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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:13 pm on 8th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Razzall Lord Razzall Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Civil Service and Public Sector Reform) 4:13 pm, 8th September 2015

My Lords, I declare an interest as my daughter has for many years worked in news and current affairs, initially for Channel 4 News and subsequently for BBC “Newsnight”.

Initially, when the committee discussed whether we should produce this report, I was not in favour, not because I did not think that my daughter had been discriminated against but because I felt that the report would not add significantly to the general knowledge of noble Lords or, indeed, of the public. It was difficult to see what recommendations we could make other than simply to ask broadcasters to do better. At an early stage of the evidence, however, it appeared to me that I was wrong in that judgment and that we were right to produce the report. I was wrong for two reasons.

First, it became clear quite early on that the issue is not just about discrimination against women presenters. I had, of course, always been aware of the dominance of male political editors. When I chaired the Liberal Democrats’ daily press conferences in the 2001 and 2005 general elections, the etiquette was that you called the broadcasters for questions in order of seniority. I was quite surprised once in 2001 when Jackie Ashley, political correspondent for the Guardian, intervened and asked me when I would call a woman because the first five people I had called for questions because of seniority were men, as Elinor Goodman, the only woman political editor at the time, at Channel 4, was not there that day. Of course, Jackie did not care that the first person I had called was her husband, Andrew Marr. She regarded this issue as more important, and she had a point.

The evidence we heard demonstrated to the committee that the problem is much more fundamental that simply whether a woman or a man is in a senior job. As the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, indicated, we found clear evidence of bias against older women. Everybody is aware of the high-profile complaints by people such as Anna Ford, Selina Scott and others who felt that they had been “got rid of” because they were too old. Of course, John Humphrys and David Dimbleby carry on. Indeed, when we took evidence, David Dimbleby—well into his 70s—had just been appointed the front person for the BBC coverage of the general election. When I asked a BBC executive why, he said, “Well, of course, he is very well qualified to do this job”, to which I replied, “No doubt he will also be very well qualified in 2020”. It is quite clear that there is prejudice against older women in the BBC. As the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, indicated, we had strong evidence that the BBC particularly has been making settlement agreements to older women when they leave and are compensated and imposing confidentiality agreements so that when the older woman leaves she cannot complain about her treatment. Clearly, the committee was quite right to highlight the iniquity of that practice. We also had significant evidence that the situation for older women in the UK is particularly stark compared with, for example, the United States and Australia. In the United States in particular, there are a number of high-profile older female anchors, far more than we have in the United Kingdom.

Secondly, the clear issue on this point is not just about presenters; we also obtained evidence that women are seriously underrepresented as experts before the camera. Of course, the committee had to accept evidence from broadcasters that they can do nothing about the fact that the Prime Minister is a man and the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a man. But the figures regarding experts are stark. As we indicate in our report, City University sampled 38 programmes and found:

“Ten times more men experts than women experts are interviewed about politics, but only twice as many men experts are interviewed about health”.

If you break down those numbers by topic, business was four men to one woman; home news, five men to one woman; foreign news, five men to one woman; entertainment, four men to one woman; sport, six men to one woman; and other topics, seven men to one woman. This is clearly unacceptable.

The other reason I realised I was wrong not to want to do this report is that it is clear, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, who so ably chaired our committee, has indicated, the broadcasters have significantly responded to the report. The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have all indicated the changes that they have made and are proposing to make in response. Ofcom has indicated its support, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, and confirmed how it will exercise the statutory powers that are available to it. As an antidote to recent criticisms of the House of Lords, this report demonstrates the valuable contribution this House can make to our public life, and the noble Lord, Lord Best, is to be congratulated.