Some of the UK’s biggest political television programmes are now helmed by women – and that’s worth celebrating, says Stylist’s digital women’s editor Moya Crockett.
For a very long time, watching TV programmes about current affairs and politics meant watching white men talk. Many of these men were and are very good at their jobs: it would be ridiculous to challenge the credentials of great broadcasters like Jon Snow, Sir David Frost and the Dimbleby family. But consciously or unconsciously, the lack of diversity among the presenters of political TV programmes – combined with the overwhelming homogeneity of the British political class – sent a clear message to viewers. That message was this: only a certain kind of person engages with politics, and that person is white and male.
But in recent years, things have begun to shift. Sky News launched the political programme Sophy Ridge on Sunday in January 2017. This January, Fiona Bruce was named as David Dimbleby’s successor as presenter of Question Time. And now, it has been announced that BBC Two’s Newsnight – arguably the most high-profile political TV programme in the UK – will be helmed by an all-female presenting team for the first time.
Emily Maitlis will become the new lead presenter of Newsnight following the departure of Evan Davis, who left the show in 2018 to present news programme PM on BBC Radio 4. Kirsty Wark, who has worked on Newsnight since 1993, will have an “enhanced” role on the revitalised show, while Emma Barnett – who currently presents an eponymous show on BBC Radio 5 Live – is also joining the team as a presenter.
The shake-up is a sign that the BBC is taking its commitment to gender diversity and closing its gender pay gap seriously, but there is no suggestion that any of these women have been appointed out of tokenism. Maitlis has spearheaded the BBC’s Brexit coverage and won network presenter of the year at the RTS TV Journalism Awards in February, while Wark is one of the UK’s most respected and long-standing broadcasters. Barnett, meanwhile, was widely praised for her performance when she filled in as the host of political programme The Andrew Marr Show last year.
“This is a tremendous presenter line-up that sends out a clear signal about the programme’s growing ambition,” said Esmé Wren, the editor of Newsnight. All three presenters, she said, “bring substantial political clout and a wealth of expertise across a broad range of subjects”.
Maitlis, who recently went viral for her magnificent side-eye while interviewing politicians about Brexit, said she was “delighted to be moving into this role at a time when Newsnight feels so pivotal to our understanding of this extraordinary moment in British history”.
Barnett, meanwhile, said she was looking forward to presenting Newsnight “at a time when no one can predict the next hour in British politics, never mind the next evening”.
It’s important to note, of course, that all of the women currently presenting major political television programmes in the UK fit a specific and narrow mould. We should celebrate the success of brilliant, accomplished women in male-dominated fields, but we mustn’t do it without also scrutinising what kind of woman is able to climb to the top. And generally speaking, that woman is white, middle class, able bodied and cisgender. Maitlis, Wark, Barnett, Ridge, Bruce and Jo Coburn (who co-presents Politics Live alongside Andrew Neil) absolutely deserve to be applauded for their success – but television networks aren’t owed gold stars for diversity when it’s taken this long for privileged white women to be given serious presenting jobs.
But we can demand greater diversity in broadcasting while also recognising how significant it is to have so many tenacious, talented women chairing some of the UK’s most important political television programmes. Despite our female prime minister and the fact that there are currently more women MPs than ever before, British politics remains a predominantly male domain: men make up almost 70% of sitting MPs, putting the UK at the woeful position of 39th in the global rankings for female representation in the lower (or only) house of parliament. If political broadcasting was as male-dominated as politics itself, we’d be stuck watching men argue with men for 40 minutes out of every hour.
Having women presenting political television programmes may also create a ripple effect, engaging greater numbers of women in politics as a whole. Research suggests that when women run for political office, it inspires other women to stand for election – and watching fictional TV political dramas with female lead characters has been shown to boost women’s interest and participation in real-world politics. Against this backdrop, it seems entirely plausible that a new generation of young women could be hooked on politics by observing Maitlis, Bruce, Ridge et al in action.
So congratulations and good luck to the new presenters of Newsnight. We might not know how long certain politicians will be in office, but we have a feeling these women will be sticking around for a while.
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