Television: A question for the panel - why aren't there more women on the show?

Pressure is mounting to put right the gender imbalance on political discussion programmes. Andy McSmith reports
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Perhaps they do not argue aggressively enough, or push hard enough, or perhaps there is something subtly wrong with the selection process, but women have slipped back in one of the important areas of public life.

Perhaps they do not argue aggressively enough, or push hard enough, or perhaps there is something subtly wrong with the selection process, but women have slipped back in one of the important areas of public life.

The BBC's Question Time programme, which is meant to be one of the country's leading outlets for serious political debate, appears to have given up trying to even out the number of men and women invited on to its panels.

The explanation offered by one executive is that Question Time is a forum for leading politicians, and it is not their fault if the House of Commons is still overwhelmingly male.

That attitude is not unique to the BBC. Channel 4's new entry into the league of ground-breaking political chat shows is the Morgan and Platell programme on a Saturday night, presented by the former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan and the one-time Tory spin-doctor Amanda Platell.

That show went through its first 10 appearances without a single female guest, finally breaking its duck last night with Ann Widdecombe and Clare Short. Both programmes are made by the same independent company, Mentorn.

Part of the problem may be the Labour Party's apparent reluctance to have women ministers appear on shows such as this. A spokesman for Mentorn claimed that every woman cabinet minister had been invited on to the programme; in the case of Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, several times.

The situation has enraged Lesley Abdela, a veteran campaigner for parity for women. In the 1980s, Abdela ran the 300 campaign, whose aim was to increase the number of women MPs. She also bombarded Question Time with complaints about the shortage of women panellists, even arranging social occasions when the programme's bosses could meet professional women and learn that they have opinions to express. By the late 1990s, both campaigns appeared to have made headway. The number of women Labour MPs shot up to triple figures, and Question Time increased its panel from four guests to five, with the idea that there would be at least two women appearing on every programme.

In fact, during 2004, the programme had 113 men and 62 women on as guests - meaning that women made up 35 per cent of all guests, rather than the target minimum of 40 per cent. The proportion was roughly the same for the first five shows of 2005, when there were 16 male guests and nine women.

That was before the now notorious edition broadcast from Northern Ireland last month, in which the panel was made up of five male Northern Ireland politicians, just as the province was entering a period when its political landscape was to be transformed by a group of very determined women. It was also the day when Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles announced their engagement, so viewers had to listen to the opinions of five men on the forthcoming marriage.

Last week, the programme was back to normal, with a panel of two women - Tory MP Julie Kirkbride and comedian Sandi Toksvig - to three men.

Ric Bailey, Executive Editor of Question Time, has defended that Northern Ireland broadcast as "not ideal" but difficult to avoid without breaching BBC guidelines. He said: "It is a fact of Northern Ireland's politics that there are very few senior women in the main four parties. It would be unfair to have one or more parties represented, on their only appearance, by less senior people. Plus, part of the point of Question Time is that it is there to give people the opportunity to scrutinise and hold to account political leaders."

The Independent on Sunday has also seen an email sent to Project Parity, the pressure group run by Lesley Abdela, by a senior figure at Mentorn. The email points out: "The House of Commons, whether you like it or not, is made up of 659 members, only 119 of whom are female. This is less than 20 per cent of the total number of MPs. Question Time, on the other hand, has had a 35 per cent female contingent. What exactly is your complaint?"

Abdela - who has since the 1990s directed her energies to the emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, and to the Iraq election - told The Independent on Sunday: "We thought we had all this sorted out with Question Time 20 years ago.

"We ran a campaign, and the numbers did go up. It's rather depressing to find that we're back where we were.

"The BBC is meant to be reflective of the population as a whole. Over half their viewers are women. We pay our licence fees. If they were told they had to have a gender balance, they would have a gender balance. They are not thinking properly. They are not thinking modern. They are stuck in this old Westminster view."