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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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia