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The truth about older women and the BBC

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Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 10:10 UK time, Thursday, 9 February 2012

Let's not mince words: those that say that the BBC has a case to answer about the way it treats older women on the air are right. We do.‬


We're hardly alone, of course. Look at any other broadcaster, at any advertising hoarding or some newspapers and you're likely to be confronted by an obsession with young women's faces and bodies and an ageism far more pronounced and disturbing than anything you'll ever see or hear on the BBC. You'll find plenty of photographs of older men - politicians, film stars, celebrities of one stripe or another - some handsome, some frankly a little gnarly. But you'll discover that older women are chiefly notable for their absence. ‬


By contrast, if you've been watching BBC drama and comedy in recent weeks, you would have caught Gillian Anderson, not just stealing the show in Great Expectations but rubbing shoulders in prime time with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, Sue Perkins, Penelope Keith as well as many of the best-known characters in EastEnders and our other popular serials. If factual programmes are your thing, you'll have found yourself bumping into the brilliant Mary Beard, not to mention Deborah Meaden, Anne Robinson, Alex Polizzi, Mary Berry and many, many more. Perhaps you think it's the BBC's news and current affairs output where the real dearth lies? Only if you overlook Kirsty Wark, Martha Kearney, Sarah Montague, Fiona Bruce, to name but a few.‬

A thoughtful critic of the BBC might accept that list. They might even accept that the BBC does a better job in this regard than other British broadcasters. But they might also go on to make two searching points. First, that there is an underlying problem, that - whatever the individual success stories - there are manifestly too few older women broadcasting on the BBC, especially in iconic roles and on iconic topical programmes. Second that, as the national broadcaster and one which is paid for by the public, the BBC is in a different class from everyone else, and that the public have every right to expect it to deliver to a higher standard of fairness and open mindedness in its treatment both of its broadcasters and its audiences. If the BBC isn't prepared to take this issue more seriously, what hope is there that others will start to do so?‬

I accept both of these arguments in full.‬

There has been a revolution at the BBC in recent years in the role women play in leadership positions. Of the twelve members of our Executive Board, five are female, all of them (and no, there isn't a completely satisfactory way of saying this) 'older' women. Critical BBC services - including both Radio 4 and BBC Two - are in the hands of exceptional women controllers. BBC News, once an almost entirely male management domain, is largely led by women.‬

But we've yet to see the same rate or scale of change on the air. In terms of interviewees on current affairs programmes like Question Time or Newsnight, it is a simple fact of life that many aspects of British national life are dominated by men. I believe these programmes do their best to find opportunities for women to appear, but David Dimbleby is right when he says that it would be wrong for the BBC to distort the reality of the distribution of power and influence in this country in the name of artificial gender balance. ‬

What is true, however, is that we have too few women in key news and current affairs presenting roles, especially when it comes to the big political interviews. Stephanie Flanders is doing an outstanding job for us as BBC Economics Editor but, again, too few of the most senior on-air specialist journalists at the BBC are women. That's why we're delighted to have recently appointed Allegra Stratton as Newsnight's Political Editor, though of course we gave her the job not because of her gender but simply because she was the best candidate‬.

I don't believe for a moment that the BBC is riven by sexism or ageism. As Ann Widdecombe commented last week, it's quite wrong to conclude that any replacement of an older woman by a younger one (or by a man) is automatically proof of prejudice; all sorts of factors come into place in creative and casting decisions. The public would be alarmed if the BBC did anything other than choosing presenters strictly on merit and regardless of sex or age.‬

Nonetheless, the Miriam O'Reilly case - she won an employment tribunal after being dropped from her presenting role on Countryfile - was an important wake-up for the whole BBC, one which I hope will mark a turning-point on our handling of this issue. Miriam has behaved with remarkable dignity and forbearance throughout, but she was not treated as she should have been by the BBC. We have a duty to ensure that no one has to go through a similar experience in the future. With others, Miriam has now launched a new charity to draw attention to and campaign about the role of women in the media. We will support her work in any way we can.‬

So what is to be done? First, we have to understand the extent and character of the problem. This is why, as Chairman of the industry body that looks at fairness and representation of every kind, I commissioned the report "Serving All Ages" which looked at British TV as a whole. Interestingly, it showed that issues of age were not front of mind for most members of the audience (quality of output, where the BBC scores very highly, was their top concern), and indeed that, of all age groups, it was the young rather than the old who tend to feel most unfairly and negatively portrayed by the broadcasters. But a significant minority of respondents - and not just older women themselves - did tell us that they felt that older women were 'invisible' on the airwaves. That perception, and the reality behind it, is what we have to change.‬

We must develop and cherish the many outstanding women broadcasters we already have and make sure they know that, like any employees and freelancers, age will not be a bar to their future employment by the BBC. Where we can, we should bring great female talent back to the BBC, as we're doing so successfully at the moment in Rip Off Britain 2012 with Angela Rippon, Julia Somerville and Gloria Hunniford. I am also pleased to see that Danny Cohen has announced plans today to bring Anneka Rice back to BBC One prime time. We should make sure every BBC editor and producer understands their role in helping us address this challenge.‬

This is an anomaly which has its roots deep in our national life and which cannot be solved overnight. Ann Widdecombe - who clearly enjoyed herself immensely on Strictly Come Dancing last autumn - is surely right when she warns against a knee-jerk or politically correct response to the issue. We shouldn't turf out other much loved and respected presenters and reporters in an attempt to achieve an instant fix, and no one (not least the older women in our audience) would thank us for doing so. ‬

We need to identify the talent and the opportunities over time. But we are determined to act and already, on the BBC News Channel, on BBC1 and on other services, we're beginning to see a difference. Progress over time by the BBC is important in itself and will, I believe, be welcomed by all our audiences, young as well as old. But I hope that it will also encourage other broadcasters and media players to follow suit.‬

Mark Thompson is Director General of the BBC‬ ‪‬


  • Comment number 1.

    I have not as yet considered Gillian Anderson (43) as an older woman.

    You have written an interesting article but the glaring omission is the lack of definition of "older woman". At what age does the BBC believe that this transformation occurs?

  • Comment number 2.

    For me (as a 50 year old man), being old begins when I can't stand on one leg unaided and put my sock on the other foot without falling over! Maybe ladies could do the same with a stocking??

  • Comment number 3.

    Good morning,

    I thought it best to reiterate Mark’s comments on diversity because it doesn’t stop away from the cameras and microphones at the BBC. I bet you didn’t know that 9 of the 50 top paid directors at the BBC are female. That’s virtually 50% and certainly dispels the myth that the BBC is full of old school boys who earn outrageous amounts of money for doing nothing.

    Fleshing-out those figures for visual consumption, according to our latest figures the BBC spends a mere £12.2 million per year paying its top 50 executives and managers but £3.2m of that goes towards female salaries, that’s just over 50% or something.
    So that commitment to equality runs throughout the BBC from the top of the tree right down to our hundreds of unpaid interns.

    Though before you get your calculators and shout “Those figures don’t add up Andy you silly man” I should point out that the figure of £12.2 million per year that’s paid out of the licence fee for those 50 managers doesn’t include normal business expenses such as dinner with Culture Ministers or TV chefs, gift sets, family holidays in Sicily, huge parties at “modestly-priced” pizza restaurants, first class train tickets and taxis.

    Talking of which….Taxi!


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