“You’re a patronising git, aren’t you?” said Steph McGovern to a supercilious Jeremy Paxman on the opening episode to the new series of Have I Got News For You. As guest host, Paxman isn’t the first man to talk down to a female panellist, and it seems he won’t be the last.
That being said, not much has changed on HIGNFY in its 28 years: Ian Hislop and Paul Merton remain permanent fixtures; the theme music is the exact same; even the set is almost identical to the pilot episode’s in 1990. It’s undoubtedly a winning formula, drawing in an average of 4 million viewers per episode.
The satirical show experienced its biggest shake-up since its advent after host Angus Deayton was fired in 2002, making way for a new format. Each week, a different host would be invited to chair the show, a move the BBC claimed would allow for greater variety. But was this really a shake-up? The majority of hosts are just like Deayton – namely white, privately educated, and male. In fact, across the programme’s fifty-five series, only one of eleven politicians to have hosted has been female. In a study of the gender split of comedy panel shows, HIGNFY emerges as one of the worst offenders: even when the two permanent male captains are discounted, 73.6% of guests are male.
So why do so few women host the show?
It’s not for want of trying, the show’s team captains, Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, claimed in a recent Radio Times interview. Well, it certainly isn’t to do with pay – after all, the BBC’s gender pay gap scandal hasn’t exactly been much of a secret in recent months. The pair of panellists recently became their own news story, generating more headlines than a series’ worth of ‘Missing Words Rounds’, after suggesting that women are too “modest” to front the weekly programme. “The producers always ask more women than men. More women say no,” Merton explained. Hislop, editor of Private Eye, continued: “And on the whole, women are slightly more reticent and think, maybe modestly, ‘I can’t do that.’ Maybe more men in public life say, ‘Yes, I can do that.’”
Excessive modesty, however, doesn’t explain comments repeatedly made by females who have appeared on the BBC behemoth. MP Nadine Dorries, who has declined all invitations to be a guest on the comedy panel show since her appearance in 2012 (but did appear on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here later that year, no less), claimed that it is “too vicious” for most female guests, and does not “lend itself to women feeling comfortable”. Surely a woman weighing up her options and deciding she’d rather feast on Kangaroo testicles in the Australian jungle than endure an evening recording a topical panel show can’t be interpreted as an act of “modesty”, as Hislop would like us to believe. “As female politicians, we function in a very tough working environment, an ego and testosterone-driven environment,” the Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire continues. “We are used to fighting our corner. But in none of my work environments – I’ve worked in the NHS, in business, in Parliament – has anyone set out to make people laugh by belittling me. That’s what HIGNFY does.”
Excessive modesty, however, doesn’t explain comments repeatedly made by females who have appeared on the BBC behemoth
The programme is certainly less of an all-male enclave than it used to be and has a better track record than some other comedy panel shows (read: Mock the Week). Many female presenters, actors and comedians have appeared, including Victoria Coren-Mitchell, Anne Robinson and Kathy Burke. Comedian Jo Brand and Desert Island Discs presenter Kirsty Young are among the most regular presenters, but, to date, Ann Widdecombe is the only female politician to have sat in the host’s chair.
The show attracted widespread criticism last November after Brand famously rebuked an all-male panel for making light of sexual harassment claims. When Hislop quipped that some of the allegations emerging from Westminster were not “high-level crime”, Brand intervened by saying: “If I can just say, as the only representative of the female gender here today, […] it doesn’t have to be high-level for women to feel under siege in somewhere like the House of Commons.” She won applause from the studio audience. “It’s never much fun being the only woman in a room.”
Widdecombe comes in for some criticism, however. In the same Radio Times interview, Merton described her second stint in the presenter’s chair in 2007 as his “worst experience” in his 28 years on the show. With a seeming sense of confidence having successfully appeared once before, he said the former Prisons Minister was “telling the producer what jokes will and won’t work” and him to “’be amusing; that’s what you’re being paid for.’ Even as I say it, it sends a shiver through my heart.”
In a study of the gender split of comedy panel shows, HIGNFY emerges as one of the worst offenders
I think we can all agree that Widdecombe isn’t exactly the epitome of comedic prowess. However, watch the show again and no matter your politics, it isn’t the Conservative MP who comes across badly, but rather the four rowdy panellists she is made to contend with. There is constant interruption, mock flirting and remarks about her looks – “oh, take off your glasses, you’re beautiful,” Jimmy Carr jibes at one point. Merton makes two references to Widdecombe getting the men cups of tea. Carr jokes about getting a sexually transmitted disease from her. Her reply? “I don’t think I shall return to this programme.” That was over 10 years ago and no female MP has guest presented since.
There’s a terrible irony in seeing a show that considers itself subversive seemingly shoring up one of the biggest power imbalances of all, but it’s arguably a symptom of a much bigger issue beyond the confines of the show’s weekly half an hour slot. The imbalance of female to male MP appearances on the show may be explained by the very same imbalance in the House of Commons: women currently make up 32% of all MPs, with just 208 compared to 442 of their male counterparts (still a record high). If we expect more representation of such female figures in the media, we first need them to exist. Women have also been found to be much more conscious of damaging their reputations – it was revealed in a recent study that men believe themselves to be three times more intelligent than the reality, in comparison to women who were more likely to underestimate their abilities. Perhaps this could explain why so many women are reticent to make an appearance. Indeed, the show has often been cited as being behind the “making” of Boris Johnson, but could the same be said if a female politician were to act the same way on national television (hang from a zipwire waving the Union Jack; flatten a 10-year-old in a game of rugby; etc., etc.)? Are women really in greater possession of modesty, or are they just aware that there is one rule for buffoonish men in public life and another for everyone else?
The imbalance of female to male MP appearances on the show may be explained by the very same imbalance in the House of Commons
Either way, to show that they value women’s voices as much as men’s, the BBC could start by paying all of their employees equally. As far as HIGNFY goes, one obligatory woman per programme is obviously not the solution: women should appear, not because they are women, nor despite the fact. It’s undoubtedly a boys’ show, and perhaps Merton and Hislop should consider what makes it a boys’ show before scratching their heads as to why women may or may not want to participate. Only then can we hope to see greater female representation, and fewer guests like Paxman.