Last week's all-female Today proved women make for a more uplifting show

New presenter Mishal Husain tackled Theresa May with soft determination

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

Boy, we’ve had to wait a long time for this. But last Thursday morning something unusual happened on Radio 4; something so unexpected, so rich with potential. It happened at peak time in the morning. Eight o’clock. The Today programme. And it began with the news, read by a woman — Corrie Corfield. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about that these days. It’s been decades since the BBC was forced to admit that women can enunciate just as clearly as men and that their ‘lighter register’ is not more difficult to pick up for those who are hard of hearing. Afterwards, though, we had a female presenter, a female co-presenter, a female doctor as a guest, a female Cabinet minister and, wait for it, a woman talking about sport. It was brilliant. I swear that the programme sounded different; less heavy, combative, weighed down by testosterone. Instead it felt lighter of tone (not lighter in content) and less doom-laden. Not less serious, just a lot more hopeful.

Mishal Husain was on only her second day in the job, but straightaway she sounded at ease; her voice calm, measured, totally in control of the situation. There were no half-hysterical high notes, or anxious intakes of breath. Husain, of course, has had her passage through the ranks paved for her by Sue (MacGregor) and Sarah (Montague). They proved (and are still proving) that a woman could ask questions of the big cheeses in politics, industry, the media (mostly, of course, male) without becoming shrill or bursting into tears at the first hint of contradiction. What’s different, though, is that for the first time on Today the studio has been occupied solely by women — as the newspaper pictures showed the following day. We also had 30 minutes, a full half-hour of peak-time radio, totally controlled by the female sex.

Will it make any difference?

I think it just might. Take Thursday morning, as Husain interviewed the Home Secretary. I bet Ms May expected to have an easy time of it, with Husain so new and known for her almost old-fashioned politeness. Instead May sounded increasingly nonplussed, as Husain ever so gently but ever so firmly refused to allow her to indulge in her usual tactic (or, should I say, her Westminster habit) of never answering the question.

May was invited, and was keen, to talk about the government’s new immigration bill. Husain had set up the questions in her previous interview, which had established that in one GP’s practice, at least, there simply is not a problem of large numbers of illegal immigrants demanding NHS treatment (it should be noted the GP works in east London). Husain wanted to know whether May knew how many of these supposed ‘health tourists’ there are.

May responded, ‘What I was going to say…’ before blurbing on about the wider aims of the proposed bill.

Husain interrupted, with exquisite courtesy, ‘I’m not asking about principle. But how big a deal is it?… Is it [health tourism] really worth tackling?’

‘This is about a point of principle,’ May persisted, only to be cut off, quietly but surely.

‘So for you it’s a point of principle, not necessarily the reality?’

Ms May just didn’t get it, as she continued to hark on about this elusive ‘point of principle’ and how unfair it was for ‘ordinary hard-working people’, whoever they might be.

You could say there was nothing special about this, but actually it was different. May was shown up to be papering over the cracks — not by bullish bantering, as is usually the case with political interviews, but by softly spoken determination. Might she as a consequence decide to abandon the old tricks of political performance? To look for new ways of getting her voice heard? Who knows, but we can always hope.

Over on the World Service, this month, 100 women are being celebrated in short features that tell us of their lives, their hopes and dreams, their trials and despair. Not big names (although Chelsea Clinton guest-edited the World Service’s Newshour on Monday as part of the season), but ordinary, unknown women, such as Polly Apio, a Ugandan farmer. In Women Farmers (next Monday), she tells Cecile Wright about her belief in the power of education. Polly gets up at first light to sweep the compound before walking four kilometres to collect water from the borehole. She has five children to feed and send to school, and no husband. ‘Women’s work never gets finished,’ she says.

At the other extreme, in Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase on Monday we heard from Betty Thesky, who for the past 25 years has been a flight attendant with an American airline — and she still loves the job. She can’t understand why we no longer dress up to go on the plane. How come we no longer believe it to be exciting, glamorous, extraordinary? Two such women you are unlikely to meet in the course of a normal day, but here we were taken right inside their lives. They talked so frankly, so openly, without artifice or persuasion. On women, by women, but for everyone.

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Show comments
  • William MacDougall

    Suppose your headline had read “Last week’s all-male Today proved men make for a more uplifting show” or “Last week’s all-White Today proved Whites make for a more uplifting show”? Would anyone have found it remotely acceptable?

    • Eddie

      Yep, and that there nails it, son! Hail on head etc.
      Plenty of all female shows on TV and radio, No all male ones. Our local news is often 100% female. But if the world of TV (very female really) would never allow the equal and opposite.
      Plenty of all female shortlists (the BBC short story comp). No all male ones these days (and the Booker has to add 2 or 3 mediocre ethnic writers too).
      This all proves to me that women and ethnic minorities enjoy sexism and racism if it benefits them; if they had any moral substance, they would be complaining about all examples of racist and sexist discrimination, not just the forms that affect them.
      But if this is the only game in town now, I shan’t be voting for anyone who isn’t white and male ever again then.

  • smithers25

    How many white male English male main newsreaders are there? As we make up 42% of the population according to the 2001 census (not Welsh, Scottish or Irish) we might expect to see someone who is white English and male on nearly half the time. In fact I have counted up to 10 non white English males in a row on BBC news as they go from female, ethnic, newsreaders through reporters to street interviewees and then Regional news and weather presenters before one of ‘us’ is allowed on screen.
    If you want quotas on the BBC, then let’s have them. ”What do we want? 42 % now”

    • berosos_bubos

      Not to mention news about Britain occassionally.

    • Eddie

      Yes, you are 100% right. 42%.
      If 16% ethnic minorities, and 50% approx. of the population is male, then we SHOULD be seeing 42% white male faces on TV.
      I watched TV yesterday bearing this in mind. Channel 4 news: not a SINGLE white male face. BBC Wales news at 6.30. Ditto.

  • suspicious?

    Nonsense! This is part of the BBC’s dated feminist agenda, alongside its policy of disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities – they make up 7% of our population. You’d never believe if from watching and listening to BBC’s programmes.

    • Bo

      I especially enjoy BBC reports on education, they always show footage of entire classrooms of ethnic “minority” children. At first I didn’t think too much of it but I don’t think I’ve seen a white child on the BBC news in a while.

      • Bo

        That is unless they have been abducted, gang-raped or murdered.

  • greggf

    Has it not occurred to you Kate Chisholm, that Hussein may have been grinding a personal axe?

    I heard the interview and May was true to form. She never gives a direct answer.

    However Hussein has a personal interest in minimizing health tourism since those of her ethnic origins are among those indulging in it.

    If you want to see/hear a real English woman on this subject check out the many Google excerpts of Betty Boothroyd.

  • Eddie

    Whatever next – maybe a MALE presenter of Woman’s Hour eh?

    When will feminists get it through their addled harriden heads that having less than 50% of women in ANY role/job/profession etc is NOT evidence of sexism, misogyny or discrimination. Ditto for the diversity queens of the race relations industries, who seem constantly to demand inequality and discrimination (against white men) in the name of equality.

    Yesterday, Mastermind was 75% white male. Problem? Merit should decide, not diversity policies and anti-white anti-male discrimination as practised by the BBC (I almost take a photo now when I see a white man reading the news and weather, because it is so rare – women and ethnic minorities are overrepresented on TV actually).

    • Daniel Maris

      Why do hardly any women ever complain about low representation of females among sewer workers, construction workers, and road haulage? Don’t they want their daughters in these trades.

      • Eddie

        Indeed. It’s always demands for (usually very privileged) women to be given a head start and unfair advantage to become City board members, MPs, high level executives.
        The reason is this: feminists do NOT want gender equality. They want inequality – and unfair advantage for women. They want to pick and choose their equality. They are thus morally bankrupt and hypocrites.
        They never talk about the ‘gender welfare gap’ either – women get way more state benefits than men, and women’s healthcare gets 7 or 8 times the money that specific male healthcare gets.
        Yet feminists like that inequality eh?

        • peter

          Good points made here. It may provide equality for example, to allow the same prize money in tennis for men and for women, but it is hardly fair. Men have to play more sets than women, and often the time played in mens games go on for many hours longer than those played by women. Therefore, the chance of injury is much greater for the men.

          And let’s face it, mens tennis is far more popular with both men and women spectators and, in general, played more quietly!

  • peter

    Apart from an over representation on BBC radio by Guardian guests [I made an FoI request as to numbers, which was rejected], listen carefully, when a programme has ended, and you will see that the majority of producers, are women, to say nothing of the presenters].

    It is this seeming acceptance for men to be rubbished in the media which grates with me, but heaven help any man who makes any criticism in any way critical of a woman or women. I am not sure if it is fear that inhibits men, or the feeling that life is too short or pettiness is best left to the other half of the population.

    Has anyone noticed that even in the Spectator the TV, Radio and Cinema articles are with rare exceptions, by women. The problem is that that does make for a feminisation, as with teaching in schools, where the majority of teachers are female, of the industry. And that cannot be either fair or provide equality. But who is listening?

    • Daniel Maris

      Yep we’ve gone full circle now. There are loads of TV ads with men taking off their T shirts, showing off their “bulge” and so on… men stripping off is fine, but you’ll find no female equivalent now. Even the sex scenes on British TV are nipple free now – well female nipple that is.

  • Agrippina

    The best voice for Radio4 was Charlotte Green, clarity, depth and pace perfect. I prefer Naughtie on Today and liked Sue McGregor. Davis and Webb both speak too softly and trail away at the end of the sentence. Montague has stopped laughing so much, so is easier on the ear. Husain was fine, when she tires of the obfuscation she may become like all the others (shouty).

    The GP from the East End who was not English prob did not want to mention how many may have been health tourists, how would she know, they do not ask questions. It was in her interest to play it down. Perhaps a look at medical publications (Pulse) will give a more accurate picture. Time spent with translators (paid by UK taxpayer) or dealing with folks with poor language skills taking up more than the alloted time, waiting two or more weeks for appointments, most of us due to experience know the truth.

    Or cameron’s constituency (Chipping Norton) building a mosque for 34 muslims in a pop of 6,400 approx, according to 2011 Census. Bolton’s labour council have given over £1.1 million, in grants to the local council of mosques (over 8yrs).

    We know what is happening that is why we are voting for someone who puts Brits 1st.

  • Jethro Asquith

    What an obnoxious sexist piece.

  • Daniel Maris

    Mishal Hussein doesn’t sound involved to me. Her voice is so modulated it’s hardly there in an emotional sense.

  • Peter Stroud

    I have ceased to listen to the Today programme, because if ts left wing, pro multi-culture, anti British bias. Were the females as biased as the usual males?

  • Liz

    Sounds interesting and refreshing, Kate.

    I have largely given up listening to the Today Programme, the macho bluster wore thin, as does the news agenda of the mostly male, mostly white, people who are now filtering experience through their eyes and returning it to us as news and policy briefings.

    But don’t expect a sympathetic hearing on the comment thread of the Testosterone Fanzine, The Spectator. This is where whiney dudes come to die.