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Book Review

Brenda Maddox

The woman who cracked the BBC's glass ceiling

A review of Woman Of Today: An Autobiography, by Sue MacGregor (Hodder Headline, £20.00)

British Journalism Review
Vol. 13, No. 2, 2002, pages 69-72

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Brenda Maddox is a journalist and biographer whose new book is the life of the DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin. She is a member of the Editorial Board of British Journalism Review.

Contents - Vol 13, No. 2, 2002

Editorial - No short cuts, Lady O'Neill 3

Julia Langdon - Is the bell tolling for the weeklies? 7

Trevor Kavanagh - Don't be fooled by this death 14

Piers Morgan - ...As Hugh Cudlipp said... 19

Bill Hagerty - Hold — on to — The Front Page 31

Steven Barnett - A licence for future media power 41

Sondra Rubenstein - Brutal reality challenges media academics 46

Don Berry - Life with — and without — Harry 53

Brian Winston - Prince Charles got it wrong 58

Jake Lynch - Performing with headlines in mind 63
Brenda Maddox on Sue MacGregor 69

Ian Aitken on Francis Wheen 73

Robin Lustig on journalism and modern politics 76

  Anatomy is destiny. More to the point, vocal chords are destiny. From time immemorial, the male of the species has recoiled from aspects of the female voice. Too shrill, too high, too scolding, too tentative: women can't seem to get it right. Shakespeare pronounced: “Her voice was ever soft, Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman” (King Lear, Act iii. 274). Yet muted tones are no advantage in the political arena.

Overcoming this natural handicap requires determined effort. Margaret Thatcher's rise from Finchley MP to Prime Minister was owed in no small part to hard work with a National Theatre voice coach who lowered her pitch by 46 Hertz to a point where it fell half-way between the range of male and female.

In 1967 the 26-year-old Susan MacGregor applied to join the BBC as a “continuity announcer” on the Home Service. Returned to Britain from a childhood in South Africa, with solid experience in South African broadcasting, she did well in audition and was one of three chosen finalists. But she didn't get the job. It was considered that male voices carried more authority. Fortunately for her, and for the millions who came to warm to her measured, reasoned tones for nearly two decades on BBC Radio Four's Today programme, this was not official BBC policy, and she managed to edge into the corporation regardless. A one-month contract in radio features was followed by a three-month contract from Andrew Boyle to appear on Radio Four's The World At One, which had an audience of three million. She became a regular and the presenter, Bill Hardcastle, renamed her “Sue”. Since then MacGregor's career has epitomized women's stumbling progress toward equality in broadcasting. Looking back from the 21st century, it is easy to ignore the misogyny of the not-too-distant past. In 1970 Fleet Street's favourite pub, El Vino's, refused to serve women at the bar. They might drink at the back – if they could find a seat at a table. Standing women were prohibited for reasons that did not need to be spelled out.

At that time, a woman newsreader was as unthinkable as a woman priest. In 1971 when the newly formed Women in Media group began to campaign for a “perfectly ordinary intelligent” woman to deliver the television news. Lord Hill, the BBC's chairman, was aghast and suggested that no such woman existed. The same view applied to radio. In 1973 the “presentation editor” of Radio 4 agreed: “A news announcer needs to have authority, consistency and reliability. Women may have one or two of these qualities, but not all three”. Not until 1974 was a woman allowed to mount the sacred podium of Radio 4 news.

Even The World At One, enlightened to the extent of having a number of women reporters on its staff, would not send them on foreign assignments, or give them the tough interviews. Thus in 1972 Sue MacGregor took a huge step up – and sideways – when she became the main presenter of Radio 4's Woman's Hour. She became a voice of authority, one who interviewed world figures and who had the airtime to talk to them properly – on female-related topics. In 1975, Margaret Thatcher, just elected leader of the Conservative Party, appeared in the studio, somewhat uneasily, as a special guest on Woman's Hour. Before going on air with MacGregor, she raised their common problem: “Will our voices sound rather similar?” (They did not.) Three years later when the two women met again, on the Prime Minister's trip to China in 1977, Thatcher once again struck the sisterly chord: “Would you like to borrow my heated rollers, dear?”.

MacGregor was still queen of Woman's Hour in 1979 when the BBC's head of radio, Aubrey Singer, and Peter Woon, editor of news and current affairs, decided that Radio 4's flagship morning programme, Today, needed a permanent woman's voice to give “texture” to the programme. A number of women, including Libby Purves, did stints but none of them clicked as MacGregor did when she moved to Today in 1984. Her voice was ideal: classless, region-less, well-spoken, and British, reflecting her variegated upbringing.


Born in 1941 in Oxford to Scottish parents who emigrated to South Africa, she went to school there, then completed her education at the Ecole de Commerce in Geneva and at an English college called the House of Citizenship. Deciding to remain for a time in London, she worked as a typist at Australia House, then became a temporary junior secretary at the BBC. This entitled her to an induction course, where she was taught the BBC's private codes (how to tell your AHAR from your DG) and how to time interviews with a stop-watch for easier editing. When she returned to South Africa, the dazzle of the BBC's name won her a place with the SABC and in 1962 as her mother crouched at home “in a state of high excitement”, her voice went out on the air for the first time. She soon became announcer/producer on Woman's World and learned microphone techniques such as how to lift the paper so it doesn't crackle . Four years later she returned to Britain and began the career at the BBC which led to her elevation in 1984 to the unisex pinnacle of Today.

It was a long way from Woman's Hour. One of the newsroom's desk drawers contained a pick-me-up for certain presenters: a lethal cocktail of gin and Night Nurse.The new routine placed a ruinous heavy obstacle in the way of a single woman's social life: she had to go to bed every night at nine o'clock in order to be in the studio before 4 a.m. And she had to adapt to a different audience. In a discussion about a new form of hysterectomy, the word “vagina”, a staple in the Woman's Hour vocabulary, was unsuitable for the Radio 4 morning listener.

For the next 18 years until her retirement, MacGregor excelled. For millions, her intelligent, well-modulated questioning came as a relief after the pugnacious, interrupting voices of Today's male presenters, especially the “Men-Are-From-Mars” interviewing style of John Humphrys. Yet she was no less adept, and perhaps more, at getting the truth out of reluctant politicians. “Quite simply the best female presenter radio has produced”, said The Times. But the compliment was double-edged. It suggested that women broadcasters are still in a class of their own – a lower class. How far MacGregor was from achieving equality was revealed by Paul Donovan, the veteran radio columnist of The Sunday Times. In the mid-1990s he reported that she was paid about £20,000 less per annum than her co-presenters, Humphrys and Jim Naughtie, who shared the same punishing schedule. Moreover, they got twice as many of the Big Interviews (the abrasive Humphrys outranking the more emollient Naughtie also by two to one).

In her autobiography MacGregor is discreet about the salary difference. She mentions no numbers – eventually assured, she says, that there was not a hair's breadth of difference between her pay and the chaps'. Yet, with no hint of anger, she observes that there are still remarkably few women fronting current affairs programmes. “Perhaps it is partly a matter of style. Confrontation is expected in an interview, and when a woman does it, she is liable to be labelled shrill, or a harpie, or worse”. She records, almost boastfully, that the Conservative politician Ken Clarke found her “waspish and testy”.

In the 21st century, women have earned their place as newsreaders. Nowhere is this more apparent than on CNN, which fronts an impressive, multiracial, bright-jacketed array of authoritative females around the globe. In Britain women don't come any more authoritative than Sheena McDonald or Elinor Goodman. The world's best-known broadcaster is female: Oprah Winfrey commands the screen in most countries which have television. But as Grand Inquisitors, women have not yet made it. When a woman tries to be aggressive, to be a Humphrys or a Jeremy Paxman, who can say she succeeds? One has only to watch an agitated Kirsty Wark on Newsnight struggling to pursue a line of questioning while listening to the orders barked through the earpiece. MacGregor's rise and rise to not-quite-the- top sums up the gender dilemma.

Her autobiography is an invaluable contribution to the history of the BBC between 1967 and 1991. Those who read it looking for the “kiss-and-tell” promised by the tabloids will be disappointed. Her “revelations” are as flat as a Radio 4 weather forecast. However, they are honestly offered in the spirit of her dedication to honest reporting. The affair with the actor Leonard Rossiter is acknowledged, but not until page 194. She provides discreet facts about other liaisons, admits no great desire for children, acknowledges that some forms of contraception are preferable to others (“I can remember smiling in recognition”, she says, at Mary McCarthy's description of the slippery Dutch cap in “The Group”.) She does not conceal her distaste for the reign of John Birt at the BBC, especially for his decision to move the Today show from Broadcasting House in the heart of London to the wasteland of White City. She puts on record for posterity the insulting impertent question barked at her in a BBC lift by the BBC's most aggressive interviewer, the late Sir Robin Day: “Isn't it about time that you fructified?” (Furious, instead of retreating home hurt at this cruel reference to her childlessness, she accepted his conciliatory offer of champagne.)

It is to be hoped that Sue MacGregor will take her famous voice and go on to further broadcasting in a less constrained environment, one that will encourage to let more of her true personality show. If she does, however, a fair guess is that she will continue as she has gone on. For the intelligent woman before the microphone, reserve may be the best policy.