The BBC’s Politics Live has done it again. Turned itself, that is, into something more akin to ITV’s gossip and chat show Loose Women than a politics programme with any air of authority.
Wednesday’s broadcast was the second within eight episodes in which viewers were treated to an exclusively female line-up. The launch day on September 3 saw the made-over discussion programme, formerly the Daily Politics, open to a row of six women, with presenter Jo Coburn presiding from the centre and BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg at the end. I suspected the purging of men might happen again but didn’t think it would be quite so soon. However there it was. On Wednesday the fellas were once more surplus to requirements. Are men (basically, just to clarify, those who went through boyhood) even allowed on any more? Well, yes, sometimes. A bit.
If you count the female presenter JoCo together with whichever BBC politics journalist joins the panel, then men have accounted for 36 per cent of screen presence. If you count only the invited guests, the people that editor Rob Burley calls the big names in politics and political journalism, that soars to a whopping 40 per cent. That’s right, a restrained 60 per cent women made the guest line-up in the first eight episodes. This is not even counting the non-binary and genderqueer food blogging activist Jack Monroe. They (sic) grew up as a girl, according to Wikipedia. It is only respectful and fair to keep them outside this admittedly and openly binary gender observation about the new show.
Burley was in defensive and combative form when he took to Twitter last week to defend the all-female line-up at the launch. ‘I have literally zero shame about an all-women panel. Zero . . . we realised our best line-up was all female. If you have a problem with that, you have a problem.’
I have literally zero shame about an all-women panel. Zero. We invited people and they said yes and then we realised our best line-up was all female. If you have a problem with that, you have a problem. #politicslive https://t.co/FZNO5trhDE
— Rob Burley (@RobBurl) September 3, 2018
He then makes the irrelevant and vaguely resentful suggestion that those of his critics who were ‘incensed’ blokes probably ‘really hated Top Gear’. Oh dear. And here we all are trying to get away from so-called gender stereotyping. Here we all are trying to erase gender difference from our lives in this new world where we can have a ‘pregnant person’, stop thinking in terms of men or women, stop using words like ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. Male? Female? Hadn’t noticed. We’d be expected to notice all right if it were an all male line-up.
Burley was stung also by the Loose Women reference, implication that the show is now dumbed-down and lightweight, protesting that the complicated Northern Irish border question was being addressed, and that’s never happened on the ITV show. Maybe not. But he wouldn’t be able to deny that it’s got distractedly giggly and chummy and cosy. Maybe that’s what happens when you feminise. That’s fine in its place. But the core audience, a faithful audience actually, Mr Burley, that the Daily Politics had will drain away if this continues.
So does all this matter? Burley claims that it ‘shouldn’t be an issue’. Well, it does matter and it is an issue for several reasons. For a start, double standards are at play. Burley wouldn’t go for a male top-heavy presence on screen day after day (and one suspects he knows it). Just because men have had the best run at it in the past does not now mean that we should all now think it justifiable to have men sidelined and marginalised. Two wrongs don’t make a right. We want a place that is better now for both boys and girls (and yes, transgender young people too) to be growing up and that means showing proper balance. It sometimes seems that when it comes to either watching or listening to the news, there are no men available any more in business, construction, engineering or science. Need someone to talk about the complexities of the futures market, house building, artificial intelligence, bridges, railways or the noise at the other side of the universe? Make sure it’s a woman, one imagines the reporters being instructed. Do we feel that it has no impact on boys or young men? Perhaps we do and we think that it’s fine; they had it coming and it doesn’t matter. It is so obvious, so transparent in social engineering terms what is going on that it beggars belief that Burley thinks, firstly, that he can get it past us and we won’t notice and then that when we do, suggest it’s our problem if we have a problem with it.
It’s tricky for young men to say anything about this creeping discrimination, given the head of steam that has been building up. That’s why it’s right that women need to be calling out this apparent airbrushing of men from politics commentary. Just because I’m a woman does not mean I want to listen only to the views of female commentators on a mainstream politics show, any more than I would want to go out and socialise in all-female company. I want to hear the voices of men, not in spite of being a woman, but because I am a woman. I prefer the mix, I prefer the more interesting texture that difference brings. It matters that Politics Live seems uninterested in getting the balance right between women’s and men’s voices. It seems to subscribe to the view that the world is being re-shaped and that to carry out this project, men need to be kept out of view as much as can be got away with.
The other reason it matters relates to merit. In the determined march to make sure women well outflank men on Politics Live, it is inevitable there’ll have to be some lightweights hauled in. Tuesday’s guests included a young woman called Lara Spirit who was billed as an anti-Brexit campaigner. She is not long out of university and it is unfortunate that TV producers, thinking they are doing young women like her a favour, are so ready to let her reveal her ignorance and expose her to ridicule. The hapless Miss Spirit did not emerge well from an encounter on Sky News with Adam Boulton. No matter. The BBC can overlook her tender years and the fact that she hasn’t really lived enough and become well informed enough to be invited to give her political insights on complicated issues.
What matters is that she is a woman. Better still, she is young. Diversity, you see. Gender: tick. Generational: tick. Don’t want any old codgers on who’ve been kicking around a bit. They know their stuff but they’re not so easy on the eye. Served a couple of terms in Parliament? Heck, no. Where’s that Ash girl? Or Faiza? How patronising is it to the young who are engaged with politics to assume that they prefer to listen to those who are still in their twenties (or barely out)? Can we never imagine that young people might just want to hear from those who know a bit more? That is to say, those who have lived enough and seen enough to be able to offer a little more wisdom and insight.
So please Politics Live producers, in the cause of equality and diversity, can you desist from the all-female line up? Get the men on in a balanced way. Get guests who did O-levels rather than GCSEs. People with a bit more of an overview. Just so long as it’s not addled old class warrior Ian Bone. He was the one filmed this week giving out to the little Rees-Moggs on their parents’ doorstep. Nasty old piece of work. Can we make sure he’s on no list of possible guests? Thanks. Just making sure.