The new Director-General of the BBC, George Entwistle, has just gone on record as saying that the BBC has to do more to promote women in “serious” roles, or as newsreaders, in its programmes. In an interview reported in the Daily Mail on Wednesday, he said this: “We have made real progress in actively looking for, and finding, great female experts to front our big factual shows, but it’s not enough.” Quite rightly, he then recognised the role that the BBC has to play, as national broadcasters with a responsibility to lead the way on issues of social equality: “… the world will always be profoundly demanding of the BBC on this question, and it should be”.
Turn the page in the same print edition of the Daily Mail, and you will find this comment piece by Miriam O’Reilly, the Countryfile presenter who won her case against the BBC on the grounds of ageism and sexism when her contract was terminated because – as she knew and it was later acknowledged – she was, as a woman, too “old” (synonymous for “no longer socially attractive enough”) to present the programme. Ms O’Reilly’s piece refers in turn to an interview in the Reader’s Digest given by Fiona Bruce, the BBC1 newsreader, in which she admits that it is harder for a woman to succeed in broadcasting than it is for a man: “I know it’s not always going to be like this. There comes a point – especially if you’re a woman – when your career just falls off a cliff.”
As Miriam O’Reilly says, this situation is “utterly disheartening”. Take a broad brush look at the news presenters on TV, and the women mainly fall into a uniform mould – young, styled – which does not match the far wider range of images projected by men, both in terms of age and of appearance. This is hardly a surprise – we have become so used to seeing pictures of women who are both young and styled around us, from billboards to the pages of magazines, that it can seem rather odd when women who do not fit this mould appear in front of us, in the public eye.
And yet we have to push the boundaries. Mr Entwistle is right. Ms O’Reilly is right to speak out. And so is Ms Bruce. We need our newsreaders to send the message to young people – and especially young women, who lack a range of positive female role models – that women and men are equals on screen as they should be in life. The BBC has a real and important responsibility. We must put more women on screen as the equals of men.