Women who quiz the experts – Emily Maitlis, Kirsty Wark and Sally Magnusson.

By Chris Lines

The number of male experts appearing on UK flagship news programmes peaked during March 2020 with a three-year high of 2.7 men to every woman expert.

Data gathered by the Expert Women Project shows that politicians and political advisers and appointees are largely responsible for increasing the ratio from February to March by more than 20 per cent.

However, the good news is that in April, for most programmes, women experts reappeared, as news journalists began to focus on health workers – and on practice not policies.

The Expert Women Project, under the direction of its founder – City, University of London’s Professor Emeritus of Journalism Lis Howell – surveys six flagship UK TV and radio news programmes for five days per month.

The six programmes surveyed are: Channel 4 NewsKay Burley @ Breakfast (Sky News); ITV News at TenToday (BBC Radio 4); BBC News at Ten; and 5 News (Channel 5).

Professor Howell said:

In a time of uncertainty and speculation in March, nearly three times as many expert men as women were interviewed. This is a much higher ratio than usual.

“Those men were mostly politicians or advisers put forward by the government. Editors have expressed frustration with this. It probably reflects the fact that the Cabinet has a ratio of five men to one woman at the most senior level.

“After lockdown in April, editors made a determined and challenging effort to shift the news agenda to healthcare, and the ratio of expert women to men went up noticeably and was much fairer to women.”

Editors made huge logistical efforts to move the story into hospitals and care homes. Inside the statistics every programme has a good story to tell, but the tendency to showcase male politicians may recur in May when there is uncertainty about new lockdown rules and a fragile economy, and government spokespeople and various advisers could come to the forefront again.

“Interestingly, once the daily briefings started, although they were very male dominated, they were contained, leaving editors more freedom to follow the healthcare story. As a result, far more women experts appeared on air, from hospitals, care homes and charities,” she said.

A deep dive into the number of experts/authority figures shows that UK ‘establishment figures’ (categorised as UK senior academics and representatives of key organisations) were not as dominant as politicians and showed a fairer male/female ratio.

But a growing tendency towards interviewing a disproportionate number of male establishment figures could be a cause for concern. The ratio of establishment figures rose, from marginally more women than men in February to 2.5 men to every woman in April.

However, that ratio is only half as bad as that of politicians/political appointees where the ratio in March and April was over 5:1.

Discussing the latest findings on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, The Rt Hon Baroness Morgan, formerly Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and a supporter of the EWP’s aims, said:

“Having a female perspective on something as critical as coronavirus is very important. But at this moment we want to hear from the right people in the right jobs, and at this time the politicians in those posts are men.”

Reactions from news editors

Sarah Sands, Editor, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said:

“Achieving a diverse range of guests is very important for Today and across the BBC we have actively been working to ensure more gender balance on air. City, University of London have held broadcasters to account for many years and we are pleased to be part of their research.”

Paul Royall, Editor, BBC News at Six and Ten, said:

“We’ve seen a positive uplift of female contributors on the BBC News at Ten and, alongside City’s research, our own 50:50 Project is helping us take positive steps in the right direction. There is still, of course, more work to do and we look forward to continuing to progress.”

Rachel Corp, Acting Editor of ITV News at ITN, said:

“It’s great to see this report highlighting the outstanding contributions women are making to tackling the current global crisis. The UK has a wealth of brilliant women scientists, doctors, nurses, managers and many others who have all been key to telling the story of coronavirus. At a time like this, ITV News remains as committed as ever to bringing a balance of voices into all our programmes and will continue to ensure a range of experts feature in our coverage as the story continues to evolve.”

Jane Threlfall, Output Editor, Opinion and Comment at Sky News, said:

“Sky News strives to achieve an equal balance of male and female experts across all its programmes and continues to make good progress towards this goal. But it is mindful there is still work to be done!”

Cait FitzSimons, Editor of Channel 5 News, said:

“As always, the research by the Expert Women team is a chance for newsrooms to reflect on the work they’ve done. I’m pleased to see what 5 News has achieved but it’s clear we have a long way to go. In a time of unprecedented pressure on news broadcasters, a commitment to improved diversity and representation – across all groups – is crucial in making sure we don’t lose focus and reverse the progress that has been made.”

About Professor Lis Howell

Emeritus Professor Lis Howell retired from City University in 2018, but retains her connection through directing the Expert Women Project (EWP) surveys which count and report the number of women authority figures on six major UK flagship news programmes. Since this project began the number of women experts on these programmes has risen by at least 40%. Prior to this she was Director of Broadcasting from 2009 to 2018 and Head of Postgraduate Studies from 2016 to 2018.

Professor Lis Howell
Professor Howell

Professor Howell is a major award-winning journalist and broadcasting executive who has worked for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Sky News. She was Senior Vice-President at Flextech Television (later Virgin Media) where she had founded Living TV, now the channel Sky Witness on Sky TV.

Prior to that she was Managing Editor of Sky News where she produced the coverage of the first Gulf War from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. She won a Royal Television Society Award with ITN for the Lockerbie disaster from ITV Border when she was the first female Head of News at ITV.

She was a television reporter and presenter at Granada and Tyne Tees and began her career in journalism as a producer and reporter at BBC Radio Leeds. In 1999 she chaired the Guardian International Edinburgh Television Festival. In 2001 she attended the prestigious Harvard Business School Advanced Management Programme.

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