DAME JENNI MURRAY: How I was cancelled by the BBC I adore…


For 33 years of almost constant delight, it has been the same routine: arriving at Broadcasting House, meeting that day’s producer, exchanging ideas and a little gossip, reading the newspapers, writing a script, preparing interviews and hearing cheery greetings from the other members of the small production team as they drifted in.

Just before 10am we would make our way to the studio, then pop out to the Green Room to welcome the guests who would soon be brought along to join me at the microphone.

Back to the studio, headphones on, that familiar ‘And now Woman’s Hour, with Jenni Murray’ and we were off.

The guests might be a Cabinet minister, a gardener, a chef, a famous author, a film star (most memorably Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas and Tom Hanks), a disabled actor, a poet, a musician, a grieving widow, an anxious parent, an obstetrician, a lawyer, a professor.

Just before 10am we would make our way to the studio, then pop out to the Green Room to welcome the guests who would soon be brought along to join me at the microphone 

The range of topics to be tackled was endlessly diverse and fascinating and they sat there in front of me, ready to be questioned, challenged, encouraged to tell their stories.

I could see their faces, their body language and read their personalities, as they could see and read mine. It was real.

Now, for me, it’s over.

My last programme on Thursday was a sad event as I thanked the audience for being such a loyal part of the Woman’s Hour family. I explained that I’d always had to remember that no one stereotype fitted the definition of woman — there were many, many different types in our gender who had to be served but we did all share one thing: our sex.

My guests were four of my contemporaries — Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC; Harriet Harman MP, now Mother of the House; Jude Kelly, founder of the WOW Foundation; and Jackie Kay, the National Poet of Scotland.

We looked back at the three decades during which Woman’s Hour had brought so many inequalities to the attention of the millions of women who had listened.

There was the fight for women’s ordination, the battle for equal marriage, the rise of the ‘house husband’ (in which I had a degree of personal influence), domestic violence and the judges who had displayed rather more empathy with the perpetrators than with the victims, often suggesting that women had asked to be beaten or raped.

My last programme on Thursday was a sad event as I thanked the audience for being such a loyal part of the Woman’s Hour family. I explained that I’d always had to remember that no one stereotype fitted the definition of woman — there were many, many different types in our gender who had to be served but we did all share one thing: our sex

My last programme on Thursday was a sad event as I thanked the audience for being such a loyal part of the Woman’s Hour family. I explained that I’d always had to remember that no one stereotype fitted the definition of woman — there were many, many different types in our gender who had to be served but we did all share one thing: our sex

Lady Kennedy remembered our discussion about marital rape and being approached by the Women’s Institute to talk to them in detail about how the law might change.

I think we all looked back proudly at how much better life had become for women in so many areas — yet none of us was confident that equality was now ‘sorted’ and Woman’s Hour had talked itself out of a job.

Since I announced my departure, some commentators have suggested that the very idea of a ‘Woman’s Hour’ has become an anachronism and should be terminated.

Not a bit of it. On my last day we talked about the health inequalities women suffer because medical research has often left us out of the picture; the unfair burden of domestic work which has been highlighted by the pandemic; the undervaluing of those who work part-time in vital jobs such as cleaning and caring; and the clear picture of domestic violence the virus has brought to the fore. Woman’s Hour’s voice is as vital as ever.

In which case, you may ask, why am I stepping aside from a job I so loved?

Of course, the virus put paid to some of the pleasures of my daily working life. Arriving at Broadcasting House had become rather like entering the Mary Celeste.

Only two producers were allowed, together with a programme assistant and a studio manager — all carefully socially distanced. Much of the morning was taken up with sorting out phone or Zoom lines, often unreliable, to distant guests. There was no one but me in the studio.

I think we all looked back proudly at how much better life had become for women in so many areas — yet none of us was confident that equality was now ‘sorted’ and Woman’s Hour had talked itself out of a job

I think we all looked back proudly at how much better life had become for women in so many areas — yet none of us was confident that equality was now ‘sorted’ and Woman’s Hour had talked itself out of a job 

I craved real people to interview without those crackling, muffled, suddenly disappearing sounds as a line went dead. For warm, direct human communication to take place and be heard in homes across the country.

It was not to be.

As I walked away on Thursday, having shared Mary Berry’s gift of a chocolate cake, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of relief that, given the ‘rule of six’, I would not have to endure the big farewell party that is common practice for a long-serving contributor to the Corporation.

I hate those parties. I’ve never been at home in a crushing crowd, I don’t like cheap white wine and I’m hopeless at receiving a compliment gracefully — no doubt the result of a mother who made a point of never giving me one and constantly warned me never to get above myself.

For me, there were no hugs, only a few tears and I simply walked away from the sometimes suffocating embrace of Auntie, with whom I had spent nearly 50 years of my life, without a backward glance.

I was not leaving, contrary to popular rumour, as a result of ageism on the part of the BBC. I made the decision a year ago when it became clear to me that it was time to move on and be free of the leash which, in recent years, had caused me to be what I can only describe as ‘cancelled’.

First came the furore concerning an article I had written in which I acknowledged that I was entering the most controversial and, at times, vicious, vulgar and threatening debate of our day.

I made clear that I was not transphobic or anti-trans. Indeed, I emphasised my belief that everyone — whether transgender or those of us who hold to the sex assigned to us at birth — should be treated with respect and protected from the bullying and violence that so many like me have suffered.

I merely asked the trans activists to acknowledge the difference between sex and gender, a trans woman and a woman, respect our right to safe single-sex spaces and abandon the nonsensical idea that we should be known as ‘cis women’.

We are women. No need for further definition. I begged trans activists to understand feminism and the struggle we had experienced in fighting for our right to be viewed as equals to men.

I made clear that I was not transphobic or anti-trans. Indeed, I emphasised my belief that everyone — whether transgender or those of us who hold to the sex assigned to us at birth — should be treated with respect and protected from the bullying and violence that so many like me have suffered

I made clear that I was not transphobic or anti-trans. Indeed, I emphasised my belief that everyone — whether transgender or those of us who hold to the sex assigned to us at birth — should be treated with respect and protected from the bullying and violence that so many like me have suffered

I reminded them that feminism had fought against sexual stereotyping, and that it was ridiculous to assume a girl who liked cars and trousers really wanted to be a boy, or a boy who loved dolls was ‘born in the wrong body’ and needed to be a girl.

Of course, I was branded a TERF — a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist — on social media and threatened with all kinds of violence. But what shocked me most was the BBC’s response.

I was roundly ticked off publicly and informed that I would not be allowed to chair any discussions on the trans question or the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. I had lots of emails and tweets asking me why I had not been involved in this debate, as it was so important to Woman’s Hour listeners. You have the answer.

A similar response from the BBC came as a result of a short piece I wrote for a book after the referendum on EU membership resulted in our leaving the Union.

I was not a ‘Remoaner’, ignoring the democratic decision that had been made and arguing for another referendum to bring about a different result. I merely expressed my sadness, as a postwar baby boomer, that my youthful dream of a union that had nothing to do with trade and economics, but an entente that would ensure peace in Europe and free movement for my sons, would be lost.

Another warning from the BBC came at me. I had breached the rules on impartiality again and this time I would be banned from covering the election in 2019.

This 32 years after I joined Woman’s Hour and had covered every election since 1987 — not to mention the ones I’d been involved with on Newsnight and the Today programme, with nothing but praise and admiration for my absolute impartiality on air, being as tough and challenging an interviewer to whatever member of which party appeared in front of me.

It’s an interesting word, impartiality. For years, until recently, I and other broadcast journalists have written articles and books. In my case they were often controversial ones on marriage, abortion, pornography or bringing up boys, and I suffered no comeback from the BBC. At one point I was actually encouraged by a channel controller to write a regular column as a way of widening awareness of Woman’s Hour and Radio 4.

Impartiality was perceived as what a presenter demonstrated in the studio. It was not assumed that the radio or television audience expected the men and women who entered their homes on a daily basis to be dull ciphers with no opinions or personalities.

Dame Jenni Murray is made a Dame Commander by the Queen during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, London in December 2011

Dame Jenni Murray is made a Dame Commander by the Queen during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, London in December 2011

I defy anyone to know which political party I have voted for, or what I think about the current moves towards Brexit, or the way the coronavirus crisis has been handled — because, on air, I have been impartial, exactly as I should have been.

I do hope the new Director- General, Tim Davie, will bear this in mind and have no fear of a seemingly unfriendly government or the Twitter mob bringing down his greatest broadcasters.

Then there is the issue of pay. People have always assumed that a presenter at the BBC must be rolling in it. That was certainly not true in my case.

I had never had an agent to bump up my pay — feeling proud to be hired to do a job I loved for an organisation I trusted, admired and felt would only pay a reasonable amount for what was, essentially, a public service.

It only became a real issue when the government demanded that large organisations should reveal their gender pay gap. The BBC’s was considerable. I negotiated a rise that took my annual remuneration up to just over £100,000 a year.

I was astonished to receive such an enormous sum. I was a working-class girl from Barnsley whose father could never have dreamt of earning such a vast amount. Nevertheless, I found that the daily rate I had been awarded per programme was still less than those for men who had carried out similar work in earlier years.

I was astonished to receive such an enormous sum. I was a working-class girl from Barnsley whose father could never have dreamt of earning such a vast amount. Nevertheless, I found that the daily rate I had been awarded per programme was still less than those for men who had carried out similar work in earlier years.

I was astonished to receive such an enormous sum. I was a working-class girl from Barnsley whose father could never have dreamt of earning such a vast amount. Nevertheless, I found that the daily rate I had been awarded per programme was still less than those for men who had carried out similar work in earlier years.

You may have been surprised to find that neither my fellow presenter Jane Garvey nor I was included in the recently published long list of presenters earning more than £150,000 a year.

The reason? Despite delivering a hugely popular daily magazine, once described as ‘a listed building of broadcasting’ by a senior manager, on which equal pay had first been discussed in 1946, we didn’t qualify. So no, half a lifetime at the BBC hasn’t made me a rich woman, nor should it have.

But yes, it has been rather more than infuriating to find younger, less experienced presenters earning twice or even three times as much as me, or the long list of executives on six-figure salaries with job titles that seem to have precious little to do with broadcasting.

What concerns me now, given all the uncertainty about the future management of the Corporation and how it will be paid for, is the security of what I have always loved about the BBC. It has, above all, represented quality in all things.

I have been produced and edited by some of the cleverest, most imaginative professionals, brimming with ideas and intellect — but it seems to me that, in the value system of the BBC, they have frequently been neglected. The number of them has diminished in an effort to save money.

The remaining ones work phenomenally long hours for relatively little financial reward. The pay range is from £36,000 to £64,000. So the people on the front line of what we are there to do could not hope to match the salary offered in the first advertisement put out by the new D-G: for a Group Director of Corporate Affairs — on £220,000! I wonder what he or she will do all day.

I have loved the BBC and consider myself very lucky and privileged to have lasted so long. I was even recommended to be made a Dame for my contribution to radio.

I want the Corporation to retain its reputation for the greatest public service broadcasting in the world — informing, educating and entertaining both young and old and the whole population of the United Kingdom.

I leave a free woman with new opportunities to pursue, but with some sadness and a word to the new Director-General: it’s the content that matters and that is where the investment should be made.

Please also bear in mind the BBC’s traditional understanding of impartiality. A woman like me has knowledge, wisdom and experience. She was not in a BBC studio for any reason but to present the crucial issues of the day and elicit opinion from her guests, never broadcast her own.

But she has opinions — sometimes controversial ones — and she will not be silenced.

So thanks for the flowers and ‘Goodbye’.

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