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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:35 pm on 8th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 4:35 pm, 8th September 2015

My Lords, I was delighted to serve on the Select Committee for this report but, as the rotation system has thrown me off, I now have to look at the committee from a distance. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for the way in which he steered us through this report and, indeed, others, and how he introduced this debate. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Bakewell, for how she inspired the committee and influenced us into taking this on board as a topic, contributing significantly to discussions from her very informed knowledge.

I think that the report was broadly welcomed, but it would be very difficult for any broadcaster to say that the report was no good or to deny the conclusions—so they listened. One key point that came out of this was that we believed, or I certainly believed, that public service broadcasters have a responsibility to set very high standards and high social norms. That must include how women feature at a management level and at reporter level—in fact, at all levels—in our broadcasting, because that influences our society quite significantly. In the past, I would judge that men were far too dominant. Things are better, but we still have some way to go. I think that that is broadly the conclusion of the report.

I turn to a few specifics, some of which have already been referred to. We have found it difficult to get our teeth into sufficiently accurate records and data of what was going on. One of our recommendations is that broadcasters should keep proper records of their policies in terms of how women feature at all levels. But there needs to be far more transparency in the recruitment processes and in pay and reward. There is still a suggestion that women do not get the same pay as men on quite a lot of levels of broadcasting. All appointments and promotions should be advertised internally and externally, with fair and open competition. One would think that that was a given, yet it is not a given, and we believe that broadcasters should adhere to that.

Then we came across the difficult problem of freelancers. Quite a lot of the jobs in broadcasting are given to freelancers for specific projects. Of course, it is much more difficult to suggest that there should be an open equal opportunities recruitment policy, because it may well be that a freelancer is selected for a particular skill, which may be a unique skill to that person. So it is not so easy. Nevertheless, we felt that Ofcom should use the powers that it has under the Communications Act 2003 to require broadcasters to collect data on age and gender of the freelancers that they employ. It may well be that freelancers are a large proportion of those who are employed, and therefore discrimination can apply there.

After all, we have not yet had a woman as director-general of the BBC and, from memory, apart from a brief period when Channel 5 was headed by Dawn Airey, I believe that no woman has been in the top job of our leading broadcasters—but I hope that someone proves me wrong on that. We found that, as regards the leadership positions in the media and among broadcasters as a whole, very few women reached board level. I think a survey suggested that 26% of board members were women, and at a lower level the number was higher. I got some figures from ITV which suggest—without wishing to quote them all—that ITV is doing a little better than the BBC. However, as we do not have the hard figures, it is hard to pay too much attention to that.

Many years ago the Dimblebys’ father, Richard Dimbleby, was a very noted broadcaster who covered pretty well everything. I remember an imaginary headline that was published in a newspaper: “Dimbleby Ill: Coronation Postponed”. Such was his power. He went on for quite a long time, but his two sons are also excellent broadcasters. I am not against them being in their positions, but there should be women in similar positions and there are not, and that is the nub of it. I do not mind the Dimblebys having a key position—they are very professional—but women of the same age should be in equally senior posts to show that there is equal opportunity across the board.

Discrimination against older women, which I found particularly disturbing and shocking, has already been mentioned. It has been covered in the newspapers, and we have much clear evidence of it. Reference has already been made to the gagging clauses. It is preposterous and shocking that our broadcasters, particularly the BBC, should have gagging clauses that restrict women who have been sacked on the grounds of age from indicating that this is what has happened to them. I can see no other way to describe that except in those terms. One or two women who had been sacked gave us evidence on condition that we did not use their names, while others allowed us to use their names. I believe that the BBC has now stopped that, I hope as a result of our report. However, as somebody said, it applies to new contracts but not to existing ones. These gagging clauses should be expunged from all contracts by the BBC if they apply to other broadcasters.

Then there is the shortage of women experts or commentators. There are plenty of women who are expert in pretty well every field we can think of in the country, yet time and time again people go for the men. It has already been said that 72% of “Question Time” contributors are men over a particular period, and 84% of reporters and guests on the Radio 4 “Today” programme were men. I have never been on “Question Time” but I have appeared on Radio 4; perhaps I should not have done, but there you are.

On the question of caring responsibilities that affect women, I talked at a reception here to one woman broadcaster who said that she had to work very hard to juggle her job with her domestic responsibilities with her children. Of course men could share in those caring responsibilities, but it seems that that is not always the case. However, the broadcasters should have enough flexibility in the way they give job opportunities so that women do not feel that they are side-lined after having children. I think it is better in some countries—perhaps in the States— and it certainly seems to be better in Scandinavia, where giving women better opportunities is part of the culture there.

I hope that our Select Committee report has helped to change attitudes and that things will change as a result of it in the media and in Ofcom. Let us look at it in a few years’ time and see whether we have been successful.