A key idea for Women for Independence has always been voice. Who gets to speak, and for how long. Whose voice is privileged above others. WFI member Kirsty Strickland tackles Question Time, that great bastion of the British establishment, with a stopwatch and a critical eye.
TAKE a seat, Question Time. We need to talk.
This Thursday's episode wasn't your finest hour, which is really saying something for a show that regularly features George Galloway & David Starkey. It started off well. 3 men (Chris Bryant, Matt Hancock, Douglas Carswell) and 2 women (Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, Cristina Odone ) so we were doing okay in terms of gender balance. But then people started to speak, and those people were mainly men. And when they weren't men, they were women but for a fleeting moment, before they were interrupted and the man voices started again.
David Dimbleby didn't help matters. He managed to get gender balanced contributions from the audience, but aside from that it was pretty dire stuff. Throughout the program he allowed the men to speak for upwards of a minute uninterrupted, sometimes asking follow up questions afterwards thus giving them even more time. By contrast, neither Tasmina nor Cristina were asked follow up questions and were rarely allowed to conclude their points. This is important because the audience weren't given time to react to what they said. Applause is the currency of Question Time, along with Twitter chatter it is how we gauge how well each person did. As well as not being given the same time to speak, the women weren't given the chance to hear the audience reaction to their contribution.
It will go some way to describing the state of affairs if I say Douglas Carswell was the least objectionable of the male guests. Which, I'd imagine, isn't an poll he tops often. Chris Bryant was like a yapping little terrier, demanding attention and then resorting to weeing on the floor if he didn’t get it. He delivered a masterclass in brazen Mansplaining, even being so bold as to interrupt Cristina Odone as she was concluding her point, because he could obviously sum it up so much better. This theme ran on throughout the program. When Tasmina & Christine were afforded time to speak (more on that in a minute) the male panelists took chivalry to a new level by helpfully telling the women what their opinion was, and rounding off their answers for them.
Christina was at the mercy of Matt Hancock's constant interventions, which is aptly demonstrated in the timings below. Tasmina was unflappable & undeterred, as expected and did her best to make sure she wasn't overlooked. But should she have to? I rewatched the episode today with a stopwatch. I analyzed the amount of time each panelist spoke for. The results are as follows:
Matthew Hancock: 8 minutes 40 seconds
Chris Bryant: 8 minutes 5 seconds
Douglas Carswell: 6 minutes 57 seconds
Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh: 5 minutes 23 seconds
Cristina Odone: 5 minutes 10 seconds
The numbers back up the overall impression I got and certainly the mood on Twitter. It felt like the women were hurried along. Almost as soon as the began to speak, Dimbleby & the panelists started to fidget, squirming in their seats at the thought of all the wonderful things they could be saying if only that darn woman would be quiet. Matt Hancock looked fit to burst at one point as he was denied the right to carry on shouting his point. The sheer anguish and incredulity on his face when he realises that Tasmina's zinger would be the last word is indicative of the free reign he'd been given up to then. (Catch it on Iplayer, 39 mins in)
Gender balance is a good aim, albeit one that seems quite far off at the moment. But It's not enough to just have women appear on political programming. When they do appear - they have to be heard and treated as a meaningful part of the debate, rather than a nuisance. I don't think the answer is to encourage our female politicians and commentators to be more aggressive, either. Shouty culture has become a thing on these programs (unless it’s a woman, and then it's 'hysteria', obvs) and it needs to stop. No mass generalizations here, heav'n forbid. Men don't all act like the Bryant Terrier. The Politest Man in Politics, John Swinney being a prime example. Courtesy should be the rule though, not the exception - not least because it makes for awful viewing.
Try harder next week, Question Time - that really wasn't good enough. 1/3 of MP's are now women, The Women's Equality Party has been founded and time has moved on. For those of a nervous disposition, look away now or get out the smelling salts. Its 2015. Women have opinions and we are kind of insisting they be heard.
Can somebody put Chris Bryant out? He's started yapping again...