legislation in one place. We will be consulting shortly on our proposals, and I hope that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend will participate in the consultation.

I think that to talk about redressing the balance is to put it too strongly, but I want to use this opportunity to point out areas in which broadcasters have made progress. My hon. Friend and the hon. Lady have both, quite rightly, highlighted the imbalance that exists in broadcasting, but it is worth pointing out that 50% of BBC Trust members are women. The proportion of females on the BBC executive board is only 42%, but that is still a far higher proportion than is found on the majority of corporate boards. Within the whole staff of the BBC, women make up 49% of the total, and more women are joining the organisation than men at the moment.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

That is an interesting figure. If we were to look at the proportions of men and women among the total number of people in the House of Commons, we would probably find that they were about the same, taking into account the administrative and secretarial jobs. It does not actually mean anything to say that half the staff of the BBC are women. Those in the key jobs—the important, opinion-forming jobs; the ones that people listen to—are men. A bit like the House of Commons.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Certainly as far as I am concerned, the people in the House of Commons who do the administrative and behind-the-scenes work are as important, if not more important, than those who do the front-of-house work. I take my hon. Friend’s point, however, which is to draw attention to the public face of the BBC and to ask how female-friendly it is. I shall come to that point later. Let me finish my short defence of the BBC, however. In BBC Vision, for example, 63% of the staff are women and, in the audio music division, 53% of the staff are women.

My hon. Friend talked about The Guardian’s recent interest in the number of female presenters on BBC radio and, of course, Jane Garvey has raised the issue on “Woman’s Hour”. I noticed that today a very rare event happened on “Woman’s Hour”, as a Conservative MP appeared and it was a woman, my hon. Friend Karen Lumley. That is, in a way, some progress. The BBC has some outstanding female presenters and it might amuse my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire to know that when the corporation sent us the list, at the top was Annie Nightingale. She can read into that what she likes. There were also Sarah Montague, Fearne Cotton, Shelagh Fogarty, who happens to be a personal favourite of mine, Jenni Murray, Lauren Laverne, Mariella Frostrup, Jo Whiley, Zoe Ball, Moira Stuart and, of course, Jane Garvey. If I might abuse my office, I am personally very disappointed that the BBC did not include Rachel Burden in that list. As hon. Members will be aware, she is the formidable female presenter on the BBC 5 Live Breakfast show, which is the show I listen to in the morning. There are some formidable presenters on the BBC.

In Channel 4, 58% of the employees are women, which represents a 1% increase on the previous year. Four out of seven of the executive team are women and so are six out of the 13 board members. Since we are trading names and numbers, as it were, Channel 4 also has a strong representation of women presenters, including Cathy Newman, obviously, who has recently joined Channel 4 News. Mary Portas, Kirstie Allsopp, Sarah Beeny, Katie Piper, Jo Frost, Anna Richardson and Davina McCall all lead their own shows.

There are also powerful women in the channel’s film and dramas: Vicky McClure in “This Is England”; Lauren Socha in “Misfits”; Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady”, who won the 2012 Golden Globe award for best actress; and Olivia Colman in “Tyrannosaur”. Channel 4 has the formidable Baroness King leading its equality and diversity practice and, behind the scenes, it has also tried to tackle some aspects of production where women are under-represented. Channel 4 has placed a special emphasis through its online education projects on working with female writers and developers, a group still under-represented in the digital media.

Those are the statistics and the points that might balance the formidable case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire. I noticed her reference to her spat with Andrew Neil, and I do not know whether she has talked herself out of appearing on “The Daily Politics” in future. I hesitate to make any joke about that, because when I heard that she had described Andrew Neil as an orange, overweight, toupee-wearing has-been, I was going to say that almost all those adjectives probably apply to me.

My hon. Friend made some very serious points and this has been an ongoing issue in the media, which is why we have very good campaign groups such as Women in Film and Television. The organisation Sound Women would not have been created out of thin air—there must have been a problem with women appearing on radio as presenters.

My offer to the hon. Member for Wells and to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire is to broker a meeting with both of them—if that would be all right with you, Mr Speaker, as they both made formidable contributions to the debate—with the director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, and we will sit down and discuss this issue. It is an issue that we must keep pressing at. Some people might regard it as frivolous or something that makes good copy for a parliamentary sketch, but my hon. Friend made a valid and fundamental point: we want to hear a balance of voices on the radio and to see a balance of presenters on the television. We do not want to set quotas or diktats, but we do want to maintain a dialogue and pressure. I look forward to brokering that important meeting.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.