Katy Guest: It's the Today programme, Ceri love, not The Ice Age

Employing women need not end in tears

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In the annals of elderly wheezing old farts in the media industry, it is tempting to believe, there are tedious old men, there are tedious old sexist men who lost their tenuous grip on reality some time around the Boer War, and then there are editors of the Today programme. Why is it that certain jobs seem to attract a very particular type of person, I wonder? Does the BBC's equal opportunities policy outline a responsibility to employ people with the rare disability of regarding "news" as the information that women have got the vote?

At least Rod Liddle (like some pioneering early inspiration for Ricky Martin) left it until he was no longer powerful before he came out to an unsurprised nation as a misogynist old git. Last year, he speculated in print about the improbability of his ever deigning to roger Harriet Harman, and startled us with the blinding aperçu, presumably based on a lifetime of rigorous research, that "on average, fewer women wish to commit themselves totally to work than do men". In his defence, he was at least blathering away safe in the knowledge that nobody listens to a word he says any more. But his successor, Ceri Thomas, has no such excuse for the bizarre outburst that he made last week.

Speaking on Radio 4's Feedback programme, on which traditionally editors appear in order to apologise in a benign, Radio 4-friendly manner for things that may or may not be their fault, Mr Thomas took the bold decision to try a new approach. Asked why there are hardly any (ie, one) female presenters on the Today programme, he came up with the astonishing answer that it's not the fault of short-sighted bosses, who are at best a bit dim about their potential audience and at worst blatantly discriminatory. It's because all women are rubbish.

The "incredibly difficult" environment of Today is "too tough... for novices", he began. And why are women good enough for the rest of the BBC, in that case? "Because I think those are slightly easier jobs... The skillset that you need to work on the Today programme and the hide that you need, the thickness of that, is something else."

Leaving aside the rather glaring counter-example of Sue MacGregor, who fought through that kind of lame old sexist nonsense back in the early 1980s to become one of the most successful and best-loved Today presenters of all time (and who wrote about Thomas's remarks last week with a patience and strength that immediately contradicted his flimsy argument), has the man ever actually seen inside a modern workplace? Has he noticed that women now have big, grown-up jobs too? Has he spotted that they can do them well and tenaciously, with just as much chutzpah as their colleagues? Is he aware that many of them are still doing that for significantly less pay than their male peers? Or does he come into work each morning to find Sarah Montague blubbing over a broken fingernail while John Humphrys practises for the 08:10 interview by sticking his head into the mouth of a lion?

Obviously I am not as familiar with the set-up of the Today studio as Thomas is, but I have met several of its past and present presenters and crew over the years, and I found only one thin-skinned, petulant egotist among them; it wasn't a woman.

Clearly, the 3am starts are beginning to get to poor Ceri – and maybe having a girl's name doesn't exactly help his self-esteem in the very tough environment of the newsroom. But we must resist the temptation to tar all Today presenters with the same brush. After all, it would be ludicrous to assume characteristics for an entire group based on a random sample of one or two sad and slightly tired individuals.

Maybe if Ceri Thomas got out and met some working women, he might feel the same.

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