Tuesday 29 March 2011

Women and the TV news; Understanding THEN and NOW

If you read the histories which discuss what happens when a woman reads the television news, you’ll find the discussion based on issues of ‘authority’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’. The story will continue to state that we have a lack of female news presenters because these have, historically, been character traits stereotyped as masculine. This is largely because most research into television history uses the BBC written archive and is therefore loaded towards its ‘Reith-ian’ values, which have had a major bearing on the development of the BBC.

But, not all production companies shared these values, and there have been moments where female news presenters have flourished.


Pat Cox, was a key presenter for Midlands News (ITV’s regional television news programme produced by ATV for the Midlands from 1956-82) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In its early years, the production team experimented with its reportage and presentation style, and Cox was a central figure in building a regular audience for the programme. She interviewed housewives when their husbands were on strike, debated with the residents of Nuneaton who felt they deserved more attention from the TV cameras, as well as being integral to the cultivation of ATV’s image as a glamorous and ‘modern’ company, which featured Cox judging beauty contests and attending parties aboard that most glamorous of fifties machines –the commercial aeroplane.

The 1960s was not so kind to women on the regional television news, as the station developed a more ‘political’ edge it favoured presenters such as Reg Harcourt. Cox disappears from the archive collection in 1963, but her career serves as a reminder that the story of continuity and change is never a one way street.


Although we’re only three months into 2011 it’s already been a turbulent year for women working in the media. The Andy Gray sexism scandal at Sky Sports was a clear reminder that we most definitely do not live in a post-feminist age. The Miriam O’Reilly case at the BBC also brought to attention the persistent double standard which puts pressure on women broadcasters to reach for the Botox less their wrinkles become ‘offensive’.

My personal bugbear was the lack of high-profile commentary coming from women throughout these episodes. There still seems to be a lack of opportunity for women to be the dominant voice on these issues. For example, when discussing the Andy Gray sacking Andrew Neil’s BBC show ‘This Week’ could only muster female pop star Imelda May to comment. May’s credentials for the discussion seemed to be that she was ‘a woman’, rather than having experience of the issues being aired.

Why did such a high profile show fail to find a female (sports) journalist to comment? Can this be attributed to a reticence among women working in the media to wade into such thorny debates; do they just want to keep their heads down and get on with their jobs? The likelihood of taking a pasting from opposing factions of the feminist debate makes it hard to blame them. OR was it a lack of energy on the side of Neil’s production team to take the issue seriously enough to spend the time preparing the interview and selecting an appropriate guest?

Clearly we need some insider knowledge here, which is why I’m looking forward to Julie Etchingham’s visit to NHL on Friday. Etchingham’s career provides a (much needed) positive and inspiring counterpoint to the narratives of endemic sexism and ageism facing women working in the media. As respected journalist she’s gained access to world leaders and reported on major world events, and has also been the first woman ever to be awarded the ‘Presenter of the Year’ award. I hope she can help us understand the complexities of being a woman at work in the media.