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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 8th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Richmond Lord Watson of Richmond Liberal Democrat 4:43 pm, 8th September 2015

My Lords, I declare an interest: I was a broadcaster for some 27 years with the BBC and with London Weekend Television, and I currently chair a multimedia production company, CTN Communications.

Last night there was a very interesting programme on BBC1. It started at 9 pm—one of the prime slots on broadcast television—and the presenter was Sophie Raworth, whom I know well and is an excellent broadcaster. The programme was very good, and I hope it got a large audience. The subject was, as many noble Lords will know, the celebration of, as of tomorrow, Her Majesty the Queen overtaking Queen Victoria in longevity on the throne. However, as I watched the programme the thought occurred to me:

if we were celebrating the longevity on the throne of two men, would a woman presenter have had that slot on BBC1?

I raise that question for a very specific reason. The report clearly identified—perhaps sensed as well—a sensitivity to the suitability, in the view of producers and executives, of women presenters, and that that was still embedded in the culture of broadcasting. Paragraph 9 of the report talks about “softer” subjects being chosen more predominantly for women reporters. It may not be specifically just a question of “softer” subjects; there may be a subtler cultural judgment. Does the subject being examined require empathy, which is more likely in this case to come from women reporters than from men? If that judgment is there, even somewhat in the background, it is significant.

The report also notes in the summary that there has been considerable progress, and indeed there has. Thinking back to when I joined the BBC Current Affairs Group in the mid-1960s, I do not think that there was a single woman presenter in it, and there was certainly no discussion whatever of the importance of having women presenters in that sort of role. When telephone calls were made from Lime Grove, I do not think that the assumption was always that if it was a woman’s voice it was the secretary to a man, but certainly there was no expectation or realisation that something was not right. So there has been great progress and “gone are the days”, but, as the report makes clear, there are three male reporters on flagship programmes for every one female.

The BBC briefing on the report sent round prior to this debate makes much of seven recent on-air appointments for BBC News. It also reports—I welcome this tremendously—that the BBC now has more women correspondents in Europe than men, including in Paris, Berlin and Moscow. That is indeed significant. However, the BBC is also currently expanding its External Services, including, as is noted, potentially to North Korea. I welcome that, having attempted to draw attention both in this House and elsewhere to the contraction of BBC external broadcasts to Russia at a time when we ought to be communicating much more to Russia, not less. I hope that the initiative with regard to North Korea will be progressed with real determination and that the journalistic skills and the tenacity of women reporters, so powerfully demonstrated by, for example, Kate Adie and others, will be fully utilised in that communication. The point has been made in this debate that one thing that we need to do in communicating with states such as North Korea is to demonstrate that we understand diversity and parity and that we practise what we preach. That is extremely important.

In mentioning Kate Adie, perhaps I may also single out another woman whose journalism and investigative courage has been inspiring and of historic significance. Clare Hollingworth soon celebrates her 104th birthday. As a young woman in the later days of August 1939 she was reporting in Poland and in Katowice on the then German-Polish border. She managed to go from Poland into Germany days before the Nazi invasion and she realised that the valley in Katowice was being hidden by huge canvas sheets. As she went down the road, the wind whipped up some of these sheets and behind them she saw hundreds of tanks and thousands of German soldiers waiting for the signal to invade Poland. She broke the news—she got it back. That is the sort of achievement that Kate Adie would be greatly proud of. It is marvellous that Clare Hollingworth did that and I am proud that two companies with which I am involved—CTN and Burston Marsteller— will be marking her achievement with a major film documentary later this year.

Clare Hollingworth was a trailblazer, and many more have followed, but the message of this debate is that many more are needed. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for both the report and the debate, which is excellent and will be influential. As he pointed out, this is not an academic subject. The gender balance in broadcasting has to reflect the balance in our society. Because broadcasting is such a powerful determinant of societal views, this matter is urgent. We require—society requires and the BBC should enable—parity.