The Week In Radio: Exasperated by only the company of men


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The Independent Culture

It was around 7.57am last Friday, while listening to the Today programme, that I started quietly banging my head on the kitchen table. John Humphrys had introduced a story about the psychological welfare of women who had had abortions. A new report carried out by the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggested that having a termination appeared not to increase the risk of serious mental health problems, a conclusion that contradicts the claims of some anti-abortion groups.

So who did they bring in to enlighten listeners on this issue that applied exclusively to women, their choices during pregnancy and the stress that these choices can provoke? Let me give you a clue: none of them had ovaries.

I mean no disrespect to the men taking part in the debate, who comprised the author of the aforementioned report and the chief executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship. Both contributors had done research on the subject. But listening to them using phrases like "evidence collated" and "to go to birth" (the latter meaning to choose to have a baby rather abort it), I couldn't help but picture a group of farmers discussing the problems afflicting a herd of cattle.

Exactly how hard would it have been to get a woman on the programme? Maybe a counsellor accustomed to dealing with termination issues, or a spokesperson from a women's group. Failing that, perhaps a researcher could have stepped outside Broadcasting House with a loudhailer and shouted down Oxford Street: "Anyone here ever been pregnant and depressed?" There would have been a stampede.

When it was suggested that the study hadn't differentiated between the stress caused by pregnancy or that caused by the prospect of a termination, the report's author remarked: "I'm not an expert in abortion; we're experts in dealing with evidence", thus highlighting what was wrong here. This was an academic discussion, essentially a dispute over data. It had nothing to do with female experience.

I, like so many radio listeners, have grown up with Today. The voices of Sue MacGregor and Brian Redhead were, throughout my childhood, as familiar to me as those of my parents. Over the last 20 or so years I have relied on the likes of John Humphrys and James Naughtie to drag me out of bed and tutor me in the issues of the day.

But there has been an unease about this relationship. As a female listener I have often felt marginalised and overlooked. A cloud of despondency has settled every time I've heard the women presenters being steered towards the jokey topics, with the weighty stuff reserved for the men.

This status quo has endured even after the programme's editor Ceri Thomas's witless remark 18 months ago about women being too thin-skinned to hack it on Today. This is clear in the astonishingly low numbers of female contributors compared to male ones (according a newspaper report last week, men make up 84 per cent of guests and reporters on the programme). Tellingly, last Friday's main topic, David Cameron's veto in the EU treaty negotiations, contained not a single female voice. Why? Maybe they thought we were all too busy making our husband's breakfasts. or doing the school run, or just sitting at home with our clothes on back to front and knitting booties for the babies we aborted years ago.

Whatever the reason, the answer to the Today problem is quite simple: invite more women on to the programme, and if they decline invite some more. There are a lot of us out here, many with brains and opinions. And if you don't ask, you don't get.