Woman’s Hour: Whose side are you on?

BBC Radio 4's programme for women risks losing significance
Written by Miels
March 8, 2021

When Jane Garvey and Jenni Murray announced they were leaving BBC Woman’s Hour, I felt like I was losing a pair of sagacious aunties. How would the show progress without the honeyed voice and deceptively investigative interview style of Jenni Murray, the broadcasting powerhouse who had presented the show for over three decades? And what would the show’s new identity be, without Jane Garvey’s no-nonsense, pragmatic presence? 

Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey both left Woman’s Hour in 2020

Nostalgia aside, Woman’s Hour has been well overdue a shake-up. This changing of the guard signalled an opportunity for the 75 year old stalwart show’s departure from liberal white feminism, towards more progressive inclusivity. So, it came as somewhat underwhelming news to me that Emma Barnett had been chosen as custodian of a whopping four slots a week. There is no doubt that Barnett’s resolute success in broadcasting qualifies her for the job. Yet, this relatively obvious pluck out of Auntie’s presenting repertoire, at a time when things could have got really exciting, felt like an anti-climax. But – it’s Woman’s Hour, and in the spirit of feminist solidarity, it also felt important to get behind the new appointment. 

Before Woman’s Hour, Emma Barnett hosted a mid-morning show on BBC Radio 5 Live

Barnett kicked off her new-look programme with a message from the Queen, and a frustratingly dull interview with a taciturn Sonia Khan. But it was during the third episode, dedicated solely to discussing the MeToo movement, that things really started to disappoint. A year on from the start of Harvey Weinstein’s trial, this episode promised an opportunity to explore the movement’s ‘victories, criticisms and unintended consequences’. 

You’d have thought a full length episode on MeToo would have considerable focus on, better still, participation from Tarana Burke, who instigated the movement in 2006. Instead, this feature was to pick up from 2017 – when the movement was galvanised by courageous women in Hollywood. But a discussion on MeToo without black representation is not a discussion on MeToo. 

Woman’s Hour had in fact booked Kelechi Okafor to speak on black women’s experience in the episode. If you haven’t already heard of her, Okafor, amongst her many accomplishments, is the creator and host of the podcast Say Your Mind. She is an intelligent, razor-sharp speaker who has a reputation for wise, straight-talking. She also has a reputation for having made anti-Semitic remarks in 2017, when she defended Reggie Yates’ take on “random fat Jewish men” in the music industry. 

Kelechi Okafor: actress, director and public speaker

If you didn’t see anything from Okafor and Barnett’s fallout on social media, the nutshell is that Barnett hadn’t realised that Okafor was one of the guests on the programme until all the guests were lined up (virtually) just before coming on air. Barnett (understandably) was angry that she was going to have to interview Okafor given her ugly remarks about Jews. Allegedly, Barnett then embarked on a verbal tirade about Okafor directed at the producers – before realising her microphone was on, and that all the guests could hear her. Barnett, purportedly, tried to style it out, but Okafor felt humiliated and decided to pull out of the show. 

Okafor took to Twitter and her podcast to put forward her side of events

Okafor wasn’t the only provocative person to be booked onto that Woman’s Hour episode. Lionel Shriver, a writer who has caused significant controversy regarding the depiction of race in her novels, and for condemning Penguin Random House’s diversity and inclusion initiative as being “drunk on virtue”, stayed on to discuss her reasons for thinking that the ‘disproportionate’ movement has run its course. Subsequently, despite women’s campaigner Sarah Green, and barrister Gudrun Young’s attempts to highlight the integral importance of racial justice and the voices of black women within MeToo, the subject was left to be discussed by a collective of white women. 

Emma Barnett’s statement regarding Kelechi Okafor’s exit

I can list multiple names of women who could have been booked to speak on MeToo in relation to black experience. How about Munroe Bergdorf, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Layla F Saad, Afua Hirsh, Rachel Cargle, Aja Barber, Michaela Coel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Livs Little – women who are able to represent a multitude of intersections within their own communities? The lazy researching and production of this particular episode defaulted to the boring media trope of picking two provocative individuals, highlighting their controversies, then pitting them against one another. The desired result: sensationalised debate. 

So, Woman’s Hour’s episode on MeToo – the most influential and defining feminist movement in recent history, with the aim to unify women against abuse – descended, off air, into a divisive off-topic debate. An online argument between two women with significant platforms. It all seemed so dishearteningly representative of feminism today. Okafor moved onto her podcast to share her side of events. Once past the bite-backs in response to her treatment by Barnett off air, she did also frankly confront the need to unlearn her own misinformed bias. 

MeToo was started by Tarana Burke in 2006 as part of her lifelong fight to help and protect victims of abuse

Since Barnett’s MeToo episode, listeners have also had to endure her relentless barrage of questions directed at Zara Mohammed, the first woman to lead the Muslim Council of Britain. This interview was devoid of solidarity, with no celebration of Mohammed’s progressive positioning within the British Islamic community. The interview was reduced to an intimidating, insistent and repetitive bombardment of the same question regarding women Imams. It was uncomfortable to listen to, and the atmosphere set by Barnett through the airwaves felt unduly divisive.   

At 30 years old, Zara Mohammed is the first woman Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain

There is no doubt that Barnett still needs to find her stride within the show’s format – and she should be given leeway on that. However she seems insistent on using political current affairs to set the agenda for the show’s content – much in the way that 5Live does [one episode began, absurdly, with Boris Johnson as inspiration for a discussion on ‘empathy in leadership’ and whether it is important]. The programme urgently needs to uncover the marginalised social issues affecting women. The types of issues that don’t make the front pages. 

And what about the social issues affecting our Trans siblings? Following on from Garvey and Murray’s outspoken TERF sentiments, I am not alone in wanting to hear Trans people afforded the representation on Woman’s Hour that they deserve. Trans issues are social issues, and feminist issues. [N.B. This does not include cis people discussing Trans experience on their behalf]. 

As we emerge from a pandemic that threatens to decimate the progress women have made in the workplace – when Emma Barnett segues into a topic by bemoaning how we are all missing eating in a restaurant, it lands thoughtlessly.  And it’s clumsy, when, on the landmark news that The Pill is being made more accessible, Barnett leaves it to the last seconds of the interview to allow her guest a ‘feminist’ take on it. 

According to research by McKinsey & Co. women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the Covid crisis than men’s jobs

Woman’s Hour needs to represent women and people across intersectional and political spectrums. Just because I’m a feminist – I can’t demand that all the women who deserve to be represented should think the same as I do. But if Woman’s Hour truly is a programme for women, it needs to lead as a place where bridges can be built, and viewpoints safely explored. It shouldn’t undermine itself with lazy broadcasting and it must give listeners the issues that are prescient to women, inclusive and all encompassing. This is no mean feat – but unless it manages to walk this complicated line, its relevance will fragment.  


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