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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 February, 2005, 12:13 GMT
Women in news or 'news tarts'?

By Martha Kearney
Political Editor, Newsnight

Nan Winton photographed in 1960
Nan Winton was the first woman to present TV news - she was dropped soon after
A line from a recent programme from my esteemed colleague Jeremy Paxman introducing an item on whether women can make good scientists: "And now our Science Editor Susan Watts has put down her knitting to give us this report."

I think it was a joke.

So I have cast aside my crochet to take a look back at women in news over the years.

Newsrooms are certainly rather different from my early days of reporting.

I remember the programme editor (not from the BBC) who persisted in pinching my bottom. Or the cameraman (he WAS at the BBC) who called female producers News Tarts.

In the early days of the BBC you could hear women on the radio - like Helena Millais "Our Lizzie" with the catchphrase "'Ello me ducks, 'ere I am with me old string bag" or Miss Cecil Dixon, one of the Aunts on Children's Hour.

It took the General Strike of May 1926 to get women into news. As no newspapers were printed, the BBC found itself as the nation's only news provider. A small group of staff, including women, worked day and night on bulletins.

First BBC news service

It was actually a woman who oversaw the setting up of the BBC's first tiny news service: Hilda Matheson in 1927.

In Italy and Spain they have women newsreaders who are beautiful and sexy too, we're afraid of that here
Nan Winton, former newscaster
As Director of Talks, news came under her department and she employed a journalist to look at how a broadcast news service might run. In 1928 the BBC was permitted to broadcast "controversial" and political items.

One of the first programmes created was The Week in Parliament (renamed The Week in Westminster). It was devised by Hilda Matheson as a political programme made by women for women after the 1928 Equal Franchise Act gave all women over 21 the right to vote.

Audrey Russell commentating during the coronation in 1953
Audrey Russell was the first accredited female war reporter
Hilda Matheson said: "We are plunging into a new experiment this autumn by having a woman MP to give a simple explanatory talk on the week in Parliament every Wednesday morning at 1045 - the time most busy working women can listen best, when they have their cup of tea." (And put down their knitting, presumably.)

The programme was first broadcast in November 1929 when there were just 14 women MPs in the Commons. Some of their names give a sense of the political class of the day: the Duchess of Atholl, Megan Lloyd George, Viscountess Astor, Edith Picton-Turberville, Lady Cynthia Mosley and the Countess of Iveagh.

By 1931, when Margery Wace had taken over as producer, male MPs were being included.

Male domain

In the 1930s and 1940s, aside from copy typists and secretaries, the newsroom was a predominantly male domain. The war brought changes. Audrey Russell was employed as the BBC's first female news reporter and in 1944 Audrey Russell became the first female accredited war correspondent.

Despite the fact that women were restricted from applying for some jobs ( the ban on female General Trainees was only lifted in 1960) they were responsible for some of the BBC's most famous news programmes.

The production team of Tonight meeting in 1957 (l-r) Derek Hart (interviewer), Grace Wyndham Goldie (Asst Head of TV Talks), Cynthia Judah (research), Norman Taylor (technical director) and Geoffrey J
Grace Wyndham Goldie (second from left) pushed the BBC to cover elections
In 1950, Grace Wyndham Goldie pushed the BBC into covering the General Election, she championed the first party political broadcasts and Budget programmes before re-launching Panorama in 1955 and developing Tonight in 1957.

In radio, two women (Janet Quigley and Isa Benzie) saw through the development of the Today programme which was launched in 1957. Isa Benzie was the first producer and inventor of the programme's title.

It was in 1957 that the first woman read the news in the BBC Television Service: Armine Sandford, one of a team of four who presented the West Region's daily television news bulletins from the Bristol studios.

Young male journalists do not like working in the parliamentary unit where there is a female duty editor in charge
Male senior manager, 1973
But it was a long while before women were allowed to read the national news. Nan Winton was tried as a newsreader in June 1960 but soon axed.

She later complained about her treatment to the Daily Mail in 1964: "I suffered at the time. I suddenly felt like a Jew or a Negro and now I understand a little better how such people feel when faced with prejudice and discrimination.

"I believe there is certainly discrimination against women in this country. There were times when I was doing the announcing when I wanted to should aloud like Shylock 'hath not woman eyes, ears, senses?'

"In Italy and Spain they have women newsreaders who are beautiful and sexy too. We're afraid of that here."

Behind the scenes

Joan Marsden during the 1974 General Election
The BBC's first floor manager, Joan Marsden, in action during the 1974 General Election
Behind the camera women were a rare sight too. In 1960, Joan Marsden became the first woman floor manager and oversaw 16 general elections and 18 years of Panorama.

She reluctantly had to retire in 1979 when she reached 60 years of age. When Margaret Thatcher found this out, she said: "We must get the election over before Joan retires."

Joan's last job was that General Election programme.

Man Alive - which started in 1966 - was rare in that it included women reporters on screen. In the late 60s Sue McGregor, Nancy Wise and Margaret Howard worked as reporters on The World at One. From early days The World This Weekend included a woman on its editorial team.

Female managers

In 1970 Mary Edmond caused a stir when she was promoted to Duty Editor in the Parliamentary Unit.

In the 1973 Women in the BBC report, male journalists objected to working under a woman. One senior manager in the radio newsroom explained: "Young male journalists do not like working in the parliamentary unit where there is a female duty editor in charge."

It was in 1974 that Radio 4 appointed the first permanent female newsreader - Sheila Tracey and the following year, 1975, BBC One appointed its first permanent female newscaster - Angela Rippon.

Angela Rippon pictured at her desk in 1976
Angela Rippon was BBC One's first permanent female newscaster
Some famous names in radio began as studio managers. In the 1970s Susannah Simons (later a presenter of PM) led a campaign for female floor managers to be allowed to wear trousers. Susannah took off her trousers in the lift, leaving her jacket on as a mini dress. The policy changed swiftly afterwards.

Another studio manager at the time was Jenny Abramsky who went on to edit PM, the World at One and then the Today programme. She later became Editor of News and Current Affairs Radio.

By the time of the 1985 Monica Sims report Women in BBC Management, Moira Stuart, Sue Lawley and Julia Somerville were all network newsreaders, Kate Adie and Frances Coverdale were reporters, Margaret Jay was on Panorama and Joan Bakewell on Newsnight.

By June 1989, Kate Adie was appointed Chief News Correspondent but in 1991, it was revealed that out of 25 BBC war reporters only 3 were women: Carole Walker, Jane Howard and Kate Adie. In 1992, Anna Ford took the BBC to task for not employing any on-screen women for its election coverage.

The past decade has seen real change in managerial roles. By 2001 there were women editors of Newsnight (Sian Kevill), the One bulletin Chris Rybczynski and the Six news Jay Hunt (now edited by Amanda Farnsworth).

In 2005 there is now a woman Director of News - Helen Boaden and head of Newsgathering - Fran Unsworth.

The News Tarts have come of age.

Research by Kate Murphy, author of a 2002 report on women at the BBC.


Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10:30pm on BBC Two in the UK.

Newsnight was 25 on 30 January, 2005. Click on the links on the right-hand side of this page for more on the show's history.

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