A couple of points about Rachel Smalley and diversity in prime time news

Rachel Smalley is copping a lot of flak for pointing out what should be obvious: our prime time news shows on both radio and tv are dominated by white men. They’re all perfectly good broadcasters, and some of them are even excellent broadcasters, and at least one of them has recently been annointed as St Broadcaster by the NZ public. Even so, they are overwhelmingly, white men.

Smalley has been roundly castigated for daring to point this out, and people have leapt in to say that there are plenty of women in broadcasting and that most of these men report to female bosses. See for example, Tim Watkins at Pundit: On Smalley: a bit of back and forth.

Of those that I know or have worked with, they’ve all had women bosses. And that’s a key point that’s worth noting in this debate that is very different from the newsrooms of a generation ago. There are probably other examples, but as much as I know: Guyon has been produced by Maryanne Ahern, John by Pip Keane, Larry by Melita Tull and Paul by Sarah Bristow. Duncan has worked for Linda Clark. It was Carol Hirschfeld who hired Campbell last week. As much as the marketing sometimes belies this, news and current affairs is not just about the host.

Watkins is right: current affairs is not just about the host. Nevertheless, the host is the front person for a show. And when you have white men as the front person for so many shows, it helps to create a mindset about who is worthy of presenting the news, who is entitled to comment on it, whose opinions matter, who are the serious people that we ought to listen to and trust. Overwhelmingly, it’s not women. And no matter how much work women are doing in the backroom, out the front it’s all about the men.

That’s a harmful message to about who is worth listening to. It’s no wonder that women are so under represented in our Parliament and around our board tables, when the people who are valorised and lauded and given frontline roles are men, and women in public and senior roles are exceptions.

Of course, where there’s a controversy, there’s an on-line poll. Here’s the ever-reliable NZ Herald’s poll.

On-line poll

On-line poll

Take a look at the possible answers on that poll.  Yes, it’s a good idea to have a discussion about representation during Prime Time vs no, broadcasters should be chosen on merit along vs I’m not sure.

So much to read into that second response!  First up, it’s not even worth having a discussion about representation.  Second, it’s all about merit and that’s all that matters.

But there’s the rub.  Is the way that we measure merit gendered?  (This is a trick question.)

Anyone who has ever read any feminist analysis knows the results of endless studies: yes, the way we measure merit is indeed gendered, and we tend to equate merit with being male, and being a white male at that.

Heaven knows how merit in broadcasting is measured. If it was by ratings alone, Paul Henry would be off the air already. But I’m guessing that the way we measure merit in broadcasting is as heavily gendered as other fields.

And the results of that on-line poll. Totally unsurprising. Most people (64%) don’t even want to have the discussion.

On-line poll results

On-line poll results

We’ve got a long way to go.

In the meantime, I’m willing to lay good odds that Rachel Smalley is getting some nasty e-mail over her daring to voice this opinion. Do send her a message of support, for having the courage to speak out on this.


2 comments on “A couple of points about Rachel Smalley and diversity in prime time news

  1. CarolS says:

    Apologies if this is a duplicate comment; an earlier attempt vanished into the ether.
    I’m disinclined to give Rachel Smalley much credit here. Of course representation of women in media should be discussed, but her comments were more about taking a big swipe at John Campbell’s appointment to Radio New Zealand, which seems like missing the point to me. Radio NZ brings us Kim Hill, Susie Ferguson and Kathryn Ryan in high profile time slots; Carol Hirschfeld is head of content (and was previously head of programming at Maori TV) and Mary Wilson has just been appointed to director of news programming (and will be John Campbell’s boss). Surely we should be applauding an organisation with women in such powerful and influential roles rather than sniping at it.
    I’m quite happy for Ms Smalley to voice her opinion, but I think she is misguided on this one.

  2. kingrosalind says:

    That Herald Digi-poll is so bad it looks like the kind of question you get on a citizen’s referendum. I hardly know where to start… but I’m going to start with the comment that wouldn’t Hiring Broad-casters Based on Merit actually lead to INCREASED diversification? Or does the Herald believe that middle-aged white men have genetic superiority when it comes to broad-casting?

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