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John Humphrys’ attitude to equal pay highlights the BBC’s impartiality problem

Our culture is finally changing with respect to subjects such as sexual abuse and the pay gap, yet these topics are still debated vigorously by the veteran broadcaster and his colleagues

Of the many things I have learned life is too short for – making your own puff pastry, monogamy, trying to have a proper drink in the interval at the theatre – top of my list is getting in a mobile-broadcast van outside my house in my nightie to be hooked up to the Today programme studio, in order to argue with various men. Second, perhaps, is listening to Today. If you have sat in a similar van or in the studio – headphones on while John Humphrys barks at you about abortion, something you have experienced and he has not, or John Pilger infers that anyone who does not think Julian Assange is a freedom fighter is in the pay of the CIA – you may feel the same way.
Surely no one was surprised by the audio that leaked last week, revealing Humphrys’ fossilised attitude to the concept of equal pay. The programme has long been an old boys’ club, absolutely Westminster- and London-centric, and it ventures into many areas – science, culture, the internet, the north and, er, women – with a supercilious attitude.

I am not here to knock the BBC, because I know that every criticism is met with the answer “David Attenborough”. But Today is surely at the pinnacle of a set of problems to do with impartiality and transparency.

It is lumbering when it needs to act quickly. Carrie Gracie’s letter about leaving her post as China editor, as a result of the pay gap between herself and her male colleagues, was a statement of beauty and dignity, but other BBC women are not allowed to talk about this. Meanwhile, Humphrys continues to “banter” away in the studio. This is 2018. Do we even have to argue about the right to equal pay? Apparently so.
But, for a long time, the BBC has been hampered on gender issues in terms of content, too, thanks to its now-quaint notion of impartiality. Its editorial guidelines say: “Due impartiality is often more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints. Equally, it does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles.” Female licence-fee payers are part of these democratic principles. Yet, as the Weinstein and #MeToo issues broke, I was asked – as were many writers – to debate whether the sexual harassment being discussed had even happened, or whether the response was going “too far”. Obviously, I refused, because I did not want to be pitted against idiotic misogynists, be they male or the go-to female mercenaries adored by radio and TV bookers. Is this balance? Sexual abuse: for or against?

Something is changing in our culture when it comes to sexual harassment. Finally – and fast. The BBC is part of this culture; it cannot be “neutral” on this issue. This is as idiotic as having climate-change deniers (entire argument: “It snowed somewhere”) pitted against scientists who have studied the environment for years. Likewise, neutrality does not mean that the response to all accusations of leftwing bias is wall-to-wall Nigel Farage. It is lazy. If you think Farage has been on Question Time more than anyone else, well, he pretty much has. He is a made man and the BBC has helped make him.

The BBC literally has to get with the programme. There cannot be neutrality around unequal pay and sexual harassment. These cannot be presented as subjects for an entitled and defensive establishment to debate. And no, I do not want to have a heated discussion about it when I can simply switch it off.

Shane Lynch knows that consent is sexy. Why don’t all men?

I have long loved Shane Lynch of Boyzone, ever since he did a lot of inappropriate grabbing of his own crotch on Ireland’s The Late Late Show in a previous century. This love has been rekindled by watching him on Celebrity Big Brother: from his moving reminiscences about Stephen Gately to the conversation in which he said “consent is sexy”. By jove, man, you’ve got it! I do not want to come over all Molly Bloom, but even those who read Ulysses only for the dirty bits find that those are an affirmation of female desire: “Yes I said yes I will Yes.”

But how often do we hear men talk about the sexiness of consent? Rarely. Instead, we hear depressing details of what some call a bad date, others “sexual misconduct” and others “assault”. The latest is an account from a woman who felt pressured into having sex she did not want with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. (Ansari says the encounter was “by all indications completely consensual”.) He kept sticking his fingers down her throat, a move often observed in certain genres of pornography, which continue to reassure certain men that the clitoris is located in the gullet.

We need to educate young people about what consent is and give them ways to understand verbal and non-verbal language. Consent is often portrayed as “asking” at each stage, when sex is complicated, fluid, messy and changes from moment to moment.

To suggest that men may get more out of sex that women enjoy, rather than sex into which they feel coerced, should not be radical. Consent means listening to, hearing and responding to what another person wants. It is about communication and play. And that is hot, as I believe the young people say.
Quite hard to cope at the moment with all the people saying racist things then declaring that they are not racists. So, we have Toby Young popping into a eugenics conference, Donald Trump declaring: “I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed,” after his reported comments about “shithole countries” and the Ukip leader and his poisonous ex-girlfriend, who says her remarks about Meghan Markle were taken out of context. In what context they could have been considered OK is one I prefer not to think about. And that, of course, is my white privilege speaking.

Another aspect of white privilege is that there are no serious penalties for saying these awful things. There have to be real consequences. Let’s see them.