Yes, banning all-male panel shows was the right thing to do

In the US, where the entertainment industry is more evolved, they don't have such concerns


The ubiquitous Mary Beard, professor in classics at Cambridge University, is never short of an opinion. On Newsnight, she'll be talking about the efficacy of economic sanctions on Russia and then she'll be on Radio 5 debating with Steve Claridge and Robbie Savage about who should play up front for England in the World Cup. Not quite, but it's only to be expected that today she should weigh in to the debate over the BBC's ban on all-male line-ups on panel shows.

She thinks it's a) a good thing because affirmative action helps counter the anti-women bias that's hard-wired into our culture and b) a bad thing because she thinks it opens up women to criticism that they're only there to fulfil quotas. She's right on both counts, but the impulse of Danny Cohen, BBC's head of television whose edict this is, is surely the right one. Anyone who switches on a BBC panel show and sees only men will know that they will be treated to a half-hour in the saloon bar at the Old Bull and Smug. If women are placed on this earth to improve men, it's on television panel shows where this is most apparent.

The comedian and mathematician Dara O'Briain was more vocal in pouring scorn on Mr Cohen's plan. It wasn't that he'd calculated there simply weren't enough women to go round, given how many panel shows are on television these days, but more that he felt that such a rule smacked of tokenism. He felt that the same amount of effort should go into engineering a gender balance in other industries, like, for instance, "computer coding," he said, "in which there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in Europe and only 11 per cent are done by women".

He deliberately misses the point. Of course, we should try to tackle the lack of female representation in disciplines like computer coding. And, maybe, in football management. Or in the second hand car trade. But the fact is that Mr Cohen's decree is simply good business practice. It stops these shows being the province of testosterone-fuelled show-offs and, however simplistic this may be, it makes half the population feel their voice is being heard.

In America, where the entertainment industry is more evolved, they don't have such concerns. Their two showpiece awards ceremonies - the Oscars and the Golden Globes - were hosted by women. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler - two of the funniest people on the planet - took over the Globes from Ricky Gervais, and where he was caustic and cruel (but hilarious), they were sharp and satirical (and hilarious, too)

Ellen Degeneres at the Oscars was also a good turn, but nothing in the awards season will beat Fey and Poehler. From their opening "welcome to everyone in the room, and to all the women and gay men watching at home" to Poehler's observation that, after watching 12 Years A Slave, she'll "never look at slavery the same way again", their monologue was a brilliantly written, perfectly executed piece of work. Where is the British Amy Poehler? If Danny Cohen's challenge to a male bastion succeeds in unearthing her, he should be supported, whatever Mary Beard may say.     

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