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109 presenters, 25 women, one MP & A Tub of Lard: Is it all over for HIGNFY?

The BBC’s Have I Got News For You is back in the… news thanks to remarks made by team captains Ian Hislop and Paul Merton on the subject of the dearth of women on HIGNFY. In its 28-year history, HIGFY has had 109 guest presenters, of that number 25 have been women. Of those 25 women only one was a politician and that was Ann Widdecombe. Make of that what you will.

In an interview with ITV news presenter Tom Bradby for the Radio Times, the presenters said the disparity in numbers was not the fault of the show’s producers. Ian Hislop said: “…on the whole, women are slightly more reticent and think, maybe modestly: ‘I can’t do that.’ Maybe more men in public life say: ‘Yes I can do that.’”

In response columnist Marina Hyde tweeted: “Actual LOL at the HIGNFY guys’ belief that the reason women don’t want to go on their show is because of some innate natural reticence, as opposed to having been able to see, since forever, how women always end up being dealt with on the show.”

Meanwhile, it seems women are answering Frankie Boyle’s producers’ phone calls over on his show New World Order and HIGNFY’s BBC Radio 4 relation The News Quiz. Why?

You could argue that Boyle’s show is still in its infancy and doesn’t follow the same format, but The News Quiz most definitely does – though without the sitting team captains. Perhaps this is what the problem is, where Merton and Hislop are on home turf and therefore present a cliqueyness the revolving line-up on The News Quiz dissipates.

Today Nadine Dorries said “It’s all about banter – women don’t banter in that way, or very rarely. You might get the odd woman who would, but most women don’t banter in that way, don’t have that degree of aggression.” An argument I hate, I find it unhelpful and suggests women can’t handle much. Comedian Debra Frances-White makes much more sense in this article when she says: “A lot of the time what people don’t realise they are watching is five men in their local pub – they are regulars, they look like everyone else and they are made to feel welcome – and one woman on a job interview. Because she knows that not only will [the audience] decide whether she is good enough to be allowed back on this show and other panel shows, but they will be judging whether all women are funny.”

Of all the female presenters, the one with the most HIGNFY shows under their belt is Jo Brand, in her autobiography Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down Brand says she was “bloody terrified” about her first appearance on the show in the early ’90s, particularly due to how rare female guests were on the show, “I did feel the weight of expectation upon me”.

Brand states that she finds guest hosting the show much more enjoyable, “being in that chair gives me an authority I didn’t feel I had when I was a guest on the panel” – and who can forget her takedown of Hislop’s dismissal of sexual harassment in the Commons.

Brand has the advantage of being a comedian, Ann Widdecombe has only hosted once, Merton recalls her “telling the producer what jokes will and won’t work” before apparently turning to him and saying: “‘Come on, be amusing, that’s what you’re being paid for’… It’s like, the arrogance of the woman, you know? Suddenly she thought she was Victoria Wood”.

This could be the snobbishness of a comedian, it could be sexism, it could be Ann Widdecombe. It’s worth noting the moment Merton is recollecting is somewhat reminiscent of Hank’s second night hosting the Larry Sanders Show in the episode Hank’s Night in the Sun. It does strike me as unwise however when talking about why women don’t seem to want to host your show, to share an unflattering anecdote about a past female host.

What I’m curious about is why Hislop and Merton don’t seem to be particularly concerned if women don’t want to host the show. As team captains of a satire show they, like Angus Deayton before them, will struggle to maintain any appearance of integrity if they do not insist on fair representation on what is their show. As it is they are displaying the passivity of two tubs of lard.