BBC Television Centre: the fairness was what made the magic

At BBC TV Centre everyone was equal - equally lost, that is.

No doubt the encomiums for BBC Television Centre will gush forth from the Great and Good over the next day or two. And no doubt for most non-media types the outpouring of grief will be completely inexplicable. Why churn out thousands of words over the loss of a hunk of bricks and mortar - and an ugly one at that? 

Well. I'm no television grandee, nor am I a celebrity who presided over the studios. I'm just some bloke, who worked there every now and again. And actually, I think that's quite important.

As a child growing up in the sticks, I remember the opening credits of Wogan's chat show, "Live from Shepherd's Bush"; the opening picture of TVC, perhaps illuminated by searchlights, as if The Shepherd's Bush was a huge donut-shaped slab, there simply to accommodate Terry and his immaculately-coiffured hair. I remember the mischievous insurgent Kenny Everett attempting to scale the side of Terry's fortress, though I can't remember the context for this sketch. And I remember, of course, all those intriguing little occasions when the shroud would be ripped away - Children In Need skits where the cameras would pan out of the studio and follow our stars down the corridors. And I remember, of course, the Blue Peter garden.

And from that distance at that age, The Shepherd's Bush seemed a mysterious magic factory. And then I remember finally visiting the place as a young teen because the Record Breakers host Kris Akabusi had for some reason invited some kids from our school, and he took us to the Blue Peter garden, which I'd assumed was a sort of rolling, verdant Capability Brown job at the back of The Shepherd's Bush but was in fact a tiny allotment behind a studio made to look an awful lot bigger by deft camera work, and I remember thinking: "Is that it?" 

And to cap it off I was then in the audience for Record Breakers (Shrove Tuesday edition) and Mr Akabusi said, "I'm in the biggest room of tossers the world has ever seen" and the camera swung on to my 14-year-old face but not the frying pan and pancake I was holding, thus failing to provide a vital piece of context, and I believe my mother still has the VHS of this.

The whole place was underwhelming. It just seemed like a grubby collection of corridors conjoining some similarly shabby studios. The only bits that appeared in any way tidy were the bits you actually saw on the TV. The News At Nine 'O' Clock desk was immaculate. The studio around it looked like Miss Haversham's living room after she'd been dead for a couple of years. 

And then a strange perception hit me, as I was watching the TV some days later. Yes - that is it - and isn't that rather magical in itself? All these fantastic programmes you're watching - they're being churned out by some rather panicked fellow humans, tripping over each other and swearing, in a building reminiscent of your local A&E ward. 

Everything about the building is stupid, and no doubt our right wing commentators who love to lay into the institution would see much that's telling (on this subject, I always feel those who moan about left-wing bias have never worked here, where everything is chaotic, last minute - the very notion the corporation is organised enough to insert systematic prejudice into its reports is hard to swallow).

There's a fantastic gift shop full of hard-to-acquire DVDs and tapes, but for some reason they've dumped it in the middle of the building so the only people likely to go there on any given day are staff and a few people on walking tours. No one gets to use it, and that's fair. Every room looks the same (which is fair), and they're all laid out on pretty similar corridors (which is fair), which means when you work there for the first time you'll spend half your working week trying to find the way back from the toilet. And then you notice half the people walking past you have a sort of concerned look on their face, not wishing to give away the fact they're also entirely lost and ten minutes late for a meeting. Fair.

The catering is pretty terrible but if it's any consolation, Bruce Forsyth is probably eating the same crappy sandwich you are. The wrap party for one show I was working on had a load of cheap booze, which ran out at about 9.30pm. Fortunately, I was able to pinch a load more from the party a few doors down from me. It turns out the Eggheads (I think it was, anyway), didn't need quite as many beers as the show full of hellraising celebs. But they got the same amount, because that's fair. 

I got my parents a pass to see the show on which I was working. My mum popped to the loo. As she passed him in the corridor, Lord Sugar held a door for her, after which she talked about him for two weeks running. The place is emphatically state-funded, egalitarian, and it's fair, fair, fair. Call me a handwringing, socialist blowhard, but in this instance I think that's part of the magic.

You go into the centre of the Donut for a fag and to think about life. Standing opposite you is a famous actor or comedian, also having a fag and thinking about life. Then some woman in Strictly Come Dancing, replete with ballgown, joins you both. And for a moment, you want to remark on this slightly surreal situation, but you don't, because what's so odd about three humans having a fag and a think about life?

Later on, I write a book, and the BBC gets me on every now and again to talk about it. At one point they phone me on a Saturday after I've been in the pub for four hours and ask me to go on Newsnight, which I do, somewhat rat arsed, talking about a subject about which I have absolutely no idea. But it doesn't matter, not really, because nothing really works in this building, least of all me, and we sort of muddle through without too many disasters, and even though I've not exactly covered myself in glory and I'm pretty sure Stephanie Flanders has clocked that I'm hammered and directed her questions away from me before I pull my Christmas jumper off, tie it round my head and start singing Jerusalem, the media savvy, smooth Paddick, the militant Claire Soloman and I are all treated politely and are deferentially escorted back through the shabby to our taxis home, because that's fair.  

And all this is just the experiences of some bloke who spent a bit of time there. If you want more, then find yourself an evening to watch this.


BBC Television Centre in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.