ARTS : TELEVISION : A woman's place is round the table

After 15 years, sexual equality has finally arrived on `Question Time'. The panel is now half male, half female - and altogether more surprising . Tim Teeman watches six new panellists, and asks how it was for them
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
RUMOUR has it that in his day, and off camera, Sir Robin Day used to turn his back on the female guests of Question Time. He would find it harder to do so now. In his time as chairman if a woman did appear on the panel she was usually an MP or union or business leader. Now, under the aegis of producer Sue Ayling, the show has two women, sometimes of apolitical or non-industrial hue, around the table most weeks. In so doing Ayling and Capron Productions - the production company who took over the running of Question Time last September - have reopened the debate over the ethics of running a "quota" system for women guests.

Argument over gender balance in the show has spanned four years and was fired by an Independent campaign in late 1990 which listed 75 women who, it was claimed, would make good panellists. The suggestions ranged from Lurline Champagnie, the first black woman to be selected as a Tory candidate (for Islington North), to Nerissa Jones, then curate of St Botolph's, the radical church in the City of London. Mark McDonald, Question Time's producer at the time, dismissed the suggested guests. The panellists the public wanted, he said, were "today's decision makers - the people with the power to change their lives," and those people were predominantly men. He was also wary of talk of quotas in general - a view Sue Ayling rejects.

"The two-on-two idea is an investment and not something we stick rigidly to," she says. "We dropped a woman minister one week because of events in Northern Ireland and my husband said that Question Time that night felt like it had gone back five years. We've passed this quota argument. If half the population is female I don't see why half the panel shouldn't be."

But only a tenth of British MPs are women and an even smaller proportion are business chiefs. Instead, "we go for people of influence, not necessarily of power," Ayling responds, adding that comedian Jo Brand will be guesting in an upcoming show. "In the old days, if they weren't captains of industry or politicians, women felt they had nothing to say. Now we want controversial and interesting women." The recent performance of such guests, she claims, has encouraged women who previously rejected an invitation to appear to now accept. Women in the audience - itself split evenly between the sexes - have also been readier to contribute since the changes, she says.

But has the policy paid off? Question Time's recent history has certainly been turbulent. Since 1989 it has been though three changes of presenter (Day to Peter Sissons to David Dimbleby) and production company (BBC "in house" to Brian Lapping Associates to Capron). Each change has brought with it new guidelines about the make-up of the panel, the chairman's role and the input of the audience. Then there is the matter of quotas. Maggie Brown, media editor, says of the Independent's 1990 list: "When we were running our campaign, the producers would say, `There's a difficulty getting one woman,' which was nonsense; women were always there - we were pointing out the absurdity of their position." QT's "archaic feel" is now the real issue, she says, which marks it out from new rivals like ITV's Dimbleby, hosted by David's brother Jonathan: "The problem isn't the quota system, it's that women are being brought in at the dead- end of a format."

For other critics QT's predicament remains gender-centred. They argue that its present shade of positive discrimination is actually harmful to women, and that women cope badly with the gladiatorial nature of it all. "In private conversation women may be rather brilliant, but when it comes to savaging the opinions of others, they make much less dynamic television than brutish males," the journalist Melanie McDonagh wrote in London's Evening Standard in 1993. Today she further speculates that in choosing some recent guests "the producers might be going for looks as well as journalistic content". Previous female panellists have not done their sisters any favours either. In 1991, Jo Foley, then editor of Options magazine, said of her QT appearances: "There is no point in going on unless you are a politician. I don't think women want to play that particular game."

The six women opposite would disagree. All said they did not find the experience gladiatorial; that they would love to do it again; that yes, the research was hard, but on the night they had much to contribute. None felt their presence was tokenistic. Sue Ayling sees them as "the tribunes of the audience", the non-party-political voices of the street. Certainly it was an engagement none of them took lightly. As Cristina Odone says: "If you think democracy is about dialogue then we have shrunk as a nation. Here is one of the few public arenas where there is a genuine free-for-all. By going on I felt not only an individual responsibility, but also a collective one."

! `Question Time' continues Thurs, BBC1, 10.10pm.


43, editor, `Esquire' magazine

appeared 26 January 1995

Her view: It's very intimidating but also very interesting. You put an incredible amount of work into it, gearing yourself in for at least two weeks before. The only way to feel vaguely less ill is to be clued up on all the major news stories. Being part of "the quota" makes you determined to do OK. You want to be on there for your merit, not because you are a woman. The panellists were very supportive - whatever your politics you're all in it together. One of my questions was on the CSA and I am a single mother, so I could speak strongly from the heart - which is why you're there as a lay-person. The viewers like a panellist that represents a non-politically motivated point of view. The relief when it's over! It's like a baptism of fire.

Our view: Boycott came across with a great deal of conviction, comparing strongly with the rest of the panel (Social Security minister Alistair Burt, Lib Dem veteran David Alton and the Labour MP Angela Eagle). In responding to a question on the Private Clegg case, Boycott was the only one on the panel to note the contradiction inherent in training peace- keeping soldiers to kill. She was also the only panellist to answer audience questions directly, and, though generally non-combative, was finally roused enough to demolish Alistair Burt over the CSA: "Actually Alistair, the agency is founded on greed: to get more money for the Treasury, not to try to help people."


28, Director, Mdecins Sans Frontires

appeared 15 September 1994

Her view: It was terrifying to start off with, in the sense of what the show represents. As a foreigner I felt I didn't have much to lose. Whereas politicians are scrutinised by colleagues and constituents, I was accountable to my colleagues at MSF and myself. I hope quotas and positive discrimination are a temporary form of encouragment. If they help women in typical Question Time constituencies to think "I can do that" then that's good. On the show it's essential to contrast common- sense talk with political talk. The magic of TV is that it makes you sound authoritative. You are encouraged to put forward a personal view: I was asked to provide a European perspective, for example.

Our view: The youngest panellist ever to have appeared on the show was European to a tee: assured and waspish - if occasionally nervous. Her observations were sometimes off-target and prefixed too many times with an "In Belgium, we . . .". On yob culture, she remarked proudly: "I agreed with Back to Basics." She won back admirers with the pointed "Why does the Prime Minister come up with an empty slogan every six months?" Huby was extremely sharp when asked whether more proof of the IRA ceasefire was needed, arguing that there was too much attention being paid to the particularities of the ceasefire rather than matters of reconciliation.


34, editor, Catholic Herald

appeared 31 November 1994

Her view: I represented two minority groups: Catholic and female. Yes, the quota system is important, but you've got to be careful. There is no greater way to shore up prejudice than to allow reverse discrimination to become part of the political agenda. By appearing, I was already aware of how the burden of proof lay with me. The onus is going to be on those women who can stand up to the slings and arrows of a cynical audience. I wasn't intimidated by the gladiatorial nature of it: I love arguing, the heat of the moment, a fight. It was very empowering and a rare opportunity to tell politicians excatly what I thought.

Our view: Odone played hardball from the outset, clearly relishing every moment. She stated unequivocal support for former Guardian editor Peter Preston over that fax; her "Peter Preston should be canonised, not pilloried" call to arms fired up the audience. Odone argued that journalistic subterfuge was necessary to show up parliamentary shortcomings, and extended her pugnacious stand to issues as varied as the Government's retreat over Post Office privatisation and out-of-town development. Crunch time came in a mainly light-hearted debate over the National Lottery when a flushed young man called Odone a "hypocrite" for not supporting the National Lottery, while saying she'd buy tickets for her staff.


40, artistic director and chief executive, West Yorkshire Playhouse

appeared 20 October 1994

Her view: It's not a question of tokenism, but rather progress. To have men and women talking about the world is very important. If the world had more of a balanced voice we'd all be wiser and more informed. It's an advantage not having a team of researchers behind you; you're giving feelings rather than structured answers along pre-conditioned lines, like the politicians. I went on there not as a woman but as an artist. Like the scientist and educationalist, the artist is one of the social groups who should be heard more. The night itself was the night "sleaze" broke. I didn't have time to get nervous. There was this moment of democracy- in-question we all wanted to talk about.

Our view: Kelly was angry with the hypocrisy of the Government, turning witheringly to Welsh Secretary John Redwood: "I don't want you to defend your party if you know they're doing the wrong thing." She assumed the role of vox pop, and won applause for her plain-speaking. After commenting on foreign investment and the Criminal Justice Bill, she elaborated on IVF treatment: all women, regardless of age and wealth, should have access to it. When Redwood extolled birth as the pinnacle of women's experience, she slapped him down again, arguing that his view engendered unnecessary guilt on the part of women who had chosen not to have children.


57, biographer and author

appeared 12 January 1995

Her view: It's so very frightening that if you let yourself think how frightening you'd be paralysed. As a "normal" person though you are excused a lot. The trouble with being a woman who isn't a public figure is that you don't want to impose a glass ceiling on yourself, yet you don't want to attempt something that's beyond you. The quota system is fine: you can't get fairer than two men and two women can you? The only difficulty is if you're not up on a question the answer is `I don't know': an answer not appropriate to Question Time. You sometimes have to contrive an opinion on something you don't feel much about.

Our view: Glendinning had an odd panel: Labour MP Margaret Hodge's fan of hair was as elusively styled as her answers; Michael Howard was too smiley; then there was the youngish historian, Niall Ferguson, whose nice- boy looks were accompanied by right-wing fervour. She was not as sharp as in previous appearances: on a question about veal crates she lost the thread somewhat and spoke about the Suffragettes. Niall Ferguson became condescending in a rather academic way and Glendinning chuckled at his all-knowingness. Floundering a little, she still managed to score one great goal, pressing Michael Howard over who gets the blame for prison breakouts and enquiring sweetly: "What is a Home Secretary for?"


43, chairman of a direct-marketing agency and chair of Bradford Training

and Enterprise Council, appeared 22 September 1994

Her view: It was nerve-wracking. I went in there 50 per cent woman, 50 per cent a non-political, business player. The politicians I was on with were very nervous - I was under the nave assumption they were used to it. If the quota system gets to a point that just-because-you-are-a- woman-you-get-on-Question-Time that would be terrible. It's good not to follow traditional stereotypes, but I'd like to think I'm there on my merits. In the North, I'm known for my business activities - it's irrelevant that I'm a woman. I'd love to do it again. If I went back I'd want to be more assertive.I felt as if I was being far too well-behaved.

Our view: With the show in Leeds, Judith Donovan was on home territory - and it showed. Her bluffness struck a positive chord with the audience. On firms paying for extended maternity leave, she scoffed, "I'm offended that I'm expected to pay for this," adding that workers should not expect a "cradle to grave" commitment from their employers. On Europe, Donovan was sure "much worse" was to come from Brussels. She was sympathetic to this country's nurses' cause (recommending local bargaining) and condemnatory of "the use of business language in the NHS" and "NHS bureaucrats". After her appearance, one of her colleagues was prompted to say she was the first "fascist socialist" he had ever heard. !