Yes, we do try to strike a balance for women’s voices in broadcasting

RECENTLY the National Women’s Council of Ireland made a submission to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland about what it claimed to be an exclusion of women from the airwaves.

The NWCI is worried about issues of fairness, impartiality and balance in the representation of women in news and current affairs programmes, both in making and presenting the programmes, and in contributing to them.

As the presenter and editor of a daily radio programme I’m interested in those issues too, not just because they are part of the intellectual bedrock of any news and current affairs programme: in making the best programme we can — my team and I don’t want to alienate or exclude, intentionally or unintentionally, anyone, irrespective of sex, age, colour or creed. But we have a commercial mandate to follow too — increasing audience to attract more advertising revenue — and if by taking heed of what the NCWI suggests we can find a way to get more women to listen to our programme then we at Today FM would be very happy about it.

Now I’m aware than any attempt by me to offer comment or opinion on this document that is not fully in support of its content is likely to be seen by some as predictably defensive and motivated by self-interest. But it is surely better to debate its suggestions than ignore them. So here goes.

The NCWI document claims that “women have been excluded from the media, decision making, political processes and marginalised from playing a full role as active citizens with a Constitutional provision that placed them “in the home” rather than in society. Inclusion of women as active citizens in the political sphere must be matched with the inclusion of women in the media, particularly in news and current affairs broadcasting.”

The document quoted figures to support its claim that “in the sphere of politics Irish women are still significantly under-represented. Men comprise 85% of the Dáil and 83% of local and town council chambers. This is an historical injustice which the government is now seeking to address through the introduction of a quotas law.”

When it came to the media the NWCI said that it “is keen that the BAI would address, in totality, the role of women in broadcasting with a particular focus on the role of women in news and current affairs by placing a requirement on all broadcasters to encompass and apply both gender sensitivity and gender parity to the development of programming. This will have a positive impact not only on the plurality and diversity of voices heard on programmes and on the kind of society which is reflected on the airwaves. It will also create a tightening of the relationship (resulting in trust-building) between the media and the public — a key aspiration for developing a vibrant and active citizenship.”

It’s all a bit of mouthful but boiled down it seems to suggest this: there are too many male voices on the air and this is damaging to society.

To support its argument the NCWI did a survey of on-air content on some radio programmes (including my own) in one week in February. The figures suggested that less than one in four voices on air were female (and one in five on The Last Word). Point proved, or so it seemed to the NCWI. However, the analysis was a bit misleading, at a number of levels.

On one day it seemed that we had only three female guests out of a total of 13 interviewees, seemingly a clear indication of bias. But one of those guests was Maureen Gaffney, who was given 30 minutes of the programme as part of a three-part interview, held on successive weeks, about her fascinating book Flourishing.

The director general of RTE Noel Curran was interviewed about RTE’s handling of the Frontline Presidential debate, but our use of three clips from that was used as further “evidence” of our alleged male voices bias. Should we have had a female commentator instead of RTE’s boss? I also interviewed Gavin O’Reilly of Independent News and Media about the death of the Sunday Independent editor Aengus Fanning. Should we have had a female commentator instead of Fanning’s boss? Yet we end up being criticised by the NWCI for only having 20% female voices on the programme (once those clips were included) with no weight given to the time for which each voice was heard or the issues covered.

As pertinently, nothing in the document to the BAI looks at the female staffing levels on the programmes surveyed, concentrating instead on the sex of the presenter. There are many women working as editors and producers across news and current affairs programmes on radio and television in Ireland, having plenty of influence over the content decisions and the selection of guests.

At Today FM, for example, the news editor, who decides on the content of the news bulletins, is Cathy Farrell and she has two full-time female reporters and two full-time male reporters working with her. Her freelance and weekend pool is almost entirely made up of women. On The Last Word we have two senior producers, Mary O’Hagan (who has worked with me for nine years) and Patrick Haughey, a sports producer Killian Murray, and two researchers Mary Carroll and Ronan Lawlor. Two of our three regular freelance cover for holidays are women. Previously our series producer was Barbara Loftus. So yes, you could say that on the programme we have more male than female input, but that is not by design. We picked who we considered the best available person each time a job came up.

As it happens we often discuss having more female voices on air but it is easier said than done. We almost always pick the subjects for each day’s programme before we decide on the interviewees. We try to select on the basis of what we think would be of interest to anyone who might be a listener, rather than targeting men or women specifically, assuming both to be equally interested. We seek to inform and, if possible, entertain. We do not work on the assumption that politics and current affairs are male issues.

We seek the guests once we’ve decided what the topics are and then it might be very obvious as to who we need. If, for example, it is Roisin Shortall’s campaign against excessive alcohol consumption that is the item for discussion we might start by looking for her. It is only if she is unavailable that we seek other guests.

But that is the point. When it comes to the news and current affairs of the day we try to get relevant participants on air, not commentators. Our criteria is that the person we ask to contribute should be involved in such a way as to present relevant information and, if necessary, engage in debate. It is only when we fail to get principals that we fall back on commentators and then we try to achieve a 50/50 balance. It is not always possible.

WE sometimes make mistakes in booking people, thinking that they will be more articulate or interesting than they actually are. This happens with men, but also with women. But are we supposed to favour a female voice over a male one if we, as a team, based on experience, come to the conclusion that the man has more interesting or pertinent things to say, just to improve our ratios on gender balance? Recently one Clara Fischer, of the Irish Feminist Network, wrote a piece for another newspaper in which she claimed that “women’s exclusion, particularly from current affairs programming, results in a skewed debate, where only men’s life experiences come to bear upon the issues in question.” She also argued that “the overwhelming presence of men as contributors and presenters, but also as editors and publishers, is agenda-setting. The very issues discussed reflect men’s priorities.”

She also claimed that “most importantly though, denying women the chance to partake in public debate undermines our right, as members of this society, to influence political discourse, and thereby to influence political decision-making.”

But here’s my argument, as much as anything else as the father of three daughters who has as much ambition for them to succeed as I have for my two sons. Women’s issues are men’s issues too. Getting jobs, receiving fair incomes, paying taxes, equitable opportunity for career advancement, putting a roof over the head, being able to afford transport, childcare costs and availability, education, food costs. The list goes on. They are shared issues and we, as a team of men and women, are aware of them. We try to get the best people we can to speak about him, blind, in as much as we can be, to their sex.

* The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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