Women in News and Current Affairs Broadcasting (Communications Committee Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:06 pm on 8th September 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Labour 4:06 pm, 8th September 2015

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to highlight some of the key recommendations in this wide-ranging report produced by the Select Committee on Communications, on which I serve under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Best. As the report states,

“despite making up 51 per cent of the population and a larger proportion of the TV and radio audience, women are severely underrepresented both on and off air in news and current affairs broadcasting”.

Our committee wanted to find out why this should be the case and what solutions could be found to improve this situation.

In our view, news and current affairs broadcasters have a particular responsibility to reflect society by ensuring a gender balance. This is especially incumbent on the BBC and other public service broadcasters, which receive statutory benefits. I want to highlight one area in particular that poses an obstacle to the progression of female employees in the industry: the demands of the job for those with caring responsibilities, especially mothers.

The committee of course understands that the demands of a fast-paced, responsive and stressful environment in a television or radio newsroom places exceptional pressures on those working in them, but we believe that the broadcast industry should do more to recognise the needs of those with family responsibilities and thus do more to promote flexible working. Evidence from witnesses highlighted the fact that the immediacy of news and current affairs broadcasting meant that caring responsibilities could be an acute problem for broadcast journalists. Notably, Miriam O’Reilly, a BBC employee for 25 years, said:

“In BBC News you have to be available 24/7, including nights. Women wanting to push through cannot contest overnight working, even when their children are very young … you can always say no and find other friendlier patterns, but the risk is that your career gets parked and opportunities to develop dry up”.

Penny Marshall, an award-winning reporter for ITV, echoed this view, saying that the “got to be there, got to do it” atmosphere in the newsroom meant that it could be seen as “unacceptable” to turn down work due to childcare arrangements.

Broadcast managers, in evidence to the committee, acknowledged that this was a problem. The BBC revealed that a recent survey undertaken by its global women in news group found that 85% of members felt that having children or caring responsibilities affected their career prospects. Fran Unsworth, the then deputy director of news and current affairs, said that childcare responsibilities could result in women ruling themselves out of senior roles.

Although our committee acknowledges that efforts are being made by the broadcasters to address this issue—for instance, the BBC has launched a job share register across its news group and ITN said that flexible terms of employment, such as part-time work and more regular hours, had helped women get back into work—there is still an issue to be addressed. As the Government said in their response to our recommendations:

“We firmly believe that inequalities in this sector cannot be solved overnight and a culture change needs to take place which has to be industry led”.

I welcome the Government’s continuation of the work put in place by my right honourable friend Harriet Harman MP in the last Labour Government. This Government, in their response, recognise their duty to help,

“modernise workplace culture so both men and women can better balance work and family life by extending the right for all to request flexible working, as well as introducing a system of shared parental leave, and supporting working families with childcare costs”.

Importantly, the Government have said:

“By extending the right to request flexible working to all employees, we intend to create a cultural change that means that flexible working is standard working practice”.

I think this is especially important as the NUJ told the Committee that in practice the BBC was not sympathetic to women’s childcare arrangements and that many women had faced “bullying” after raising requests for flexible working hours and raising childcare issues. A number of other respondents raised concerns that taking maternity leave or opting for flexible and part-time working arrangements could affect their career prospects. So our key recommendation 8 states:

“Broadcasters should ensure they have in place policies on flexible working practices which encourage women to have fulfilling careers alongside caring responsibilities”.

It is not enough to have policies on paper but, as our recommendation 9 makes clear, in order to address the widespread view that women will be “side-lined” after having children,

“efforts should be made to ensure that women who return from maternity leave receive appropriate training. Employers should also consider using other flexible solutions such as allowing women to choose to continue working on an ad hoc basis during an extended period of maternity leave”.

I welcome the Government’s response to this when they state:

“Employers can provide support for women making that transition back into the workplace. For instance employees can work up to 10 days during their maternity leave without losing maternity pay or benefits, or ending the period of maternity leave. These are called ‘keeping in touch’ days and can be hugely beneficial to both employer and employee”.

Finally, our report calls for practical proposals to help women with children. We say:

“Broadcasters should make every effort to ensure support for childcare arrangements, both culturally and financially. Support mechanisms such as childcare vouchers, childcare advisers, and crèches to accommodate women with young children working unusual hours are examples of good practice”.

Judging by the briefings I received last night from a number of broadcasters, change is already under way, which is most welcome. I hope that our report will shine a light on the attitudes of the news and current affairs industry towards women who are both highly qualified professionals and mothers, and help ensure that long-term and fulfilling careers are made possible.