John Humphrys, the long-standing, no-nonsense host of BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, announced his departure from the show back in February. Whether you love him, hate him, or love to hate him, Humphrys is about as experienced a journalist and interviewer as you’ll come across.
Since beginning his career, the world has been transformed and Humphrys has reported on his fair share of this change. Starting out as a junior reporter, he was first to reach the Aberfan disaster of 1966. As a foreign correspondent he reported Nixon’s resignation from the US and witnessed the creation of Zimbabwe. Beginning in 1986/87, Humphrys’ presenting of the Today Programme has spanned three decades.
Other than blowing a hole in the Today Programme’s line up, his departure (set for some time before the end of 2019) also highlights the media’s transformation over the past few decades. Likely the most widespread of these being the treatment of women in the media. Research Intern, Neil McAvoy, explores this change and what the future may hold.
FEMALE REPRESENTATION IN THE MEDIA
While the first full-time, salaried female journalist on Fleet Street was Eliza Lynn Linton around 1860, (before women had even won the vote), women in media remained exceptions to the rule for a long time.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, Alex Harmsworth, original owner of the Daily Mirror, sought to break this trend by creating a paper “for gentlewomen by gentlewomen”. He attempted to do so by hiring a completely female team. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the beginning of a rosy future for women in print. Upon the paper’s mediocre performance, Harmsworth quickly went back on his decision, fired his newly acquired team of women, changed the focus of the paper and alleged, “women can't write and don't want to read”.
It was only during the latter half of the 20th Century that women found themselves more frequently able to enjoy a media career. Wartime participation in the workplace undeniably proved that women could, and the feminist movements of the 1960s helped ensure that women would. Yet progress proved slow and when Humphrys first entered a newsroom, women were the exception to the rule.
While improvements to the media’s Gender Pay Gap have been made in the past couple of years (see Vanessa’s blog to find out more), a distance remains between the sexes with men occupying 66% of senior roles in UK newspapers. Dishearteningly, research indicates the scales are being equalised at a painfully slow rate. As research by Women in Journalism demonstrates, this is especially true of front-page news. The average percentage of front-page stories written by women in June-July 2017 sat at 25%, only 2% above the 2012 average.
Unlike the arguments for low female representation within STEM careers, the same cannot be applied to journalism. A study by the European Journalism Observatory demonstrates that more women than men go on to study journalism in the UK. The culture of the newsroom seems to be where the problem begins.
BATTLES WITHIN THE WAR
Representation is also not the only challenge. Many women have had to fight to secure equal pay (some still are). A notable example being Carrie Gracie, ex-BBC China Editor. Gracie later described her fight for equal pay within the BBC as being worse than her battle with breast cancer. The jokes Humphrys was recorded making about Gracie’s resignation served to highlight the old school culture of the media warring against the new and demonstrated Humphrys’ allegiance within the former.
Not only do women not making the front-pages as frequently or achieve similar levels of pay as their male counterparts, they also don’t get the opportunity to cover the same stories. Male reporters were almost always allocated the ‘hard’ news stories (such as politics, foreign affairs, terror attacks and disasters) while women predominantly wrote stories in ‘softer’ areas (royalty, showbusiness and health). The below charts released by Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab illustrate this disparity in the UK. The extent to when this is a personal choice or an editorial decision is hard to determine.
One consequence of this disparity is the way women are represented in media coverage. For a long time, the media objectified women, an unfair and unhealthy trait highlighted in Leveson's 2012 report. The removal of page 3 in the Sun in 2015 could have been a particularly powerful advert for cultural change, had they not reinstated it a week later for a one-off, special edition! While dramatic improvements have been made, this ugly characteristic of the UK’s media still lurks in some outlets, albeit less overtly – you only have to look at the Mail’s reporting of Theresa May’s and Nicola Sturgeon’s legs.
SEEN BUT NOT HEARD?
At least on a visible level, there has been a changing of the guard and the upper echelons of the media now boast an impressive roster of women. Back in 2015, Nick Robinson left his position as the BBC’s Political Editor and Laura Kuenssberg became the first woman to hold the position. Faisal Islam recently did the same to make way for Beth Rigby as Sky News’ Political Editor. Paxman left Newsnight a few years ago to eventually be replaced by Emily Maitlis. When Dimbleby from Question Time Fiona Bruce won the sought-after job. As the below picture demonstrates even the most unequal of ecosystems within the media, the Westminster Lobby, is experiencing improved levels of female representation.
While individual high-profile positions are now occupied by women, it would be lazy to infer that that the entire media had equalised opportunity between the sexes. Does the emergence of an extremely ‘visible’ frontline merely show media organisations to have reacted to social pressure and provided ‘good optics’? The number of female newspaper editors, for example, remains shamefully low and suggests so.
Media organisations should also recognise the self-serving importance of focusing on enhancing diversity, in all its forms, throughout their ranks. In an ever more diverse society living through the golden age of content, consumers of media are likely to leave mainstream outlets in droves if they perceive their voice not to be represented. Outlets like gal-dem, an online and print magazine written by women and non-binary people of colour, have proven they can be successful for this precise reason.
Motives aside, it is plainly a benefit that women are increasingly able to succeed within the upper echelons of the broadcast media. While there’s uncertainty surrounding who Humphry’s replacement will be, it would be odd for the BBC to not attempt to enhance diversity on its journalistic frontline. Yet, while it’s a healthy change from the near all white, male dominated line-ups of the past, more needs to be achieved throughout the industry. Due to its visibility and influence (it literally sets the tone) the media may represent one of the most critical industries to achieve such diversity within.