For the past few days the airwaves and social media sites, and probably the bus stops, have been lively with chat about two impressive and charismatic women, both famous for taking no prisoners. One was Dame Diana Rigg, after the sad news she had died at 82. The other was Emma Barnett, in reaction to the BBC’s proclamation that she will take over as the main presenter of Woman’s Hour on Radio 4.
Comparison of the two women might seem forced, but for one happy chance. Back in 1968, Rigg was a nicely spoken guest on Woman’s Hour and a clip was played in a broadcast tribute to her talent. With missile precision, the star of The Avengers set the programme’s smarmy presenter right over what his phrase “pure femininity” might possibly mean, which is fun to hear. But the stand-out fact for most listeners will have been that this presenter was a man. Could that ever happen again? If not, is the fact it is now unthinkable a sign of just how far the representation of women’s lives has come? Or is it a symptom of outdated and restrictive views of what gender means? Rigg could probably have explained, but it is Barnett who now has the chance.
The debate about Barnett’s appointment has largely centred on whether there is still a place for a national radio show dedicated to women and their concerns. Some commentators argue the old-fashioned habit of distinguishing listener content by gender alone belongs back on the ark. (Not sure whether Noah or his wife, Naamah, was in charge of the radio dial then.)
But the mere fact that Barnett, up-and-coming in news and current affairs presentation, hailed Best Speech Presenter at the Radio Academy Awards this year, wants the challenge of handling this show has been widely read as a vote of confidence in the vintage format. After all, this is a woman who is on the Newsnight presenters rota and who has taken the helm on Question Time, The Andrew Marr Show and Politics Live, as well as covering the last election on the radio.
The Observer’s radio critic Miranda Sawyer has speculated on the future of a programme aimed exclusively at women, but she now expects the “estimable” Barnett to give the show “a kick up the bum”.
Barnett, who will move from her award-winning Radio 5Live show, has swiftly marked herself out among the new generation of BBC faces with her dogged pursuit of logic in interviews and her fearless discussion of taboo subjects, in particular menstruation. Her book Period: It’s About Bloody Time, out last year, examined the stigmatised discomfort that women have silently dealt with, and it received much praise. “I wish this book had been written before I stopped having them,” endorsed Jennifer Saunders.
To some readers it might have looked like a long job application for the role of full-time Woman’s Hour presenter, but it was in fact a revealing account of the author’s own struggles with debilitating endometriosis and a campaigning call for more discussion of the problems caused by periods.
“When she was publicising the book I was struck by how very capable she was of handling difficult issues and how more than able to handle someone who was gunning for her,” said journalist Cosmo Landesman, a fan of Barnett’s who first met her at books festival last summer.
“She is surprisingly charming and easy to talk to,” he said. “And that is not normal for a media person. She actually seemed interested in other people. I think she will be a welcome replacement on Radio 4 to all those crusties and Kirstys.”
For viewers and listeners who have somehow missed Barnett’s dissections of political frontmen and women in action, there are fresh examples from the past few days. Try sampling her encounter with Tory grandee Bernard Jenkin on Newsnight on BBC iplayer.
The Jenkin tussle in particular serves to sort out those licence fee payers who find Barnett’s style too aggressive from those who are cheering her on. And it is not always a gender divide. Among those who find Barnett unappealing is a female journalist who remembers an abortive job interview at the Telegraph, where Barnett once held sway. According to the applicant, her interviewer scarcely raised her eyes from her work during the discussions.
Friends, however, speak instead of her warmth and concern. There is ambition, yes, and there is focus, but they say there is also companionability and loyalty for those in her circle.
“She has incredible drive and confidence,” said one former newspaper colleague, “but she also has quite an approachable manner, which is unusual.”
Born in Manchester to Orthodox Jewish parents, Barnett, 35, is the married mother of a toddler. Always outgoing and outspoken, she was involved in a local drama club in her youth, and went on to get involved with student journalism while at Nottingham University. Her mother, Michelle, trained as special needs teacher, while her father, Ian, was a businessman who then became the centre of a sensational drama briefly in 2010 when it was revealed that he had run a series of brothels, with the tacit if grudging consent of the Greater Manchester Police.
Understandably perhaps, Barnett, who has otherwise spoken of a happy childhood, does not talk about this doubtless painful subject. It has, however, provoked a recent flurry of internet shaming attempts since the Woman’s Hour job announcement. It is the kind of history-trawling, blame-gamery that will now shadow every move that Barnett makes. In the current climate of feminist revisionism Woman’s Hour is a hostile frontline.
Popular presenters Jane Garvey and Jenni Murray, the doyenne of women’s broadcasting, are both stepping down from the job adorned with battle scars. Garvey has been criticised with equal venom for sounding as if she dislikes men and for dissing Arctic rolls. Murray, in turn, has been raised up as a target by some militant supporters of the trans community for having traditional feminist attitudes.
Maybe it is the sense of danger that attracts Barnett. Certainly, she will have to navigate criss-crossing tides of “woke” and feminist opinion on almost every issue. But she has already been tested in the political arena and has tackled some tricky gigs, not only co-hosting a TV phone-in with then prime minister Theresa May, but also admitting to once injecting herself with IVF hormones as part of fertility treatment during a comfort break inside No 10 Downing Street.
Barnett first made the move from newspapers to broadcasting with a few early shifts on Woman’s Hour, taking a little time to get into her stride. But she obviously enjoyed it. Last week she promised listeners “adventures” together, adding: “I have a long love of Woman’s Hour and live radio and know that this is a very special and rare opportunity.”
Radio 4 controller Mohit Bakaya clearly knows the size of the fish he has netted. Barnett, he said, “brings a terrific combination of intellectual inquiry, robust journalism and curiosity about the human condition”.
After 33 years in the hot seat, Murray will broadcast her last programme on 1 October, and a series of guest presenters will sit in, perhaps auditioning for the vacant post as second in command.
The extraordinary barometer of our turbulent times is that for a large cohort of younger people the attitudes that Murray and Garvey often extoll, with their shared assumption that women must still fight for equality and have a separate battle to fight as an oppressed group, now sound almost as antiquated as those of that hapless male presenter of the show who got on the wrong side of Diana Rigg.