Joan Smith: It's not older women the BBC lacks. It's women in general

Share

It's official: the BBC has a problem with older women. The director-general, Mark Thompson, has admitted as much, acknowledging that the BBC's treatment of Strictly judge Arlene Phillips and former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly – she won an age-discrimination case against the corporation – has damaged its image. There are "manifestly too few older women broadcasting on the BBC", Thompson admitted. The only bit of that sentence I take issue with is the word "older".

The BBC has a problem with women, full stop. In recent weeks Radio 4's Today programme has come in for a pasting because so few of its interviewees are female. Four of its five regular presenters are men, and so are the presenters of Any Questions?, Start the Week and Question Time. After the 2010 general election, I remember asking whether women broadcasters had succumbed en masse to a virus which kept them off air while their male colleagues talked themselves into a state of exhaustion.

To be fair, it isn't just the BBC where women don't have the visibility you would expect in the modern world. When Lord Leveson held seminars for senior journalists before his inquiry into the media got under way, I was astonished by how few women were present. So was a shadow minister, who asked me where they all were. But the BBC is publicly funded and we have a right to expect "a higher standard of fairness and open-mindedness in its treatment both of its broadcasters and its audiences". Those are Thompson's words, not mine, and I'd say the BBC is failing on both counts.

I've been appearing on BBC TV and radio for years. I've got used to being the only woman – it's happened to me on Start the Week and Question Time – and I'm also used to being heavily outnumbered by men. It doesn't bother me much, but I know other women feel unnerved by the prospect of walking into a male-dominated environment. Nor is there any doubt in my mind that this gender imbalance affects the tone of programmes, which can be sneering and hostile. On last week's Moral Maze on Radio 4, Michael Portillo began by insulting me and then talked over me each time I started answering a question. It reminded me of an edition of Newsnight – hilariously, I'd been invited on to talk about religious intolerance – when an imam tried to shout me down.

The gender breakdown on Wednesday evening's Moral Maze (it was repeated last night and is on iPlayer) was seven men and two women. On that bizarre edition of Newsnight, the other four guests were men: the imam, a bishop, a Muslim convert and someone from Christian Voice. In the event, the man from Christian Voice got stuck on a train (I assumed it was God's will) and the final line-up was three against one. As well as having the best arguments, I was definitely wearing the best shoes.

As I once explained to Robin Cook, who was one of the best speakers of his generation, I am unusual in having a formal training in rhetoric. I grew up on Cicero, which isn't a background many women can draw on when they find themselves in a BBC studio. But I don't think they should have to, any more than I believe that this combative style of broadcasting appeals to female audiences. I'm not sure men like it much either, judging by the messages I got after the Moral Maze. So perhaps the real problem with the BBC is this: too few women, too many alpha males.

www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf