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Today and female presenters

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Ceri Thomas | 08:55 UK time, Tuesday, 6 April 2010

After four years of cheerful obscurity editing the Today programme, I have emerged from the shadows this week with some new labels attached. I've been called a misogynist, a mediocrity, a moron. Alarmingly, I am not alone. My actions have revealed "a seam of misogyny that runs deep at the BBC". All this heat, hyperbole and wild alliteration I unleashed in the space of a few minutes on Feedback.

I was asked why there aren't more women presenters on Today; apparently I said that they are too thin-skinned to cope with such a difficult environment. No problem on the News Channel, I was reported as saying, where looking good will suffice. But Today is tough, and only men have the skills, and the dermatological depth, to survive.

Except, in fact, I didn't say any of those things. I don't believe them, either.

I did say that we don't have enough women on Today - as presenters, as reporters or as guests. I said the main reason is that we're part of a wider BBC, and a wider news world, in which women have not been well represented in the most senior positions. I said that this is changing, and that those changes would feed through into Today. We're not at the forefront of all this, I said, because the programme is not a place for novices (and, categorically, novices of either gender: not just women). We're always likely to be a lagging indicator of trends in news.

In other words, I made an argument based solely on experience, and not about gender. Then, of course, I made a mistake.

I was asked why there are more women in parts of television news than on Today and I pursued my argument about experience. Those are slightly easier jobs, I said, and you don't need such a thick skin to do them. If I'd added a few more words - if I'd made it absolutely clear that I think that presenting Today is a more difficult job whether you're a man or a woman, and that the programme demands a thicker skin of journalists of both genders because the scrutiny is intense - we wouldn't be here now; but live interviews don't always turn out that way.

Cue instead the forces of indignation. Cue a tremendous amount of over-cooked and under-researched commentary. But don't queue here if you want a serious discussion.

You can take a scalpel to my argument if you wish. The idea that a dearth of senior women in news means we struggle to find more than one female presenter on Today is worth debating. The notion that we have to wait for the rest of the world to change before we follow suit is open to challenge too. But we're not talking about that; we're talking instead about the alleged re-emergence of bull-headed sexism in a macho workplace. Is that the most reasonable interpretation of what I said?

As ever in journalism, it's worth running a quick plausibility-check before you leap to an easy assumption.

First, is it plausible that the BBC in the shape of Helen Boaden (director of News, and my boss) would appoint an editor of Today who thinks that women are congenitally incapable of presenting the programme? I haven't asked her, but I struggle to think that it would look good on the application form.

Second (assuming I'd concealed my antediluvian attitudes from Helen), is it plausible in this day and age - and in the BBC - that the editor of an important programme would be moronic enough to deliberately denigrate all his female colleagues in public, and to expect to be considered a rational being?

If the answer to either of those questions is "no", there may be an alternative reading: on some occasions, one imperfect phrase can be ripped out of the fabric of an interview and turned into a canvas onto which critics project prejudices and preconceptions. To some extent, that's always been the burden of the Today programme - and it's actually why editors and presenters, male or female, need a thick skin.

What this misplaced row says to me is that Today is still part of the problem of the representation of women in news. We haven't yet managed to become part of the solution, and that's a matter of regret. Brian Redhead used to say "We're called Today not Yesterday". And OK, in some respects we haven't earned ourselves the right to be called "Tomorrow", but we are working on it - and that's a fact which has been lost in the fog of the gender war this week.

Ceri Thomas is editor of the Today programme.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Sad to see that sexist drivel still gets an airing at all, let alone being dignified by writing a whole blog about it.

    I want reporters and newsreaders appointed on merit alone, I don't care which bathroom they use or what they look like, although I do appreciate the ability to speak clearly, as well as some level of understanding of the matters they are reading off of the teleprompter.

  • Comment number 2.

    I don't listen to Today very often because I don't like the aggressive interviewing, the trivia and the programme's self-importance. However, in fairness, the presenters are way ahead of most of those on BBC Television. I couldn't imagine most of the BBC News channel presenters being able to present Today, whether male or female.
    I suspect that, yet again, this is a media issue and the media are in a great flutter over it but nobody else could care less.

  • Comment number 3.

    the best presenter of course is John Humphreys. He is not confrontational, just questioning. Trying to get a slippery politican to answer a question, never mind tell the truth, is next to impossible and I admire his determined efforts to get answers to his insightful questions. I can't say the same for the others though, male or female. I won't name names but one particular individual is devoted to asking question within question like some kind of verbal russian doll. The two seconds or so left to the guest is not enough to answer one of these multiple questions.

  • Comment number 4.

    Ceri,

    I hope that your experience with a live interview will be reflected in BBC output but instead I expect that all manner of importance will continue to be read into every impromptu soundbite from politicians etc.

    This is exactly why politicans are so cautious in their responses; they are expected to get everything right in their answers first time.

    PS Megan #1 Did you read this blog? It's purpose is to show that there was no sexist intent and that the media response was unjustified.

  • Comment number 5.

    Ceri

    Stop digging.........!

  • Comment number 6.

    A dose of your own medicine Ceri? John Humphrys leaps at any opportunity to ridicule political guests by miscontextualising the point they are trying to make. Is this the elite of news broadcasting which females should aspire too? I hope not. I've taken to sharing my drive to work with Chris Evans and Moira.

  • Comment number 7.

    #3. At 12:06pm on 06 Apr 2010, exlabour wrote:

    "the best presenter of course is John Humphreys. He is not confrontational, just questioning."

    You are, of course, entitled to your opinion but as someone who has been listening to "Today" since the late 1970s I must say that only JH can make me turn off - he might not go out of his way to be 'confrontational' but he sure does come over as being rude (sometimes, gratuitously so...), and unfortunately such is his broadcast persona many up and coming broadcasters are copying his style.

    As I said in the blog about Feedback (on the Radio Four blog), I'm not suggesting that total deference should be brought back but respect costs nothing, at times I simple do not think that the "Today" programme shows such respect, at times the "Today" programme and certain of it's it's presenters seems to consider that that they are bigger than the story they are reporting...

    "Trying to get a slippery politican to answer a question, never mind tell the truth, is next to impossible and I admire his determined efforts to get answers to his insightful questions."

    But is it for the broadcaster to point out such things, surely the audience should be allowed to make up it's own mind, and if they can't make up their own mind then surely the broadcaster should not be telling the audience what to think, that lies accusations of bias - presenting current affairs is not the same as presenting a documentary, especially were politics (and elections) are concerned.

  • Comment number 8.

    Bring back Jack de Manio, his legendary inability to get the time right, or event the hour right was just what one needs!!! (And what about the dog that said 'sausages'.)

    In all honesty I can't tell any of the male presenters apart, but I an quite happy that someone else gets up at what ever ungodly hour to bring me some (mostly) informative talking in the morning. Do not have any music please.

    Anybody who is fool enough to get up so early so regularly must be daft be they a man or a woman. We (through the BBC) con them into believing that it is a career stepping stone and they they do it till they retire!

    I actually don't see the BBC's Today interviewing style as overly aggressive - I am sure we are all a lot nastier to the idiots we come into contact with every day. Pomposity and arrogance need puncturing regularly and forcefully. So many of the 'experts' (be they politicians or others) quite often mask a massive personal ignorance of the issues they discuss - this is often so bad that they don't even know that they don't know what they are talking about!

  • Comment number 9.

    Has it been forgotten that one of the worst performances ever by Maggie Thatcher was her being interviewed By Kirsty Wark for BBC Scotland and having her credibility in Scotland utterly destroyed by Kirsty's carefull and incisive questioning until she got the answers. I doubt if any male interviewer could ever have got so sucessfully under the skin of the Iron Lady. So do not assume that their is only one way to question a politician.

  • Comment number 10.

    Whenever BBC Radio presenters, editor of reporters become the story something has gone wrong.
    Often this happens alongside a desperate striving for equality of representation or, worse, 'balance' of views. This is usually compounded when there is inevitable bias (right-wing as it happens), for example in the cases of Caroline Quinn, Eddie Mair (voted the 5th most powerful person on radio in 2005) and Nick Robinson According to Wikipedia Robinson was president of he Oxford University Conservative Association and in 1986, he spent a year as national chairman of the Young Conservatives. Leopards don't change their spots. But this is small potatoes.
    More generally, the worst offence on R4 is the regular sneering and derogatory presentation of politics and politicians generally (which is coming from Caroline on the PM programme at 17.40 as I write) and which has done more to turn people against genuine political discussion and understanding of political issues than any amount of MP's allowance.
    The next thing to watch out for is off-the wall items from barmy professors of political science in our blessed universities. UK elections are seedbed of crazy theorisation from far-flung Strathclyde, Oxford, Cardiff and Ulster who have a brief pre-election window to peddle their nonsensical views, among other things, about the future of the Labour, Conservative, Liberal, BNP, UKIP, the electoral system, political representation and what will happen if, or if not there is a hung parliament, is it the end for Brown, Cameron, Clegg, and how much we all love the ageing foot-tapper Vince Cable (or do we -in 1979 he was rejected (along with Ken Livingstone) as Labour parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and took his bat and ball away to play with barmy David Owen and the Social Democrats.

  • Comment number 11.

    What is more shocking is that some people actually believe this is important ? To illustrate the point what about people from a Chinese background or red heads etc, where are they represented ?

    The media should actually focus on the serious issues. it doesnt matter whether its a man, woman, or even a child that delivers it. Whats important is the message.

    If women need to better represent, then form lobby group or become an MP. Being a presenter doesnt help form opinion, it should only convey it.

  • Comment number 12.

    Yet another example of feminazi oppression. What a mess they have made of everything.

  • Comment number 13.

    I don't believe that Ceri Thomas is a misogynist and can see why this story has developed. Just a shame that others interviewed by the BBC (and other parts of the media) aren't given the same right of reply when soundbites are taken out of context and used to turn a weak story into a sensation.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 21.

    Did anybody see Joanna Gosling's interview with Nick Griffin yesterday?
    She was lovely. And charming. And only asked one difficult question and didn't push when Griffin dodged it. Griffin still managed to look and sound like a street-corner spiv (which is yet another reason to keep the BNP in front of the cameras), but if she had been interviewing a pro. she would have been toast.
    It was a pleasure to watch though.

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 23.

    Trevor Habeshaw is completely correct in his appraisal of Radio 4's political journalism, exemplified by Eddie Mair's petulant interview with Ed Milliband yesterday. It's a game for the presenter and we live with the consequences. Those of us who work, live and struggle in the real economy, employing people who make things and contributing to the wealth of the nation are victim to the hyperbole of Robert Peston. The vested interest for the next generation of journalists is a change in power and all the effort of Mr Robinson et al. is to have an inside root and so the bias is against the government, good or bad. A group of prima donnas, high on publicly-funded over-inflated salaries and expenses; if there's one group of people who represent me less than those elected to Westminster, it is the unelected fat cats at the BBC.

  • Comment number 24.

    Good luck is all I can say! It's tough for women in the media - sure, I'm a female journalist, I should know - but I think the unnecessary misogyny labels being bandied about are out of line.

    Hang in there Ceri!

    Oli (Czech on Africa blog)

  • Comment number 25.

    Re: Boilerplated at 7:

    But is it for the broadcaster to point out such things, surely the audience should be allowed to make up it's own mind

    Isn't the point rather that in order for the audience to make up their own minds based on a politician's answers to questions, someone must first get the answers?

    If a politician simply refuses to give their view on something, how is anyone to decide whether or not they agree with them?

  • Comment number 26.

    25. At 6:50pm on 07 Apr 2010, _Ewan_ wrote:

    [in reply to Boilerplated at 7:]

    "Isn't the point rather that in order for the audience to make up their own minds based on a politician's answers to questions, someone must first get the answers?"

    They can do that by asking questions... Their job is not to offer, or indeed imply, answers and then badger the interviewee until they have agreement!

    "If a politician simply refuses to give their view on something, how is anyone to decide whether or not they agree with them?"

    Then that, in it's self, is an answer, and one most people would pick up on - and isn't it a failure of the media if they prefer to offer (what they consider) answers rather than the information that would allow the viewer, listener or reader to make up their own minds, do we really need/want to be told how to think by the media ...

  • Comment number 27.

    To be honest from what I've seen the BBC is quite lagging behind other countries abroad in terms of representation of women in media. I'm based in South Africa and particularly over the last few years, SA has made dramatic improvements in gender equality - particularly in the media sector (of course, in other areas political agendas on gender issues such as those involving Caster Semenya have probably set South Africa back a few decades in terms of the cause).

    Regardless though, I think branding Ceri a misogynist is completely uncalled for. And quite rightly said, I seriously doubt Boaden would have made the appointment had she even considered the possibility! Dobs (#13) I think has hit the nail on the head: It's a pity that others interviewed by the BBC aren't given the same right of reply when soundbites are taken out of context and used to turn a weak story into a sensation - this is exactly what has happened here.

    Sizwe

  • Comment number 28.

    The media has an existing establishment in which women are grossly under-represented and they only promote from this existing establishment, so catch-22. Why can't the BBC look outside its ranks and bring in fresh talent? Are there really, in the whole population, no well-educated women who can think quickly, speak clearly and interview incisively? Sexism is perpetuated simply by doing what we've always done.

  • Comment number 29.

    Really I think the reason why women aren't good as presenters is because they can say reckless things at times. I have never seen a confident and proud female presenter. they waffle very often but they have to talk about something they have a good understanding of. I think someone like Gary Lineker is good because he has a good view as his job is reviewing the sport which was once his career. the man knows what he's talking about. Same with Jake Humprephy on F1. He may not have been a pro driver but it is certainly obvious he was an eager fan at a young age. He is always checking up on his facts, doing research and while he's on air it becomes obvious he enjoys his job. It's not exactly the same with women.

  • Comment number 30.

    I am a bit of a poet, hopefully getting published, and would like an
    opinion on this. Thankyou
    GREASY POLITICIANS.
    The World of the smoothing ,
    moving Train,
    passengers
    insitu
    Reading, Chatting , Chewing.
    Their views ever changing.
    Political Trains ,
    setting forth their agenda
    on the net,th airways , the box,
    And in the papers.
    Scenery changing, never static, upwardly mobile,
    Election pending , careers on hold, to be made, at an end.
    As the voting nears,
    the electioneerings smoothing moving train nears its conclusion.
    The election to be won, lost for what I ponder?,
    with the slurring shannanigans of all, to be haerd in full glory.
    Raucus Voices arguing on the trivial, the medium , the major ,
    Points of their policies, policies never truly vague, never truly to be understood; as long as it's their partyline, They don't care in this landed Democracy,where politics is a career. where politics is life and death,
    where a life in Politics enables you to put your snoutinto the gravy train, Whilst the average don't get a look in.
    I wrote this when all the moneyscandal etc began.
    Not one for political poetry but lately have started to toy with it.
    What do you think.ps not aimed at anyone party.

  • Comment number 31.

    Would like to say , where are the female political poets,(may be I'm one)
    Men do tend to get all the juiciest fun at elections why.

  • Comment number 32.

    The media has an existing establishment in which women are grossly under-represented and they only promote from this existing establishment, so catch-22.
    ----------
    Not at all. The answer is simple, more women will get into the media as time goes on. Eventually they will filter tot the top if they are good enough, a woman starting out now has every bit the same chance as a man.

  • Comment number 33.

    I used to listen to Today from 6am-9am until the strident Sarah Montague joined in, not employing robust questioning but self-righteous and accusing. Love it when she's 'partnered' with the dithering, creepy Evan Davis - he of the sloppy speech.... then I switch off and have three extra hours in the day. The others are brilliant and unmissable..

  • Comment number 34.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 35.

    Ceri:

    I am placing this on the record that I have never listen to *Today* on BBC Radio, but, I think that women should have fair right to be presenters on the programme....

    (D)

  • Comment number 36.

    Dear editor,
    Whatever your said here can be readable and some time passing discussions can be done.
    Why some are bringing gender bias towards news editors, news reporters and TV coverage strategist and so on.
    we are all humans, i expect a very good presentations,good voice,moderate dressing and quick articulate knowledge and pulse of the viewers.
    Now a days, in many fields, women are coming nearer to men and they are in challenging positions.
    Of course,too many women reporters,news anchors also poses some problems in work fields and at their home fronts.

  • Comment number 37.

    Is misogonisy another name for FOOL.

    Half the brains are female! Lets have more women on TV, Radio etc.. I want the best brain not the prettiest face, what are the FOOLS who run the media doing?

    Get a grip for heavens sake, we are in the 21st not the 19th century. Leave you prejudices behind in the boys toilets, there is no room for it in the real world.

 

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