In Defence of BBC Question Time

Via Cath Elliott I find that BBC Question Time has been criticised by a BBC ‘diversity report’ for allegedly featuring ‘token women’ on its panels:

BBC1’s Question Time and Mock the Week have been criticised in a report about television diversity for featuring “token women” on their panels.

The panel shows were singled out, along with BBC2’s QI, for failing to put enough female faces on screen.

Really? Well here’s what the report actually has to say about Question Time:

Related to this, some panel shows were also criticised for rarely having women represented or only having ‘token women’ on their programmes. Comedy shows, such as QI or Mock the Week, as well as current affairs programmes such as Question Time were implicated in this.

To be clear about this report’s provenance, it bills itself rather ostentatiously as presenting ‘The views of the audience and experts’ but if you read the technical appendices you’ll find that the audience component of the report is based on:

– the opinions of 122 people who attended one of three day long ‘deliberative workshops’,

– two focus groups conducted in Liverpool with young people aged 13-19,

– 5 mini-focus groups with people aged 70 and over*

– two additional mixed-age focus groups which were added to cover Northern Ireland,

– four surveys covering 2,027 people aged 18 and over, 9,076 people aged 16 and over, 1,789 people aged 16 and over and 718 people aged 12-15, and

14 ‘investigative interviews’, 8 with broadcast experts and 6 with non-broadcast experts,

*Curiously, the report gives the following description of the 5 mini focus groups with older people – four of these were with people in their late 70s and one in their early 80s and one group with people in their 80s and early 90s – leaving open the question of whether the ‘one in their early 80s’ is a focus group, in which case we have 6 mini focus, or just an 80+ yeas old person who attended on the focus groups for people in their late 70s. My one view of this is simple – if you can’t express yourself clearly and accurately then you really shouldn’t be writing reports.

For all that, the two sentence paragraph quoted above is the sum total of the report’s content as it relates specifically to Question Time and there is absolute no evidence whatsoever to back up or validate those apparent opinions, so, I’m calling Bullshit on this part of the report and, in particular, on the way its been reported by the Guardian – and unlike either the report or the Groan I’m packing evidence to back up my position.

Over the last couple of hours I’ve pulled together a database covering a total of 112 episodes of Question Time spanning January 2009 through to last week’s episode with a complete list of panelists for all but one edition in February 2009 for which I only have three named panelists.

UPDATE – I’ve now managed to track down the missing panelists for 12 Feb 2009, via Lib Dem Voice – Salma Yaqoob and another appearance by Kelvin MacKenzie – and have adjusted the figures accordingly.

In total, 263 individuals have appeared on the show as panelists since January 2009 – for obvious reasons I’m not counting Dimbers in any of this – with the total number of panelists, when you include people making multiple appearance, coming in at 564.

Across both headcounts, the male to female ratio is approximately 2:1 – of the 263 individuals, 174 were male and 89 were female and in terms of total appearances the show has features 372 male panelist and 192 female panelists in total. The most common panel configurations are 2 women, 3 men (47 episodes) and 1 woman, 4 men (36 episodes) with women outnumbering men on the panel 3:2 on 8 occasions.

Now obviously, that’s not a 50:50 split to mirror the UK population as a whole –  the actual current ratio is estimated by the Office of National Statistics to be 49.8% male to 50.2% female – but it has be remembered that Question Time draws the overwhelming majority of its panelists from a very narrow range of professions; politicians (obviously), journalists, opinion columnists and broadcasters, business leaders, academics and the occasional actor or comedian. So, even without crunching the numbers I can tell you, with a considerable degree of confidence, that despite not reaching the 50:50 figure, Question Time compares very favourably with all of those professions* in terms of the gender balance of its panels.

*The one figure I have bothered to look up is for the current Westminster Parliament where women make up only a little over a fifth of MPs (21.4%) and I doubt any of the other professions do anything like as well.

To add further weight to my argument, the data also shows that of the 25 individuals who have made 5 or more appearance on the Question Time panel since January 2009, 11 are women.

Two men do top the list of people who’ve trousered the highest number of appearance fees – Vince Cable (10 appearances) and Nigel Farage (9 appearances) but these are closely followed, in third place, by Caroline Flint and Theresa May with 8 appearances each.

The full list of ‘token women’ who made the top 25 runs as follows:

Theresa May – Home Secretary (8 appearances)

Caroline Flint – Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (8 appearances)

Caroline Lucas – MP, Leader of the Green Party (7 appearances)

Shami Chakrabarti – Director of Liberty (6 appearances)

Diane Abbott – Shadow Minister for Public Health (6 appearances)

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio (6 appearances)

Nicola Sturgeon – Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Cities Strategy, Deputy Leader of the Scottish National Party (6 appearances – and the longest set of current job titles)

Sarah Teather – Minister of State for Children and Families (6 appearances and, just this once, no hamster gags)

Melanie Phillips – Journalist and 5th Horsewoman of the Apocalypse (5 appearances – I know it seems like a lot more, but if you ignore Nigel Farage then Kelvin MacKenzie comes top of the list of inhabitants of the right-wing arseholes chair with 8 appearances)

Baroness Shirley Williams – Life Peer, far too many past jobs to list (5 appearances)

Jo Swinson – Deputy Leader, Scottish Liberal Democrats (5 appearances)

Okay, so the main focus of this report is age rather than gender which may mean that younger viewer feel a bit left out due to the absence of Fearne Cotton, the cast of TOWIE and Rastamouse from the list of Question Time panelistss – although, personally, I think Rastamouse would be a distinct improvement on many of the recent panelists if only Reggie Yates could learn not to choke on the voice when he’s in front of an audience (yes, Reggie, I did see that episode of ‘Buzzcocks). So unless the suggestion is that all these women are merely token figure in their own field, I’m struggling to see how a charge of tokenism could be justified.

You could argue underrepresentation if you take a rigidly idealistic line and insist on 50:50 as your benchmark rather than take a pragmatic view based on comparing Question Time’s figures to the actual situation that exists in the professions from which it draws its panelists, but not tokenism, at least not in terms of the number of women appearing on the show in recent years – the evidence of the last three years doesn’t appear to support such a charge.

What I suspect is actually going on here is a simple and very common cognitive illusion in which people are more likely to pay heed to the gender balance of the panel when an imbalance is most obvious, i.e when there’s a 1:4 or, rarely, a 1:5 ratio, than they are when the ratio is 2:3 or better and that this is colouring their view of the show.

The case for the defence rests… for now – as I’ve pulled this data together, over the next couple of days I might as well tag it for ethnicity and political party membership/stance and see if anything else shakes loose.