Copyright Ian D. Richardson Email:

(First published in Press Gazette, London, October 13, 2000)

Is broadcast news now a girls' game?
Ian Richardson takes a subjective view of gender trends...

Back in the old days - a couple of decades ago - it would have been possible to enter a radio or television newsroom and see that everyone knew their place. The men would be in charge, of course, taking all the tough, courageous decisions and doing all the robust reporting assignments. The women would mostly be typists and be required to be as decorative as possible. It would also help if they didn't blush too much when told a dirty joke. Sometimes, as a reward for showing due deference to their proper role in life, or for having an excellent pair of legs, one of the "girls" might be sent out by a male editor to do a "soft" story about a cat up a tree or to cover a woman's topic too embarrassing for the men to touch.

But oh, how things have changed - and will continue to change. Let's face it chaps, broadcasting news is being taken over by what we once dared to call the fairer sex.

Some men of my acquaintance are inclined to dismiss the recent appointments of several women to top broadcasting posts as little more than an aberration - a temporary bending of the knee to the forces of political correctness. They're wrong.

I have to report that the future of broadcast news is female. I know this because of what I first discovered as a visiting lecturer for the post-graduate broadcast journalism courses at the London College of Printing Media School. I did my first course there three years ago and was taken aback by the gender imbalance: Eight men and 15 women. But this was nothing to what was to follow. The next year it was nine men and 20 women, the year after that it was five men and 17 women. This year's intake is six men and 21 women.

My first reaction was to suggest that the selection process was flawed. But no. The intake closely followed the gender balance of the applications. This led me to examine whether the situation might be peculiar to LCP. But the national picture proved to be very much the same. Overall, about 75% of post-graduate broadcast journalism students in the UK are female, and the figure is rising.

The nearest to a gender balance was in Scotland at the small broadcast journalism course run by Bell College in Hamilton. But that may be no more than a catching up process. The course leader, Ronnie Bergman, told me: "Women now see that they can break through the glass barrier and get jobs in broadcast journalism. Kirsty Wark of Newsnight and Kirsty Young of ITN are role models encouraging women in Scotland to take up broadcasting." And it is not just in Scotland. Across the United Kingdom, women are taking heart from seeing female correspondents and presenters on the front line of hard-news journalism.

Earlier this year, City University in London faced the distinctly uneasy prospect that its post-graduate broadcast journalism course might be totally female. By April, not one male application had been received. Happily for the course director, Jan Haworth, there was a run of late applications from men. Her new diploma course, which began this month, has 10 men and 26 women. She insists that the final selection is a fair representation of the number of applications, but she has found, just as I have with my courses, that "the women work harder than men, and in many cases are more talented with better qualifications".

Many other broadcast journalism lecturers feel the same about the uneven quality levels. Dr Gill Ursell, course director at the University of Leeds, Trinity All Saints, is among them: "Men are more extreme in their commitment or non-commitment. Women are generally more conscientious, though from what I hear, the men seems to make more of themselves than the women".

Why is it that so many women and so few men want to get into broadcast journalism -- a situation that doesn't yet exist with print journalism training schemes?

My own students have not been able to agree why. The women were quick to reject my raising of the "b" word - "b for babies". But I remain convinced that it is an element, even at a subconscious level. Broadcast journalism - specially radio journalism -- is an increasingly-flexible career option, allowing women to move in and out of fulltime employment to have and bring up children. At the same time, a substantial body of men continue to regard themselves as the prime breadwinner in any family and are therefore reluctant to take the poorly paid broadcasting jobs that would be available to them in their early years in the industry. Additionally, many men - by virtue of their genetic inclinations - are attracted to the big money and competitive nature of the City.

Dr Ursell agrees: "Money is the nub of the issue with men, and they vote with their feet when they weigh up the cost of a post-graduate journalism course and the relatively-poor salaries on offer."

Dennis Gartside, broadcast journalism course leader at the Falmouth College of Arts, believes that more females are coming into the industry because "they must be aware that women are making their way to the top echelons of the BBC and ITV. They also recognise that journalistic qualities can open the doors to general programme production."

There is also the glamour element. "Broadcasting is perceived to be glamorous as well as respectable," said Richard Horsman, a bimedia broadcasting tutor at Trinity All Saints, "and women are often better at getting stories because they are less confrontational and have good social and personal skills that helps them win the confidence of people they are interviewing."

Then there is the "Samantha Factor", coined by Prof. Brian Winstone of the University of Westminster. A "Samantha", as he perceives her, is a woman student from a privileged educational and home background who regards broadcasting as glamorous and whose family can subsidise her tuition fees and low initial salaries.

The head of Broadcast Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, Marie Kinsey, believes a gender imbalance in broadcasting would be "a cause for concern", but points to the fact that in the past women were "desperately under-represented. We are now reaping the reward for trying to attract more women into journalism."

One person who robustly celebrates the new state of affairs is Sally Feldman, Dean of the London College of Printing's Media School who, in her previous professional existence, was Deputy Editor of Radio Four's Women's Hour: "I'm rather pleased. We can't do social engineering by bringing in more men. So long as they're not being barred, why should I worry?"

Richard Tait, Editor in Chief of ITN/IRN, is also relaxed about the situation. "It's a healthy re-balancing. I welcome it. It underlines that a career in broadcasting is now open to women with talent. My wish for ITN is that it reflects the community we serve with a proper gender balance and a full representation of ethnic groups. I don't think male broadcasting journalists are an endangered species."

I wish I shared his confidence, but I fail to see how a serious imbalance can be avoided if present trends continue and men no longer see broadcasting journalism as an attractive career option. The BBC says its News Directorate is already less than a percentage point away from achieving an equal balance of male and female journalists. As BBC News is recruiting significantly more women than men, we may be no more than months away from women becoming the majority.

It wouldn't worry me in the slightest if every plumber, airline pilot, city high-flyer, chemist or accountant were a woman, but I do worry about the prospect of broadcasting being an almost exclusive female province. Broadcast news should fairly reflect the society in which it operates. It was wrong when it was dominated by men; it would be just as wrong if it ended up being dominated by women.

You may notice that I have raised what I see as a problem without offering a solution. To be honest, I don't have any simple answers, but someone somewhere in the top ranks of broadcasting ought to start addressing the issue now. Perhaps the equal opportunities departments which have done so much for women might now consider what they can do for men.

Otherwise, we men may soon feel the need to go cap in hand to the BBC and ask for programmes to reflect our special interests. Perhaps it could go out Monday to Friday on Radio Four. Perhaps it could be called Men's Hour.