What is Paxman's problem?

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The Independent Online
On Monday, just before I set off for the BBC World Service to discuss international women's day with an Indian political activist, I listened to Start The Week on BBC Radio 4. I was pre-occupied, wondering whether it is possible to build an international women's movement which links Western feminists with women in countries like Afghanistan, until I heard Jeremy Paxman's opening words. "Hello," he said cockily, "we're marking international women's day with four male guests."

A joke? A swipe at political correctness? Let's change some of the words and see how it sounds. "We're marking Martin Luther King Day by having four white guests in the studio." Comfortable with that? No, I didn't think so. Some of you will reject the comparison, as did the programme's producer, Karen Holden, when I rang her to complain. "I don't think it's quite comparable," she insisted. "Women are more than half of the population. They're not an oppressed minority."

The point I am making, in this context, is that we are an under-represented majority. "We all make strenuous efforts to have women on the programme," protested Ms Holden. "It's very rare for us to have four men in the studio." The previous week, the line-up consisted of three men and one woman. An analysis of the guests who have appeared on the programme since the beginning of January shows that 25 men took part and only nine women, although one of them, Professor Lisa Jardine, appeared more than once.

Interestingly, this is about the same ratio as Melvyn Bragg's Thursday morning discussion programme on Radio 4, In Our Time, which has featured 10 male guests to only four women since the end of January. Lord Bragg's programme has got better in this respect, since it began in October last year. The first few weeks were so conspicuously male that I wondered why the programme-makers didn't rename it Men In Our Time. It is indisputable that the absence of women affects the quality of the discussion; on one occasion, Lord Bragg and two male guests talked lugubriously about the ghastliness of the 20th century, without realising that the perspective is very different if you happen to be female.

But if it is the case that men have more interesting things to say, aren't they entitled to more air time? I'm just not convinced by this supposed imbalance. Producers of current affairs programmes occasionally challenge me to come up with names of articulate women and the task is nowhere near as Herculean as they make out.

But Start The Week and In Our Time discriminate against women not just in terms of who is invited to appear but in the way they are treated on air. This issue is muddied by Mr Paxman's shortcomings as a presenter, chiefly the hectoring tone which he honed on reluctant politicians on Newsnight. When Suzanne Franks appeared to discuss her pessimistic book on women and the workplace, Mr Paxman reeled off her achievements and suggested they disproved her thesis; he seemed to be under the impression that she was promoting her autobiography.

Women do not fare much better on Lord Bragg's programme, where his insistence that they justify themselves is in stark contrast to his habit of genuflecting to male intellectuals. When Harold Bloom turned up to discuss his patently preposterous new theory about Shakespeare, for instance, Lord Bragg treated him with the high seriousness of someone who is on the verge of discovering a cure for cancer. That is why, when I say that women are getting a raw deal, it is not special pleading. On the contrary, I am highlighting the age-old prejudice that women have to be better than men before we are entitled to equal treatment. That is bad enough, without having our noses rubbed in it by Mr Paxman. Even his producer, Ms Holden, eventually conceded that his opening remark on Monday had "a childish edge to it". But if there is some unwritten rule that Start The Week has to have a male presenter, instead of someone like the brilliant Professor Jardine, couldn't we at least have one who is grown-up?

WHICH BRINGS me neatly to Prince Charles, who was pictured last week attempting the tango with some scantily-clad dancers in Argentina. Having sparked off a storm with an ill-judged observation about the Falkland Islands, the Prince went on to do what he has always done best, providing incontrovertible evidence of the fallibility of the hereditary principle. At the age of 50, after being born and bred to the role, he is incapable of carrying out the simplest tasks without making a public spectacle of himself. Even the staunchest monarchist must tremble at the prospect of the startlingly inept Prince of Wales ascending to the throne.

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