» have i got news for you ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Have_I_Got_News_For_You_titlescreenHave I Got News For You has been on the air for twenty-four years, and last night it managed to do something it’s never done before. For the first time ever last night, the majority of people on screen for an episode of the show were women – Victoria Coren Mitchell as the host, and Katherine Ryan and Janet Street-Porter as the guests, alongside regulars Ian Hislop and Paul Merton. As I’m here to write this today, it appears the sky didn’t crack asunder and the world did not come to an end as a result.

As some of you will know, I’ve got a spreadsheet of the gender breakdown of guests on the show since it started (created mostly with the help of this Wikipedia page) and it’s usually been pretty grim reading.

Across the history of the show, less than a quarter of the guests (24.27%) and hosts (24.65%) have been women. During that time, there have been 8 shows (including last night) where all the guests were women, but the first seven were all from the period when Angus Deayton was the show’s permanent host and thus men were still a majority on screen. The last of those seven was in 1997. For comparison, there have been 181 shows (44% of the total) where all the guests were male, and thus everyone on screen was a male. The BBC has announced that there will be no more all-male panel shows, so this percentage will drop, but the fact it happened at all is ridiculous. Consider that in the time since the last show with all-female guests, there were over 100 all-male episodes of Have I Got News For You, and think what message that sends out to anyone watching.

Hopefully, last night is a sign that attitudes are changing, though I also fear that for years to come they’ll bring up the ‘all-woman’ show as an excuse for not doing it again for several years. This series might be the one that has the highest percentage of female guests on the show, a record which currently stands at 37.5%. The trouble for anyone hoping for progress is that that record was set back in the very first series of the show, and it’s failed to reach that mark in the 46 series since.

The current series is actually at parity for the four episodes broadcast so far – and there have actually been a majority of female hosts in those episodes – so who knows, it might finally be possible for a high-profile BBC series to almost accurately reflect the nation. (If we assume that 40% of the country are Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, of course…)

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I uploaded my spreadsheet of Have I Got News For You guests broken down by gender after the last series, then today realised I’d forgotten to upload the new version. So, that’s now uploaded – and here it is.

I guess if you’re looking for a key statistic from it, it’s the number 33.3 – one third of the guests and one third of the hosts were women in the last series, which was the first since the BBC introduced their ‘no all male panel shows’ policy. HIGNFY has stuck with that policy, but has done the bare minimum to meet it – every show had a woman on it, either hosting or presenting, but none of them had two or three. We still have to go back to the last century for a time when all the guests on a show were women, and last year for one when they were all men.

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Quick trivia question: What connects Richard Osman, Dan Snow and Mark Steel?

They’re the last all-male line-up of guests on Have I Got News For You, if Danny Cohen delivers on his promise:

“We’re not going to have panel shows on any more with no women on them. You can’t do that. It’s not acceptable.”

As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been collecting data on the gender bias on Have I Got News For You for a while and so this is welcome news. As I’ve got almost bored of pointing out, there have been only seven episodes of HIGNFY where all the guests have been female, with the last one of those being back in 1997 (Sue Perkins and Eve Pollard) and 181 where all the guests were male, with over a hundred of those happening since 1997 (Osman, Snow and Steel were in October last year).

So, if that number now freezes at 181 for good then there’s a cheer or two for Cohen, as it guarantees that female representation on HIGNFY will rise above the 23.72% of guests they currently make up, and a minimum of 33% female guests will make the next series one of the highest ever. It might even reach or surpass the record giddy heights of 37.5% female guests, which was achieved back in the very first series in 1990.

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for an episode where there’ll be all-female guests again (and hence more women than men on screen for the first time ever in the series history), but I will wager that when it does the time between it being announced and some moron complaining how awful it is that they can’t have all-male guests will be measured in nanoseconds.

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I was reminded about this by a Twitter conversation this morning, and realised that I hadn’t updated my spreadsheet about the gender of guests on Have I Got News For You since the last series ended. That the last series was pretty underwhelming may have had something to do with it, but if you’re the sort of person who wants to see a lot of statistics about how many men and women have been on the show in its 46(!) seasons, then you can find it by clicking here.

The main points (I hesitate to use ‘highlights’) are:

  • We still have to look back to 1997 for the last time all the guests on a show were women.
  • There have now been 181 times during the show’s history where all the guests (and hence, everyone on screen) was a man.
  • The last series managed to have 30% of women hosts and guests, which meant there was a very slight upturn in the overall percentages of both – 23.27% (guests) and 23.72% (hosts).
  • And it’s very depressing to compile these figures and see that there’s been basically no change since 1990.
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    I haven’t been doing weekly posts about it this series, but I am keeping the HIGNFY gender bias spreadsheet updated – you’ll normally find the updated version of it available on that link by Saturday lunchtime after a show.

    The problem is finding something new to say about it after every show, when the figures stay resolutely the same. 23.83% of guests overall (25% this season) and 22.46% of guest hosts have been women, and last week’s show was the 109th one with all-male guests since the last time all the guests were female. Still, we should have the first female host of the season (Mel Giedroyc) next week.

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    As the new series of HIGNFY started on Friday, I’ve updated the spreadsheet I created last year about the gender of guests. You can find it by clicking here, and I’ll endeavour to update it every week during this series.

    The overall figures remain pretty much as they did through last year – overall 23.49% of guests and 22.83% of guest hosts have been women and you still have to go back to 1997 to find a show where all the guest spots were taken by women. There hasn’t been an all-male show in 2013 yet, though – we men will just have to console ourselves with the 100+ shows that have been all-male since then.

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    And so the gender balance spreadsheet is up to date for the last time this year. It was a 30% series – 30% of the guests (including 3 out of 10 of the hosts) were women. The overall figures are now that 23.46% of guests and 22.95% of guest hosts have been women. This series had two shows in which all the guests (and hence, the entire panel) were men – the last time all the guests were women was in 1997. There’s never been a post-Angus show with a female host and two female guests, so every show since the series began has featured a majority of men on the panel.

    Of course, as women are only 23% of the population, this is entirely right and correct. Maybe if there were more women – perhaps even if they were a majority of the population – these figures might make people think that something was wrong.

    Hold on, I’m just being informed that women actually are a majority of the population. It turns out that TV has lied to me again.

    But seriously, compiling these figures has been an interesting exercise. I’d looked through the list of HIGNFY episodes before and noted that it did appear to be particularly full of men, but hadn’t realised just how bad it was. Indeed, it’s actually more likely for Ian to win a show (33%) than for a randomly chosen guest to be a woman and yet only one of those is regularly commented on.

    I’ve seen some interesting comments from people on these figures. Various men who’ve seen them have tried to justify them in one way or another, often presenting the bizarre argument that ‘women aren’t funny’ as though that was settled fact. It’s odd then, that I can look back at the female guests for this most recent series and think of funny moments for each of them, while there are several men there who may well have been accompanied by Vic Reeves’ tumbleweed for all the laughs they generated. Note too that any woman saying that she doesn’t find most male comedians funny will often be dismissed as a ‘humourless feminist’ while men are free to dismiss all female comedians.

    There’s also the argument that somehow because the pool of journalists, politicians, comedians, actors etc that they draw guests from is male-dominated that HIGNFY can’t help but reflect that. That might be true if they were choosing names randomly from a hat, but the producers get to choose their guests, and the results can be clearly seen on screen. For instance, Alexander Armstrong and Kirsty Young are both very good guest hosts, but why has Armstrong done the job 21 times to Young’s 10? There’ve been 42 episodes hosted by women – just one more than the total hosted by Armstrong, Jack Dee or Jeremy Clarkson.

    Claiming that HIGNFY is just reflecting the sexism already present in society isn’t much of a defence in my view. As many commenters have pointed out to me, that just ensures it continues to reflect the sexism of society by regularly showing women a world that they’re not deemed to be part of. An all-male panel on HIGNFY or other series is presented as entirely natural and not worthy of comment, while an all-female panel is presented as something so special that it has to be highlighted in the programme name (Loose Women).

    It’s also been suggested that it’d be interesting to see similar figures for the representation of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities on the show. I agree, though I’ll pass that task onto someone else because of the time involved, but if you do gather those stats, I’ll happily link to them here – and the same for any other series too. For instance, see A Very Public Sociologist on Question Time.

    Thanks to everyone who’s linked to or commented on the statistics over the last few weeks. I’ll update it again next year when the series starts again, but do feel free to remind me about it around April/May when it starts off again.

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