A tale of two Jeremys - the boys' club at the BBC

Jeremy Paxman and Jeremy Clarkson have nothing in common - apart from being from the same tiny minority of white public school educated men who dominate the BBC.

Lis Howell
5 May 2014
Jeremy Clarkson and Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Clarkson and Jeremy Paxman. Flickr/Ed Perchick and Wikimedia Commons/Peter Wright. Some rights reserved.Of course Jeremy Paxman and Jeremy Clarkson have nothing in common. They are totally different types of people with totally different skills and totally different styles. They have totally different fans, and a totally different appeal to totally different people.

Er – or do they? Born within ten years of each other (Clarkson is 54, Paxman 63) both went to public school and both have the accents and the manner of the entitled British male of a certain age. Both have greying dark hair, traditional smart casual male looks and the conventional dress of that type of posh bloke. Both have a defiant individual style which might derive from being born in the North or North Midlands, yet still being one of the dominant ruling class – a sort of “I’m not a Southern pansy but I’m just as good as one”. Neither suffers fools. They both have the same employer in the BBC, they both earn shed-loads of money, and they are both in the news this week.

If we look at the British population overall they both represent a relatively small minority, proportional approximately to the number of Chinese women in Walthamstow. OK, I’ve made that up. But only a small fraction of British men went to public school in 1965 in the UK. Unless you live in the South East and have a lot of money, you probably don’t know many Jeremys. I’d bet you know more Janets or Janes. How many of them are there on telly? Er, none that I can think of. Being sensible about this, facts show there are more women than men in the overall UK population. There is an even greater ratio of women over fifty to men over fifty. There are more state-educated than privately educated people. And as for smart gobby aggressive middle-aged men – well there’s my brother…. but he has a funny accent. Seriously, men like the Jeremys are in a definite minority. OK, so is Gok Wan. But we all know that’s different. There are two Jeremys at least – and only one Gok!

I think this means that there is a secret quota system in operation. It’s a quota system which keeps the two Jeremys in a job. Of course if you said this out loud, you would be laughed off the set. But that is in effect what we still have in broadcasting in this country. Middle-aged middle-class white men dominate. Greg Dyke’s assertion that the BBC is ‘hideously white’ is truer now than it has been for decades, as figures from Creative Skillset show. And the work I have done analysing the numbers of expert women interviewed on TV and radio news proves that the BBC is even worse than the Cabinet when it comes to putting women authority figures into the pole position.

Authoritative women interviewed as experts on BBC flagship news are outnumbered 4−1 by men. This is revealed by surveying done by postgraduate students at City University over the last two years, from March 2012 to March 2014. The survey has looked at either four or five news programmes each month. Since November 2013 it has looked consistently at BBC News at 10; ITV News at Ten; evening news programmes on Sky News; Channel 4 News; and the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. At a conference in April, Dame Tessa Jowell called the figures "devastating" and Heads of News pledged to try and improve the ratio. Journalists countered the criticism of sexism by saying “you can’t work with what you haven’t got” and citing the low numbers of women in authority in society generally. But in as far as this can be ascertained, the news programmes are actually worse than society generally when it comes to presenting women in authority. Agencies which provide expert witnesses for courts report a 70−30% split between women and men which is a ratio of 2.3−1 male to female authority figures. Even politicians do better. When you combine the figures for the Cabinet and the Shadow Cabinet, the ratio of male to female senior politicians is 2.3−1. And even the coalition on its own achieves a ratio of just under 4−1, which is better than the broadcasters.

So why does news broadcasting fail to give women the prominence they deserve? It is particularly ‘devastating’ that not only do news broadcasters under-represent the expert women in society, they neglect what some might argue is an even greater duty to reflect their audience. Not only is 51% of the population female – for all mainstream news programmes there is a higher female audience to the tune of around 60%.

It gets even worse when you look at the workforce, which is something over which the BBC has complete control. Yet despite this control, male reporters outnumber women reporters by over 3−1. The common anecdotal reason given for this outrageous statistic is that women don’t want to go ‘on the road’ because it is incompatible with family life. This is absurd. Only a third of women in the UK have children under 15. Even if every single one of these mothers was debarred from being a TV reporter, there would still be a ratio of 30-70 women to men available, which is a ratio nearer to 2-1. And thousands of women with children under fifteen do demanding shift work, or work on occasion away from home. Not only that, the broadcasters should darn well make sure that being a reporter IS compatible with family life. What about all those absentee fathers for whom it is OK to be ‘on the road’?

With studio presenters there are twice as many men as women. It’s not as bad as the figures for reporters because there is an unwritten rule that it is nice for women to have “hair and make-up” and be seen to be lovely in the studio. Interestingly, in news radio the figure for women presenters is really dire. At least on telly you can be seen, and that helps! But overall, men predominate as presenters on TV and especially radio. You would be amazed at the number of intelligent people who have said to me “What’s your problem? – there’s Fiona Bruce.” That is precisely the problem. Like Queen Elizabeth 1, and Margaret Thatcher, one women is seen as enough, thank you very much. People really are gender blind. They can’t see the glaring inequality. Night after night on BBC News at Ten you see a parade of male journalists, and think – “Oh thank God, there’s Orla Guerin, that’s alright then.” But it’s not alright. There are too many Jeremys, even if some are called Nick or Dan these days. And just one more aside – it is absolutely maddening the way that the white male club thinks that having a dark skinned man sort of “evens things out” when it comes to the gender imbalance. The number of times, in my research about the representation of women, I have been directed to the ‘diversity’ officer is beyond counting on one hand. But guess what? Women aren’t ‘diversity’, they are a majority. Duh. It isn’t Obama or Hillary. It needs to actually be both.

So why is it so bad, in 2014 when we are all supposed to be equal? Well, dream on. It is, interestingly not just the dominance of a wealthy, entitled class or culture, though that helps. It’s also to do with the interesting phenomenon that is British television including the BBC. Anyone who has worked in channel management or in TV advertising sales will tell you that the most elusive audience to attract to watch TV is the young male between 18 and 30, mainly because they are out on the piss or the pull. And that elusiveness means that broadcasters will try much harder to obtain and to appease this audience than, say, 45-year-old women, who dominate nearly all audiences. I am sure the average Briton would be astonished how many women watch Top Gear or Premier League football, but they are not the target audience so they don’t matter. Conversely, more posh men watch Corrie than watch Channel 4 news, just because more people generally watch Corrie than watch Channel 4 news. But these interesting facts aside, it remains that getting young men to watch TV ads is just about the hardest task for a broadcaster (and hats off to the programme people behind the successful ‘Dave’ Channel). But what this leads to is a sense, across the BBC as well as the commercial broadcasters, that programmes that attract young(ish) male viewers are somehow more important. This is because they are getting near the Holy Grail for the modern ‘mad man’ in the ad world, trying to flog airtime to people who want to flog, in turn, cars and gadgets to young(ish) blokes. So Top Gear is a broadcaster’s wet dream, even more so because it is on the BBC which loves to beat commercial broadcasters at their own game. And as a result everyone is terrified of messing with either a winning formula or taking on some of the less attractive aspects of these very successful presenters. The incipient racism documented time and again on Top Gear is glossed over by anxious broadcasters. It is absolutely disgusting that Clarkson should use offensive racist language anywhere near a live microphone. Even those of us of an age to remember when that nursery rhyme was repeated in all its chastening nastiness by our parents and grandparents, have absolutely no excuse for using that language now. It should be excised from our consciousness and for most of us it is. I cannot believe that Clarkson just let it ‘slip out’. We all make mistakes and some of mine have been heinous but there are things a broadcaster just doesn’t do, even unconsciously. I suspect that what was really happening here was a sort of childish ‘seeing how far he could go.’ When we let people get away with things, they always try to go further. Especially people with an extravagant sense of self-importance whose stock in trade is cocking a snook. Or snooking a cock.

The same is true of the male dominated panel shows which proliferate on the BBC, with their sneering boy banter. Why bother to appease women, particularly old women? They are watching in such droves they don’t matter. Now, on the other hand, if you can get those elusive lager louts watching your show – and buying the products in the ad break - you’re someone worth knowing in the world of broadcasting!

It is of course entirely different with Jeremy Paxman. He has been allowed to cock a snook in a different way. The scourge of those horrid politicians, the tough guy behind that incisive, well-informed questioning, he couldn’t be less like Jeremy Clarkson with his Clarksonesque boys-will-be-boys mischievousness. But look again. There is absolutely no doubt that some of Paxman’s questioning is arrogant and offensive. His inquisition of Chloe Smith went beyond the reasonable bringing to account of a politician, and became a hectoring perpetrated by a man wanting to humiliate for its own sake – Paxman was allegedly miffed because he was only served up a secondary politician for his dinner that night. Interestingly, I was recently at a meeting where a former senior BBC producer was discussing putting together a panel for an event. When asked about the mix on the putative panel, he said “You have to apply the women question”. “What is that?” someone enquired. Apparently the woman question is – when you think of asking a woman to be on a panel you have to ask, who knows her? Is she a name? Heaven forfend that she should be there just to make sure there is a feminine voice. You see, feminine voices are outsiders and to be included they have to pass this test. I know that male panellists, too, have to be known and respected, and endorsed to be asked to speak on panels. But there is no ‘man question’. To be fair, I could see what the ex-BBC man was getting at, but it was the insouciant way the phrase was used, as if women were a sub species requiring special permission, which had several of us (men as well) shaking our heads around the table. I am absolutely sure that Mr Paxman is a committed egalitarian who wants to see women take their proper place as leaders of the establishment. But sadly he has worked for the last 25 years with people who cannot help themselves asking ‘the woman question’. And like Jeremy Clarkson, Jeremy Paxman is seen as a big beast in our broadcasting jungle, accorded a veneration which goes beyond what he actually does, and which is actually more about what he represents. Not Top Gear, but nevertheless top man!

Now, both face a change in their careers. Jeremy Paxman has chosen to resign from presenting Newsnight. Jeremy Clarkson will probably get away with his gaffe – but he must be thinking about it. Will he feel chastened; or will he feel that, tee hee, it’s so much more fun than being ‘politically correct’? If he really does understand how offensive he was, will it make for a less (white) boys’ own Top Gear in future? I wonder. But he cannot have escaped this controversy unscathed without being an insensitive clod. And surely he isn’t one of those, is he?

Whatever happens, the importance of the two Jeremys in the news this week should be making us think about what sort of presenters we want on our TV shows. Both are good at their jobs, and they are not terribly easy jobs despite the way it looks. But what this week has highlighted is that there are too many Jeremys and that part of their success, at least, was a zeitgeist that prevailed a decade or two ago, and which must pass and not be mourned. I know from personal experience as a television executive how hard it is to get a good new presenter launched and what strange vagaries go into getting a show that works with a face that people love. But having said that, the office makes the women (or man) and with huge audiences the BBC has a duty to give us more than the tried and tested. I am not sure that the campaign for a woman to present the new Civilisation will bear fruit, though we can but hope – but personally I’d be even keener to see a woman present the uncivilised – crazy cars and politician baiting is a gender free occupation, and there is no excuse for having a disproportionate number of white, posh, middle class men doing it for us.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData