The BBC, bless it, is displaying a reckless streak. After the traumatic revelations about Jimmy Savile, followed by a string of unconnected complaints about everything from laddish boisterousness to sexist bullying, it sends out a “respect” survey. Past and present employees are invited to contribute their experiences.
Blimey! Ask any worker of mature years whether he or she has always felt respected, and you unleash a tiger. Not for nothing is there natural alliteration between “boss” and “b*****d”, “work” and “whinge”. As a tough old boiler, my first instinct was, “Mustn’t grumble.” But after 40 years, staff and freelance, memories crowd in and old umbrages flower like mutant cacti. They shouldn’t have asked.
In 1973, I’ll have you know, local radio tried to make me do “women’s interest” features, so I had to feign a passion for speedway and greyhounds just to learn ’em. In 1974, staff grade OP2, I told my personnel officer I was miserable at having production work cancelled because the station couldn’t afford “extra responsibility reward” and wouldn’t let me work without it.
The HR lady just suggested in a low, caring voice that my problem might be a failed “personal relationship” with a senior colleague (as if!). Women, she believed, operate on romantic emotions, not creativity. So I went freelance, to work on Today. Draw a veil over the dearth of respect in any newsroom environment. The words, “You’re a reporter, stop pretending to read the Guardian and go out and report something,” can be wounding to a girl hoping to sneak off early, not roam around Brixton asking schoolkids if they’d ever hit a teacher.
The disrespect goes on. In 1982 I was sacked from presenting The Boat Show because of a three-month pregnancy. The producer cited “safety” grounds, because I might slip on a pontoon. It wasn’t safety; it was terror of a pregnant woman on screen. Around the same time, I was asked to present Midweek and the (female) controller of Radio 4 vetoed it at first, saying I should concentrate on documentaries.
When I pointed out that those didn’t pay a living wage but were more like a hobby, she replied, “But you’re married – money’s not an issue, surely?” Another time, a retired BBC mogul explained, with a hand on my thigh, that I should stick to producing because women’s voices were either “childish, vampy, mumsy or schoolmarm”.
My sole foray into regular TV presenting was equally hilarious. For the ethics panel show Choices in 1982 I was told to wear glasses, not my (more efficient) contact lenses, to look more serious. After the first show, they ordered me back into contacts and the senior editor cooed, “With your glasses you have authority; without them you have authority and charm.”
They also marched me round to Dickins & Jones with a wardrobe lady, to buy “little tops” with pussycat bows à la Thatcher. In vain I argued that Robin Day seemed to wear the same jacket and shirt every week, and fled back to radio.
Sexism has faded since. But as to general “respect”, all freelancers learn that BBC commissioners traditionally display the manners of a lop-eared pig, never looking to right or left for wounded feelings as it charges towards its trough. They do “availability checks” and make you hold dates indefinitely before you find out that they dropped the idea ages ago. One TV producer asked me to give up presenting Today four times a week to do a BBC1 show that autumn. Luckily, I rang to check in summer. “Oh,” he said. “We’re not thinking of you any more”.
Respect – who needs it? Freelancers grow thick skins, and accept such things with the resignation you display towards a dribbling old cat or flatulent dog. When it sometimes does purr or wag, we take it as a bonus.
Libby Purves presents Midweek on Wednesday at 9:00am on Radio 4