There aren’t many mornings when I’m punching the air at 8.20am, particularly when I’m listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. I listen to it to know what’s going on in the world as I’m getting my three-year-old ready for nursery, but on so many mornings I turn it off, broiling. Another flippant comment by a male presenter. Another debate about sexual assault that focuses on the truthfulness of the accusations being made, rather than on the broader societal issues. But this morning – praise be! – another mother of a three-year-old was in its prime political-interview slot: Jo Swinson, of the Liberal Democrats, talking about the results of a cross-party report into the culture of sexual harassment and bullying in parliament.
Get yourself to iPlayer Radio right now. She was fantastic, talking clearly and directly about the cross-party working group’s fantastic recommendations: a proper complaints procedure that would work for all, plus an investigation mechanism that would work independently of political parties. Her interviewer was also measured to start with – quite unusually for John Humphrys, whose very presence in any debate that requires nuance makes me think a grenade fizzing in a quiet room, waiting to go off.
Boom – off he went. Is sexual harassment taking someone out for a drink? Air-punch one: “No. It's not that complicated. Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. There are plenty of ways you can respectfully ask someone out without being crude and lewd and referencing them in a sexual way." Why should MPs be taken out of their jobs to do training on issues on sexual harassment, if its nature is obvious? (Thirty-nine per cent of parliamentary workers have said they had experienced bullying and harassment in Westminster, by the way). “The assumption that everyone knows what sexual harassment is is not one that we should take for granted – you asked me what the definition was in this very interview,” Swinson replied. Air-punch two.
But air-punch three was the best, coming off the back of Humphrys’ irritation at the idea of sexual-harassment training being required – here was a news presenter deliberately ignoring the fact that some people had to be told how to behave appropriately. “Have you apologised to Carrie Gracie for the remarks you made?" Swinson butted in, gently. Humphrys replied, flustered, that he’d emailed her, dismissing Swinson’s question as unrelated and irrelevant. No, he didn’t sexually harass Gracie. No, he didn’t bully her directly. But he did reveal his own unpleasant attitudes about the treatment of women in the BBC through some questionable humour, no question – and Swinson served him his posterior on a shiny platter. And, boy, it felt good.
But let’s not get lost in the unbridled joy of that moment. Let’s think a little more broadly about what this Jo Swinson moment means – what can happen when we give women more audio time and more prominent slots. Women can bring up issues requiring debate that often get sidelined – let’s not forget, after all, that female BBC presenters in favour of Carrie Gracie’s position were banned from discussing it on-air. And, while it may seem strange to say this in a week in which Today broadcast an all-female edition (to celebrate the centenary of partial suffrage for women), let’s remember that this shouldn’t be a one-off special. Hard-working female MPs should be breakfast-morning regulars just as much as failed parliamentary foghorns like Nigel Farage, for starters.
It is invigorating to hear other women like me on the radio or TV. Role models are important – they make sure broader stories are told
Swinson should also be celebrated for braving prime-time radio in the first place. This is not to patronise her political work, but to acknowledge how hard it is to place yourself as a woman in that environment, one that is so often hostile to our experiences. I know several hugely high-profile females who have turned down spots on Today because of its brutishness; I have even been on the thick end of Humphrys’ barbed tongue myself (some years ago, in an item on popular culture). But it is invigorating to hear other women like me on the radio or TV. Role models are important – they make sure broader stories are told. Thank you, Swinson, for showing us just how much.
People in all positions of media power: look at Jo Swinson and recognise you need to act. After all, women’s positions and experiences are so often excluded from news stories, that we don’t notice it – until we note how unusual it’s felt seeing women in the news agenda with their #MeToo stories and how huge it feels for sexual-harassment policy to be leading the headlines today. A fascinating recent piece by male scientist Ed Yong in US magazine The Atlantic is worth reading on this topic, highlighting a fact that still bears repeating: female experts are everywhere and we need them in our work to make it really matter. Laziness by others is what sidelines women. Dismissal of their lives and their opinions is what silences them. In 2018, it’s time to embrace them, include them, embed them. This happened today on Today and I want all our tomorrows, once again, to be about punching the air.