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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:58 pm on 8th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick Crossbench 4:58 pm, 8th September 2015

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Best for his chairmanship of this Select Committee, which I originally sat on some years ago, and to the committee for a report that the broadcasters have all stated is excellent, well defined and to be supported. That is a rare achievement for a Select Committee report—to have had briefings from different broadcasters affirming what the committee report has said but extending beyond that is rare.

I declare an interest also as the former head of public affairs at the BBC and head of corporate responsibility during the last two charter renewals.

As I stand between previous speakers in this debate and the concluding speeches, I shall not detain the House by going over facts which have been stated clearly in the report and in the speeches so far. However, I have a series of short reflections which come not so much from my period at the BBC and ITV as from my nine years serving as a commissioner for the Commission for Racial Equality, when we looked at similar issues through the lens of understanding how different ethnic minorities have struggled with representation and therefore with equality and fair play. In its brilliance, this report focuses in its conclusions and recommendations on gaining increasing factual data on the number of women in different aspects of broadcasting, particularly news and current affairs, and multiplying, increasing and ensuring that the bridge between representation is most appropriate. What I learned as a commissioner for the Commission for Racial Equality is that what is important is not just the number of black or Asian people who sit in different public institutions or companies but the culture of our public life. This is an area where I felt that the report could have said more and the Government could have responded more appropriately.

All of us have extremely wise women who speak strongly to us, whether we are men or women. The women closest to me, especially legal daughters, remind me of the fact that there are qualities which a more appropriately feminised world—I do not want to use “feminised” meaninglessly—would embrace better and which would allow cultural understanding to be more acute. It was said in a lot of the responses to the global financial crisis that, had the City of London had more women involved in executive decision-making, some of the more rash decisions that were made—some of the more instant rather than intelligent decisions, for which the nation has paid dearly in the past 10 years—would not have taken place. I am told by the close women around me that these cultural realities need to be stressed, not just the facts and figures of representation. They gave me three phrases: that the culture with an increasingly strong female presence should be less rash, not less rational; that it should be more contextual and not have less content; and that it would be more intelligent, not just more intriguing. All that is important in helping us approach a drive towards representation, towards equalisation and towards encouraging in our broadcasting culture—as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, rightly said in his very strong speech—a change in the representation, view and perspective of what broadcasting brings to the nation as a whole.

I was at the BBC at the point at which—and was partly responsible for it—the famous statement was made by the then director-general, Greg Dyke, that the BBC was “hideously white”. He was attacked heavily for that. What he was really seeking to say was that there was nothing wrong with being white, and nothing great either about being black, Asian or brown, or whatever phrase one wants to use, and that the dominance of extremes does not allow representation to be just or to be open. There is a need to look at our world honestly with this kind of open intelligence that allows us to see the painful horrors of the way the world is, as well as to enjoy its pleasures and its pursuits. That will not be fixed by having just more numbers; it will be fixed by having a different context.

I cannot let the moment go by without commenting on the very intelligent, gripping, captivating speech made yesterday by our noble friend Lord Hall, the director-general of the BBC. He set out in lucid terms some of the new promises that he and his board will wish to make during the period of charter renewal up to the end of 2016 and hope to implement. He also set out the financial constraints that the BBC will struggle with. He said:

“Let me start with the single point I make most often and am keenest to register. The case for the BBC doesn’t rest on ideological arguments, nor on debates between economists. It rests on what we do. We’re here to make great programmes and services. That’s why people like the BBC. That’s why they enjoy it. That’s why they trust it. That’s why they value it. That’s what they pay us to do”.

Of course, I agree and I disagree. The noble Lord is right that the nature, quality and content of BBC programmes are what you expect to come from the licence fee. But big institutions of significant impact in our national life go beyond the actions they undertake; they also have to represent certain values and virtues, positions and propositions. During the last charter review in 2005-06, when I was at the BBC, we had written into the charter’s purposes for the BBC that its function should be to uphold the civilisation and citizenship of the nation. That is not necessarily about the programmes it makes but about the stance it takes, the things that it represents, how it positions itself and the values it holds out to the nation. That is where I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hall, but I also encourage him to go back to representing the values and virtues of the BBC and its place in driving and supporting the civilisation of the country.

The noble Lord goes on to say in his speech that with the great advance of the internet age, one of the wonderful things that myBBC—a new part of the internet BBC—will do is help people broaden their understanding beyond the things that they would naturally watch were they left to choose; they will also receive other things that will benefit their wider understanding.

I hope that this wonderful report from the Select Committee that encourages the right, enhanced numerical approach to advancing women in broadcasting will also advance those values and positions that support a richer nation and a more diverse country.