The BBC Director-General, Tony Hall, has hit back at the Culture Secretary Maria Miller after she put pressure on the broadcaster to take further action over commentator John Inverdale’s sexist comments about the Wimbledon tennis champion Marion Bartoli.
It emerged today that Ms Miller wrote to the Director-General this week expressing her concern over the comments, which provoked more than 700 complaints to the BBC, and requesting updates on “further action that is likely to be taken”.
During coverage of the women’s final, Mr Inverdale suggested that the French player’s “dogged, determined” style of play was related to her appearance. He told viewers: “I just wonder if her dad did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe: ‘Listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be a [Maria] Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5 feet 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.”
But Lord Hall, while acknowledging that the comments were “totally unacceptable and fell well beneath the standards we expect of our presenters”, responded to the Secretary of State with a robust defence of the BBC’s “proud record” in covering women’s sports.
Ms Miller’s letter demanded that the BBC should take “positive steps” to ensure commentary on “female athletes, and women’s sport generally, are as positive and inclusive as possible”.
In what amounted to a rebuttal of any insinuation of institutional sexism at the BBC, Lord Hall set out the broadcaster’s record in covering the women’s Euro 2013 football championships, and women’s golf, tennis, netball, athletics and cricket. “There is unprecedented coverage of women’s sport across the BBC this summer,” he said. “I would be happy to make sure you are kept updated as we enhance our editorial ambition for women’s sport.”
He also said that BBC staff had received advice on “what constitutes inappropriate behaviour or language” in order to limit the possibility of sexual harassment in the workplace and “to reaffirm the BBC's values around respect”. He finished by saying: “Whilst of course the editorial judgements about what happens on air are a matter which is distinct from issues within the workplace, I hope you will appreciate that this is a matter I take very seriously across the BBC.”
The Culture Secretary’s intervention over Mr Inverdale’s comments comes at a particularly embarrassing time for the BBC because Lord Hall this week took the opportunity to announce his determination to address a gender imbalance in the broadcaster’s on and off-screen staff.
Speaking at the launch of the BBC annual report on Tuesday he said that “improving the gender balance in our programming has been a priority for me since I returned to the BBC”, taking up his new role in April. He said: “I'm keen to see more women in key presenting and backstage roles as we move forward.”
Lord Hall simultaneously announced the appointment of Mishal Husain to the presenting line-up of the Radio 4 Today programme and commented: “I’m particularly pleased that with her appointment there will be another female voice on the programme which I think is really important.”
Ms Miller began her letter by saying she was “writing to express my concern over the comments”. She said: “It is...a matter of some concern to me that any comment on the looks and stature of a female athlete could be made in the context of one of the highlights of the UK’s, and indeed the world’s, sporting calendar. The letter, which reminded the BBC of its obligations to female licence fee payers, was strategically leaked to the Daily Mail.
Although she accepted that Inverdale had apologised on air and in a letter to Ms Bartoli, she made clear that she did not consider that the matter was at a close. She did not explicitly call for the commentator to be sacked or disciplined but suggested further action was necessary from the BBC.
Previously, James Harding, the new BBC head of news, had suggested that Mr Inverdale should take ownership of comments that were “wrong”. He said: “I think he said the wrong thing ... You have got to own your mistakes and apologise for them.”