Gender and the Scottish Media #backingbella
Judges, ex rugby internationals and retired company directors are gathered at Muirfield Golf Club even as I write, trying to find a face-saving excuse for their decision to keep banning women members – a vote which prompted golf’s governing body to ban them from holding any further Open Golf Tournaments. Why the swift, progressive move from the Royal and Ancient – a body that until recently condoned men-only clubs? Well important public figures have lined up to condemn them. Nicola Sturgeon described the vote as “indefensible,” all of Scotland’s three female party leaders say they wouldn’t attend a tournament there and TV presenter Clare Balding says she has already refused to host Muirfield coverage.
But the reason we know Muirfield’s ban on women won’t last long is that important men have weighed in too. David Cameron has backed the decision to withhold the Open saying “Sports clubs should be open to both sexes,” Open Champion Rory McIlroy says, “We’ve got the Olympics coming up which is all about including everyone” and male newspaper and media editors across the UK have adopted the same approach to coverage — the Muirfield Men are laughable dinosaurs. Indeed one Sunday paper estimated the lost Open will cost the East Lothian economy £45 million. Finally, the men have stirred, a price tag has been put on inequality, some powerful sporting bodies have woken up, smelt the coffee and fallen in line with 20th century thinking and the Muirfield No voters have been revealed as they truly are – a tiny minority of grumpy old men prepared to risk their club’s future, the local economy and Scotland’s reputation for fairness so things can remain as they are in the dear old clubhouse.
I’ve got a tenner on a reversed decision before the year’s end.
But there’s more.
This weekend SNP members voted to extend gender quotas to the selection of candidates for next year’s council elections, after the success of women only shortlists in boosting the number of women elected as SNP MSPs. This comes in the same week that Nicola Sturgeon named another gender-equal cabinet.
In short, gender equality is flavour of the month in Scotland. That’s partly because women and gay people run Scottish political parties and partly because an emphasis on fairness conceals the fact that Holyrood lacks the power and arguably the will to create equality.
But you’d need to be living on another planet – or the Muirfield clubhouse – not to realise that gender equality is an idea whose time has come – a proxy for modernization and progress in Scotland just as the long struggle to liberalise divorce and abortion laws have been in Ireland.
All of which makes the enduring lack of gender balance in the Scottish press and media even harder to comprehend.
I wrote a letter of complaint to BBC Scotland boss Ken MacQuarrie about the virtual absence of female journalists from their Election Night coverage despite a small clutch (including myself) being assembled at Pacific Quay and ready to contribute. I think the exchange is worth publishing – and I have Ken MacQuarrie’s permission to do that.
I was asked to be part of the overnight commentary team for the Scottish elections and arrived at 10pm on the night, sitting around with other journalists like Anna Burnside, Angela Haggerty and political veterans like Dennis Canavan and Simon Pia watching as all-male trios were interviewed on the issues emerging from the results. After four hours I was ready to leave and tweeted this picture (attached) with the words; “Another all male panel on BBC election prog. All great guys. But starting 2 wonder why I’m here”.
That tweet was favourited 108 times — many others had already remarked on the male-only nature of the Election Café coverage. Until 3am that morning – after five hours of coverage – no female journalist/commentator/analyst from their spin room was interviewed on BBC TV Scotland.
When Rise’s Cat Boyd sais she was leaving to go to her count, I told one of the floor crew I was leaving with her, which prompted presenter Fiona Stalker to conduct a short interview with Cat Boyd, Paul Hutcheon and myself about the fate of the smaller parties just after 3am. The first question went to Paul, I spoke about the Greens and Cat Boyd talked about Rise while pictures of the Green co-Convenor Patrick Harvie were shown on screen. Those of us who could see the monitors were thoroughly confused – mercifully Cat didn’t notice.
Now for the record, I realise there’s no way any individual should feel entitled to be on air, even if asked along on the night. I realise too, having been an election night presenter myself, that the ideal interviewee changes as results change. As Labour started to crash in results, there was a premium on the Labour veterans in the room. But it was very strange that the least deployed spin room occupants seemed to be the very few women present.
After all the emphasis put on gender equality in parliament and civic society, BBC Scotland broadcast wall to wall male pundits for most of the night and – more worrying – didn’t seem to be aware of that fact.
So I sent all of the is an email to Ken MacQuarrie, since two complaints made “correctly” through the BBC Scotland website resulted in no reply. I said I’d be interested to know whether anyone was keeping even the vaguest eye on gender balance amongst commentators interviewed during the night and echoed the tweet by a viewer who said male-dominated output — like BBC Scotland’s Election Night coverage — suggests women don’t qualify as worthwhile contributors or analysts in the really big moments of our nations’ civic life which just makes it even harder to persuade women and girls that their opinions matter.
Ken Macquarrie replied; “The [BBC Scotland Election] team worked hard to find a diverse group of contributors for the Election Café from among the ranks of politicians, party advisers and political journalists – an area of Scottish life where women are not well represented. They were proactive in inviting women to the event. Many chose not to take up the invitation; others offered male colleagues in their place, which the team declined.
They also invited members of the BBC’s Generation 2016 cohort. This group of young voters and bloggers was split equally between male and female contributors and added another ten female voices to the room. And, of course, in Fiona Stalker they had a female presenter for all the contributions, in addition to the female members of the studio team, which included Professor Nicola McEwen as our main political pundit of the night. I can absolutely assure you that they gave a great deal of thought to these matters during the planning of the output.
As far as the execution of that preparation is concerned, I agree with you that there were far fewer opportunities for the women present to contribute than should have been the case and across the night, the contributions from the Election Cafe did to some extent feel dominated by male faces and voices.”
I replied; “Thanks for that reply. I’m too long in the tooth to have to point out issues of gender balance to producers who really should know better. I hoped that one good outcome of the referendum process might be never having to explain why an all-bloke panel look so bad and dated ever again – especially to a state broadcaster. I’m afraid the priorities of the producer/director that night were crystal clear – the women who came to the Election Café were also-rans. Frankly it’s no wonder you have problems recruiting women to come on. And in light of that difficulty I’m even more surprised the few women present weren’t treated like gold-dust! The last time STV complained of not finding women willing and able to speak on the indyref I crowd-sourced a list of 100 women that very evening.”
Ken replied; “I do believe there was a broad gender balance of contributions within our overall election coverage, although, exactly as you point out, this wasn’t well reflected in programme inserts from the Election Café and that is something I know we will need to address in any future coverage of this nature.”
So – a recognition that the Election Café coverage was not gender balanced. Is that good enough? Not at all.
The day after our email exchange, Channel Four News showed everyone how to run a lively, heated but gender-balanced, expertly facilitated and ethnically diverse debate. Krishnan Guru-Murthy anchored a half-hour debate on the EU referendum live from De Montfort University near Leicester – selected because the city is the UK’s most ethnically diverse.
It was everything BBC coverage is not – unafraid, committed, well-planned and therefore apparently effortlessly diverse for the viewer in terms of gender, ethnicity, religion and employment background.
This is what I expect from BBC Scotland – and they’ll have to do more than scratch their metaphorical beards to get better balance in future programmes.
Meanwhile, totally unfunded organisations like Bella are tackling the gender issue head on – because the alternative media has just as great a problem trying to get a balance of backgrounds in print.
Bella is to set up a training system to encourage new writers into print with an emphasis on women, set up mentoring arrangements (with existing female journos like myself) and create four apprenticeships with a paid internship scheme.
Why does the alternative media need to give prospective women writers extra dedicated time and space?
Because an “open process” doesn’t encourage women to come forward – as BBC Scotland has found. There’s a strong expectation amongst women and other “minority” groups that their opinions – if voiced — will be belittled, mocked and ignored. Yet without exposure to the rough and tumble of public debate, those views aren’t honed and developed. All credit to Bella for trying to break the deadlock. Will the licence-fee funded BBC Scotland do something similar? Because let’s be clear – those public bodies who don’t take gender equality seriosuly are siding with dinosaurs these days.