The hoo-hah continues. Talented Mr Jon Holmes, a comedian loved by many, who appeared on the Now Show on BBC Radio 4 for eighteen years, was politely informed by a female producer: ‘ I’m afraid, for the next series, we’re not inviting you back. We are recasting it, with more women and diversity’ . He was aggrieved. Outraged even. Understandably. I think Holmes is very funny. So too countless other women and diverse folk. The seat he sat on probably had the shape of his bum imprinted on it after so long. He will be missed. Some tabloids now claim, Shock! Horror! that other Caucasian male presenters have privately told the jilted Mr Holmes that they too have been shoved aside for second rate individuals who happen to have the x chromosome or dark pigmentation. I feel their pain. But can they feel the pain of ace women and people of colour who have never been regularly gifted choice gigs and jobs by broadcasters? Eighteen years is a long time not to notice white privilege. To give him credit, Holmes does concede that it is important to represent Britain’s multicultural society. Apparently, important to say that, but to cry foul it when it starts to happen. Cos dammit, that means he has to step aside for a while. There will be plenty of other offers I’m sure. I hope.
If such difficult decisions are not made, pray how will change happen? There can be only three reasons why women, who make up more than half the population, and people of colour- now into the third generation- are still not breaking through the triple glazed glass ceiling. One: they abjure big success, prefer to stay safe and lowly. Two: they are not good enough and never can be. Three: they are kept down and out by the boss class, still predominantly white and male. Call me paranoid, but I am inclined to believe the last explanation. The powerful and influential don’t consciously plot systemic exclusion in secret turrets, but most of them trust and feel comfortable with their own types. Their assumptions and decisions naturally exclude those who are different. Involuntary, unrecognised bias are almost more pernicious than overt sexism or BNP chants.
In 2007, in a radical move, the sparkling, witty Sandi Toksvig was given the chance to chair the News Quiz on Radio4. Until then, producers had only ever picked slick and droll white men. Toksvig left in 2015 ( interestingly to co-found the Women’s Equality Party) and they have reverted to the ‘norm’. Miles Jupp, her replacement, is brilliant, just like Holmes is. But why they didn’t give the spot to another sharp and funny woman? Someone, say, like the Scottish comedian Susan Calman or smart Samira Ahmed or quirky Sue Perkins? Just when you think there is a breakthrough, traditional forces come in, like angry waves, and wash away the hopeful signs. This happens in politics, the media, business and all the professions.
And all the time, peeved men ( and sadly some successful women too) moan about ‘unfairness’, the lowering of standards and tokenism. Or they claim that Britain is now truly meritocratic and that equality campaigners are indulging in special pleading. The rise and rise of Theresa May will be used by these deniers. The Canadian feminist Charlotte Whitton ( 1896-1975) wrote: ‘Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought to be half as good.’ For black and Asian women the burden of proof is even harder and for our men the odds are stacked so high it’s a wonder any of them make their mark.
For over thirty years, the BBC and other channels too have been bleating on and on about diversity and inclusion. They have hired special tsars, spent money on conferences and training, talked the talk. I remember being paid a tidy sum to do some of this training. A few exotic individuals and dauntless women were admitted to the club but, as Lenny Henry tirelessly points out, the culture remained stubbornly resistant. Remember how the irascible John Humphreys asked Mishal Hussein if she got the job on News at Ten because she was good looking? Some of those who managed to get in, left, because they were ghettoised or humiliated, or barely tolerated.
In the last five years, some sectors are getting serious about diversifying their workforce. The advertising industry has transformed itself. High tech firms have no gender or race hangups. Some media outlets are becoming more diverse and inclusive, partly because Ofcom is now pushing hard for that to happen. In this new landscape, Jon Holmes et al will not be guaranteed jobs for life. But they will still survive and thrive. So please guys, let’s see less self pity and more munificence. You’ve had it really good. Give someone else a turn.
Edited Version I newspaper 5/10/16