My take on last night’s Question Time

Is the new government targeting the BBC’s main discussion programmes?

Two weeks on from my own controversial appearance on Question Time, I've just caught up on last night's edition, with Alastair Campbell, John Redwood, Max Hastings, Susan Kramer and Piers Morgan. Yet again, hilariously, the coalition failed to put up a minister on the BBC's live, flagship news and current affairs programme, watched by millions of people each week.

So far, since the formation of the new government and the advent of the "new politics", there have been three editions of QT. In the first (on which I appeared), the Tories and the Lib Dems refused to provide a minister, so the programme-makers turned to the former Conservative deputy PM Michael Heseltine and the backbench Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes (who, to be fair, did a not-bad job defending a coalition he so obviously has private doubts about).

In the second, the coalition decided to put up a big-hitter, the new Home Secretary, Theresa May. Hoorah! But last night's QT saw Redwood and Kramer (Tory backbencher and former Lib Dem MP, respectively) representing and defending the Con-Dem government, which refused to put up a minister allegedly because Alastair Campbell happened to be the BBC's designated Labour Party representative. (Can you imagine what a boost that must have been for Ali C's ego? Isn't the idea that the government of the country is running scared from him, a mere spin doctor, both hilarious and bizarre?)

From Media Guardian:

The BBC has accused the government of political interference after it refused to provide a ministerial guest for Question Time unless Alastair Campbell was removed as a panellist.

BBC executives said they rejected the demand and tonight's show went out without a representative from the coalition government.

Gavin Allen, the show's executive editor, posted a blog on the BBC website saying No 10 had insisted that Tony Blair's former director of communications was replaced by a shadow cabinet member.

"Very obviously we refused," Allen wrote, "and as a result no minister appeared, meaning that the government was not represented on the country's most-watched political programme in Queen's Speech week -- one of the most important moments in the parliamentary calendar."

It is understood that the cabinet minister originally pencilled in to appear was David Laws, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

I can reveal that David Laws had also been approached by the BBC two weeks ago, to appear on the first post-coalition QT, but had refused to appear -- so this is the second time he has avoided being on the panel. (And I have to confess I laughed out loud when Campbell pulled out a framed picture of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, saying: "There's the man who should have been here . . . no bottle, new Bond villain." It was almost reminiscent of the Have I Got News For You "tub of lard" incident involving Roy Hattersley.)

I can also reveal that senior BBC sources believe the government is deliberately targeting their main panel programmes. One source tells me: "Downing Street has made it very clear to us that they have a problem with Question Time and Any Questions?."

So it's difficult to disagree with the shadow culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw:

It's extraordinary that in the week of its first Queen's Speech the government refused to put up a cabinet minister to explain its policies on Question Time because Alastair Campbell was appearing.

This curious decision comes in a week which has seen major government announcements on cuts, the Queen's Speech and welfare either leaked to the press or announced outside the scrutiny of parliament.

Along with their plans to pack the Lords with new Tory and Liberal peers and the dodgy 55 per cent rule, the coalition's talk of new politics sounds more and more like the politics of a dim and distant past.


Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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.