Are women still getting short-changed on Question Time?

A bit of number-crunching reveals on average in 2013, only two of the five panellists on <em>Question Time</em> were women. It's time for the BBC to be bold.

Last month, Martin Robbins wrote a fascinating piece for the Guardian on the lack of scientists and science writers on Question Time. He found that between May 2010 and June 2013, one reality TV star clocked as many appearances as the entire scientific community. I wondered what other groups might have been overlooked by the programme and recalled that last year David Dimbleby had come out to defend it against accusations of sexism. Given there was nothing good on telly this weekend, I decided that the best use of my time would be to open a spreadsheet on Excel and embark on some nail-biting number crunching.

I looked at the number of women who had appeared on Question Time over the last three years. Things, it seems, are getting better, but very slowly. In 2010, on average, 1.7 women appeared on each panel. (Cue totally original jokes of what seven tenths of a person looks like.) This year, the figure surged to a mighty two full women. This compares to an average of 3.1 men, or 4.1 if you include Dimbleby. The ratio could be - and historically has been - worse, but it still means that more often than not, there are twice as many men as women sitting at the table. Very infrequently does the pendulum swing the other way. I counted only eight broadcasts over the last three years with more female than male panellists.

Women are poorly represented as "experts" on TV, but they are fighting back. The Women’s Room is a project seeking to connect broadcasters to knowledgeable female experts. Bookers can search for women with particular specialisms and contact them directly. The site’s co-founder, Caroline Criado-Perez has seen more women on panels over the last year but maintains, “the bigger battle, which we really seem to be winning, is that people are aware of it as a problem.” A war has been waged by who believe (and some people genuinely do believe) that guests are booked purely on ‘merit’ (a supposedly universally recognisable, identifiable panellist quality).

It would be nice to see Question Time go all out for the rest of the year and stop ‘playing it safe’ with the same tired old three men, two women formula. If Nigel Farage, who seems to have a permanent spot on the show, was occasionally replaced with an articulate and intelligent woman (rather than another figure of ridicule) would the Beeb really be inundated with complaints? It would be nice to occasionally see the status quo challenged by all female panels, or perhaps broadcasts that featured a ‘token man’.

Things have been getting better, but it’s time to be bold. Question Time, many agree, is in dire need of reinvention. Perhaps women are the answer.

Now read George Eaton on why Nigel Farage is on Question Time so much.

 

David Dimbleby, presenter of Question Time. Photograph: BBC / Mentorn / Des Willie

James is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in UK politics and social commentary. His blog can be found hereYou can follow him on Twitter @jamesevans42.

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Jeremy Corbyn's confidence shows he knows he's safe

Even after the Copeland by-election defeat, Labour MPs believe their leader is unassailable.

A week after Tony Blair’s pro-Remain cry, Jeremy Corbyn rose to deliver a speech on “the road to Brexit”.  But it is the road to ruin that Labour MPs believe he is leading them along. The party last night became the first opposition to lose a by-election to the government since 1982. Were the Copeland cataclysm replicated across the country (and Labour traditionally underperforms at general elections), the Conservatives would win a majority of 114.

MPs believe this new nadir is not in spite of Corbyn but because of him. They blame his historic opposition to nuclear power (the seat’s major employer) and personal unpopularity for the Tories’ triumph (with the largest swing to a governing party since 1966). In his speech, Corbyn hailed Labour’s victory against Ukip in the accompanying Stoke by-election (though Paul Nuttall didn’t make it hard for them) and attributed the Copeland defeat to voters feeling “let down by the political establishment”. Yet in the Cumbrian constituency it was not a populist upstart that benefited but Theresa May’s government. Even the Prime Minister’s refusal to save local maternity services (“Babies will die,” warned the opposition) wasn’t enough to spare Labour. 

Asked by ITV journalist Chris Ship whether he had “looked in the mirror” and asked “could the problem actually be me?”, Corbyn flatly replied: “No”. He did not sound as if he was lying. “Why not?” pressed Ship. “Thank you for your question,” the leader said.

Corbyn speaks with the confidence of a man who knows that he is, for now, unassailable. In Labour’s internal conflict, it is not last night’s result that counts but last year’s leadership election. Corbyn emerged strengthened from that contest and MPs fear a similar outcome in the event of a new contest. Though activists express increasing anxiety about the party’s fortunes, most remain loyal to the leader they re-elected last summer. “We are a campaigning party, we campaign for social justice in this country,” Corbyn emphasised. Many voted for him believing, after the Tories’ surprise majority, that the 2020 election had been lost in advance. From this perspective, opposition is not the means to an end (government) but an end in itself. 

The bulk of Corbyn’s speech was a defence of the party’s decision to accept Brexit. In the post-referendum climate, Labour is being squeezed by the pro-Remain Lib Dems and the pro-Leave Tories (who have benefited from Ukip defectors). Though the party has championed amendments, such as one guaranteeing EU nationals’ rights, its commitment to vote for Article 50 regardless meant its efforts have struggled to acquire momentum. “No deal is a bad deal,” Corbyn declared of May’s threat to depart without an agreement. But that the Prime Minister can even float this possibility is a mark of Labour’s weakness.

A day may yet come when Corbyn faces a palace coup or reaches for the pearl-handled revolver. But Copeland is proof that his job is far safer than those of many of his MPs. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.