Soapbox: BBC Question Time and its failure to represent women in Northern Ireland…

The BBC is always beset with criticisms of bias. Recently Question Time faced criticism of for loading the panel to the right. When the programme came to Belfast last week Rosa Thompson was dismayed when none of the questions chosen from the floor included a woman. 

I was nervous and excited as I turned up to be part of the audience for Belfast’s Question Time last Thursday. I had prepared my question, learned it off by heart.

I felt I was making a stand for the women of Northern Ireland; I wanted to know when the 1967 Abortion Act would be extended, I wanted to know when our politicians would get their noses out of our bodily autonomy.

I was fired up and I was ready and mostly, unfortunately, I was unprepared for what then happened.

You may not have noticed it at home but women didn’t feature very heavily in this issue of Question Time.  In fact, women were ignored completely.

51% of Northern Ireland’s population are women, however we make up less than one fifth of MLAs.  According to David Dimbleby only 1 in 6 applicants for the audience and only 1 in 3 of those given tickets are women.

Even with those numbers in mind you could be forgiven for thinking that a woman would be chosen to ask at least one of the four or five questions.

You’d be wrong. One woman was chosen to ask ‘the warm up question’ while 5 men were chosen to ask the live questions.

As these people were pulled out from their seats, murmurs and ripples began to go through the rest of the audience.  I started to panic, who would ask my question?

Who would stand up for the 20 women a week who have to travel to England for an abortion? It seemed that the women around me were as upset as I, they wanted to know why a woman wasn’t asking a question too.

So I stood up, I asked, loudly, and I said that it wasn’t fair.  We need women, women should be represented.  The BBC staff at first seemed bewildered, they looked like they had no clue as to how to deal with the situation.

The stage manager jumped on the stage and began explaining the process of choosing the questions.  I shouted back to him that David Dimbleby had already explained the ‘process’, but I was ignored.

The process goes like this, apparently: all the questions come in (with our names printed on them), and they are sorted into topics.

The most popular four or five topics are then chosen, the editor reads through the questions choosing the punchiest, most provocative ones for the show.

It was purely coincidence that five men were chosen we were told.  I asked if the editor was a man, I was told yes.  One man chooses the questions.  The BBC have never heard of unconscious bias it seems.

Research repeatedly suggests that women are perceived negatively in comparison with men counterparts even when qualifications are exactly the same.  It is not new, or novel.

For the BBC to prove it disapproves of any bias I argue that it must first accept that their current question selection is flawed.  They should either begin to positively discriminate or initiate some form of blind drawing of the questions.

Anyway the stage manager by now was furiously informing us it could be five women next week, ‘it has nothing to do with gender!’  I was so infuriated that I tried to walk out, I asked the rest of the women in the audience to walk out with me.

Tumbleweed rolled by.  I sat back down. Even so I still feel that I was right to stand up.  And I was right to suggest that we should have walked out.

Women in Northern Ireland generally feel that politics is not for them.  How will they ever start believing that it is if they never see people like themselves in these roles?  It is estimated that six out of ten women here don’t intend on voting when elections come around.

It is time the BBC took responsibility for their representation of women. And not just in terms of who gets to sit on the panel of the great and the good, but who gets to ask them questions and about what.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.