Says outgoing co-host Jane Garvey, the secret of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is that listeners can’t be surprised. Nothing can rattle them, so the show gets away with everything from slipping feminist ideas into the ears of bored housewives of the 1960s to breaking gynecological taboos that save lives. Richard Sharp: A Tory donor may be the BBC chairman, but it could be much worse. A female MP once told me that during a local radio debate on women’s health, she was forbidden to utter the word “vagina” so she spent the entire interview fearing that listeners would not understand her Victorian-sounding references to “the pelvic region.” But even the unflappable have their limits, and with her gleefully professed willingness to send guests on the air who “could be dismissed as sexist,” “This week, by allowing author Lionel Shriver to argue that calling out sexual harassment around the world has somehow “degraded women in the eyes of men,” she ended a long and thoughtful discussion about the #MeToo movement. “Outing Harvey Weinstein as an abuser is one thing, Shriver said, but it is too much to pounce on small sexual harassment cases. “got out of hand”got out of hand.
And a bigger alert for the BBC as a whole lies in the small brouhaha that followed, as it tries to come to grips with a post-Brexit cultural world in which its raison d’être is no longer taken for granted – all fuelled by an assault on it in the right-wing media. The corporation is under rising political pressure to change what the culture minister, Oliver Dowden, called it.
New Director General Tim Davie has already reaffirmed his intention to increase the audience of the BBC, and new Chairman Richard Sharp, a Brexit-supporting board member of the right-wing think tank Centre for Policy Studies and a former consultant to Rishi Sunak, who donated £ 400,000 to the Conservative Party, announced this week. The Downing Street message is clear: times are changing, and it had better keep up if the Society wants to continue to be financed by increasingly brazen ratepayers. What, exactly? Well, according to a poll commissioned and released by The Times (which, thanks to its new broadcasting arm, Times Radio, now has its own dog in the fight), 44% of Britons claim that the broadcaster no longer represents its values, growing to 58% of Brexiters.
This is not so much about party politics, but a series of socially conservative views of the world—that feminism has gone too far, that you can’t tell what you think about immigration—and if the BBC doesn’t answer them, it’s going to address its commercial rivals. GB News, a new company led by former BBC interviewer Andrew Neil, revealed this week that it had raised £ 60 million to finance a “boldly different” platform targeting “communities outside London.”
All this leaves the BBC juggling its own survival and its ethical responsibility to say the facts on a fine line.
And there are many viewers, following the remarkable scenes in Washington this week, who already think the broadcaster is leaning dangerously far to the right. The classic journalistic reaction is not to refuse a voice to those whose views make us uncomfortable, but to publicly discuss them; to embrace and confront those claims that will not go away. But if that was the aim of the #MeToo Woman’s Hour, featuring Shriver, two Harvey Weinstein victims and a gender violence activist, the possible pitfalls were just highlighted. After overhearing Barnett and her producers debating how to deal with Okafor’s earlier defense of supposed anti-Semitic remarks, black actor Kelechi Okafor, who could have put Shriver on blast with her words, cut the show short minutes before it started. (Some wondered why the only black guest had to be questioned about his past, when Shriver’s own Au background had to be questioned about his past.