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Radio-Activity IV: Mary Beard & A Scandal On The Airwaves
Jude Rogers , January 27th, 2013 14:05

After the appalling treatment meted out to Mary Beard after she appeared on Question Time, Jude Rogers looks at the presence of women on the radio... and finds that the BBC is lacking in comparison to its commercial rivals

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Want to hear about a scandal on the radio? Listen in. On Wednesday this week, prompted by the fuss that followed Mary Beard's appearance on Question Time, Radio 4 explored the way female pundits are treated online, and in the media at large.

If you're not aware of the hoo-ha that preceded this, here's a precis. Eminent Cambridge professor goes on high-profile panel show, says something liberal about immigration, and the dregs of the internet wade in to comment. Unsurprisingly, they offer little counterargument to the issues surrounding multiculturalism. Instead, to quote Professor Beard herself on Women's Hour, they say: "an awful lot about my vagina, about its size, its shape and its smell, and what might be inserted into it". What a world.

Beard's chat with Murray is worth ten minutes of your time - listen here. For starters, she offered the subtlest, best put-down for web-wankers that I've heard yet ("you get a sense of real desperation... I don't think that people who are happy in their lives end up of a evening posting a lot of c-words and f-words"). On the question of whether people should confront bullies or ignore them, her answer came, rather brilliantly, from the Classics classroom. "Women are always being told shut up and take the abuse, otherwise you'll make it worse. We've been told that for millennia. It's about time to say, sorry mate, not on!"  

But enough of that: here's the thing that really boiled my blood. That same afternoon, The Media Show ran a special on Women On Radio And TV, exploring precisely why there aren't enough female pundits on programmes (listen here). The excellent Steve Hewlett introduced his wide-ranging panel, which included editorial directors from Sky News and ITN.

Then he paused, and his tone hardened somewhat: "We asked BBC News, but no one from there was available to join us."

Lis Howell, Director of Broadcasting at City University, then described the weighty research she had done on this topic, and statistics that proved that women were under-represented. She had then approached news networks with recommendations, which Sky News had signed up to, as did Channel 4. "The BBC has not agreed to do so," Howell added, quietly. "The BBC doesn't seem to take part in the debate at what you might call an intellectual level at all."

To recap: commercial networks realised they weren't doing something properly, and acted accordingly. A public service broadcaster wouldn't even countenance the idea that they weren't giving women a voice. Women who make up half of their audience, to whom they have a remit, as you might have imagined.

By this point, I was offering my own f-words to the radio. Then the BBC's Training Academy Director, Anne Robinson, talked about the editors and commissioners she'd spoken to. These poor souls struggled to get experts, that happened to have wombs, in these fields: science, technology, engineering, politics, business, architecture and history. I have some tips for them. Try almost any university in the country: experts teach there. Go to Parliament – wow – 144 female MPs. Knock up a quick spreadsheet and share it around, like Sky and ITN seem to have done. Go beyond a quick Google and lo – oestrogen and progesterone EVERYWHERE.

Of course, there are other factors that complicate this issue, which The Media Show explored well. Women won't go on programmes for fear of reprisals, like Beard. They don't get as much practice as men, and therefore can't be as "perfect". Childcare can make certain slots difficult (oh, if only there were pre-records, or fathers that had children too). TV and radio debates can also be pretty combative, which lots of women don't like. This is a massive generalisation – which opens up a whole new can of worms – but it also proves again that programmers should stop setting up duels, as I've banged on about before (find the part in this piece where I'm asked whether I loved or hated Madonna). Subtlety doesn't have to harm news reporting, you know. It could also enrich it.

Sky News' Tamy Mitchell also showed how easy it could be news-makers to be imaginative. When some pioneering breast cancer research was recently published, she insisted that the man who conducted it was paired up with a woman who had suffered it. The Today programme researchers tried to find someone to pair up with him but failed. Presumably because breast cancer doesn't affect lots of people who might listen to their sho... oh.

Murdoch 1, Auntie 0. As I said, what a world.

And as I promised last week, here's a non-BBC tip.  I've been starting to explore Amazing Radio's output, and Simon Raymonde's Monday programme is a good way in. The former Cocteau Twin and Bella Union boss doesn't just wallow in shoegazey, dreamy pop either – new electronica, reggae, and dubstep were all present and correct. I loved Blacksmif's 'Gavelock' (a driving, pulsing atmosphere and ace piece of wub-wub), while Raymonde's geeky presenting style was also a tonic. "Did you know that Anchorage was one of the most desirable places to live in America?" he asked, before before taking the piss out of his inner-Partridge. "Fascinating stuff!"  Oh, the humanity. Boys and girls, let's have more of it. listen here

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Jude Rogers
Jan 28, 2013 10:06am

Just had an interesting message from Robin Parker, who works for Broadcast magazine, about the training day, if anyone's interested (see below).

The first Broadcast-backed Expert Women’s Day revealed an abundance of female high achievers lining up to be the contributors and presenters of tomorrow.

It was barely 10am but already I’d had conversations about the solar system, pension planning and maritime prehistory. Surely, though, it was too early for the topic of alcohol addiction? Not, it seems, when it’s Expert Women’s Day.

The first pan-industry attempt to take practical steps towards addressing the gender imbalance on screen and on air took place last week, offering 30 high-achieving women media training and networking opportunities.

The day, hosted by the BBC Academy in conjunction with Broadcast, and building on our Expert Women campaign, was a response to an industry need to train more women to be specialist media presenters and contributors in areas where they are sometimes under-represented.

Creative Skillset part-funded the event but the BBC’s support is significant given its previous reluctance to embark on any practical initiatives out of fear of ‘social engineering’. This was despite its flagship News At Ten recording a 9:1 male/female expert ratio on several occasions, according to City University’s figures, and with the Today programme proving a consistently poor performer.

Of course, the day is only a first step and although more female-focused events are planned, we’re clearly not going to change things overnight. Nevertheless, the fact that about 65 senior industry figures made it to White City on a snowy day in January speaks volumes about their desire to find the next generation of female talent.

Alongside the likes of Today’s editor, Ceri Thomas, and several BBC commissioners and programme editors, there were execs from ITV, Sky, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery, plus scores of independent producers including Wall to Wall, Lion, Twofour and Twenty Twenty, all getting dates in the diary for follow-up meetings.

Many of them stressed their desire for TV to reflect the nation’s 50/50 gender split, but emphasised their frustrating attempts to: a) find female experts in areas such as science, business, politics and engineering; and b) persuade them to go on air.

Encouragingly, more than half of the 2,000 women who applied for the day came from those fields, proving that, with the right effort, they can be found in numbers. However, broadcasters’ second line of defence, that women are more likely to turn them down through lack of confidence and training, appears valid.

Banishing the ‘imposter’

Jassel Majevadia, a theoretical physicist, was among many of the attendees admitting to ‘imposter syndrome’. Others acknowledged that they didn’t initially feel “expert enough” to justify being selected, despite their double firsts, triple firsts, PhDs in astrophysics or awards from the Royal Society or Institute of Physics.

One of the greatest achievements of the day was convincing them otherwise. “The biggest revelation is that we’re not imposters,” said Renaissance historian Dr Rowan Tomlinson, another of the many new names to watch.

Professor Frances Ashcroft, who helped discover a pioneering treatment for diabetes and who appeared incredibly assured and authoritative, added: “Not until I’d published 100 papers did I feel like a scientist. What I’ve learned from today is that many people feel like that. But it doesn’t matter. We just have to do those media appearances anyway.”

As Anne Morrison, director of the BBC Academy, concluded: “The demand for the day was overwhelming and women want to up their skills and make sure they are fully trained. It was about de-risking the experience for themselves.”

The women also had plenty of ideas about how science and history programmes, for example, could be improved. Dr Tomlinson expressed her frustration that female historians are often shown delving into female-focused subjects.

“I want to carry a spear not don a bonnet,” she said, adding: “There is a slight trend to patronise. I think we should respect the audience slightly more than we do sometimes.”

Several of the women agreed. “There are a lot of details missed out in science stories, even the way weather is reported,” said Majevadia. “But I notice that when I make my lab demos more challenging for both kids and adults, it engages them far more.”

Dr Farhana Mann, a specialist registrar in adult psychiatry, acknowledged that it’s common for the scientific community to complain about the way their subjects are reported in the media, but added: “We have to take responsibility for getting the real story out there. It’s very much ‘us and them’ at the moment, but unless we come forward and say ‘this is what’s really happening’, how are they supposed to know?”

Of course, qualifications and opinions are one thing, communicating complex subjects to a mass audience quite another. Could they master the fine art? Sitting in on a mock-up of Radio 4’s Start The Week, hosted by presenter Liz Barclay, it was impossible to believe this was not a live broadcast; what gave the game away was the unique experience of an all-female panel talking about nanoscience and cosmochemistry on Radio 4.

That realisation alone made everyone eavesdropping in the studio sit up and take note. It also made complex subjects more accessible. Here was young Irish physicist Dr Arlene O’Neill making nanoscience sound like the most natural thing in the world.

“Combine nano-materials with plastics,” she enthused, “and you could roll up your laptop and put it in your pocket.”

Ready and waiting

The women shared not only intellectual prowess but also a seemingly natural ability to paint pictures in listeners’ minds. “We were blown away. Every single one of these women could be on air tomorrow,” said one of the trainers, Colin Savage, an executive producer and media trainer to Number 10.

And while another trainer pointed out that “your success as a presenter is in direct proportion to your ability to be yourself ”, it appeared to be advice none of them needed. Our experts were neither fazed by, nor played up to, the camera, perhaps because instead of wanting fame, they simply want to communicate their untold stories to the world.

It seems that many in the industry are now prepared to give them that opportunity.

Industry attendees on expert women’s day

“Events like this are few and far between and I hope they become more common. There are very few female experts on Sky and we’re desperate to get more and more.”
Kay Burley, presenter, Sky News

“I’ve always thought there aren’t enough female experts on TV and we’ve all got to work harder to find the talent. You can’t underestimate how hard it is and what the BBC has done here is a great start.”
Andrew O’Connell, head of factual, news and current affairs, Channel 5

“Finding new female experts is often a lengthy and hit-and miss process for producers. This event is a fantastic way to short-circuit that. There are a very impressive bunch of women here and I’ve shamelessly asked them to send me their ideas.”
David McNab, creative director, Wide-Eyed Entertainment

“There has been a shift in the past couple of years with TV waking up to the fact that experts can be presenters too. It’s not about a passion to be on TV but a passion for your subject.”
Jo Clinton-Davis, controller, popular factual commissioning, ITV

“Today’s audiences are hungry for knowledge and for learning, and there’s a trend of moving away from presenters who are just grafted on, to presenters whose experience is rich and authentic.”
Dominic Crossley-Holland, head of history and business programmes, BBC

“This event is long overdue, sadly. It’s necessary because if I were to invite 12 women on air, only one would say yes. Not only that, but we broadcast in a pressurised environment where we can rely too much on tried-and-tested contacts. This event helps fulfil a need that has been talked about for years. I really hope we see some of the women on air. They are certainly good enough.”
Liz Barclay, broadcaster

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Clare McDonnell
Jan 29, 2013 8:44am

Hi Jude,

Really interesting article. can we talk further ? I work for the BBC and your article if evry pertinent to what i am going through right now. You can email me at the above address. Also, I too love Kraftwerk, saw them in Dusseldorf 2 weeks ago as a treat for my man's 50th. Wow ! Just wow! talk soon, Clare x

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