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To Quota or Not to Quota, That Is the Question...

17/11/2014 12:08 GMT | Updated 14/01/2015 10:59 GMT

A few years ago Stephen Pound MP fell asleep during a Parliamentary debate on the Afghanistan war. I can imagine how flummoxed he was by the outrage - surely the public knows that MPs only pop to the House of Commons for a kip? Yet outrage there was, because British soldiers had died, and his post-prandial slumber was caught on camera. I was thinking about him recently when a quiet news week freed up space to annihilate a minister no one knew we had - for Civil Society - whose name we did not know - Brooks Newmark - and have now forgotten. To recap, Newmark took a series of nudey selfies - posted to a woman and a male journo posing as a woman - and they were now at loose in the press. As he resigned I imagined how flummoxed he must have been - surely the public knows that MPs have lovers, why was everyone picking on him? Again, because he was caught on camera - worse still, his own iPhone's - and no one likes to see a respectable man overexcited by his toys. You can peacock like a French Prime Minister or bound about like a London Mayor: but don't succumb to the temptations of the Apple. It never ends well.

On the bright side if he still likes those photographs of himself (and he did once) there might be a future for him on panel shows or even a stint at the Edinburgh Festival. Programmes like Have I Got News For You are made all the richer by disgraced ministers. It's how Neil Hamilton cashed in those brown envelopes a thousand times over. Of course there are other ways to reach the heady heights of the news quiz - most obviously comedy. Being able to rip a club isn't the same as shining on a TV show; but wit, intelligence and confidence are common to both. A little bit of practice helps too, which is why it's great that lesser known comedians can make it into the studio without drawing too much attention - unless, of course, they're women. I hate the phrase 'female comedian' because it sounds like a qualifier, like a 'British film': something we all support in principle but don't want to sit through ourselves. But here goes. It has always struck me how overqualified a 'female comedian' has to be to make her debut on a panel show. A sell-out tour, an award nomination or two, acting roles in sitcoms, writing credits for sitcoms - a combination of all these seems to be required. Even more surprising is how many 'female comedians' have met and surpassed these surreal requirements to squeeze their way onto what have, in practical terms, been male-only shortlists. I can imagine how confused people were - if women could make it in these circumstances what's to stop them taking over altogether?

So it was unsurprising when Danny Cohen, head of BBC's television output, felt obliged to introduce a quota earlier this year guaranteeing that only one woman had to appear on every panel show; thus reserving all those other seats - normally about six - for the boys. What was surprising is that this quota, that evidently protected the privilege men had come to take for granted, was presented and duly perceived as a favour to women. What a coup! To present a seat as chivalrously saved for the very women that had already clawed their way into it. And it has worked. Just this week as I was picturing Brooks Newmark's future debut on Have I Got News For You, the 'woman's seat' was publicly derided as if it was 'unfair'. It is manifestly unfair, yes, that there is no parity in the way men and women are represented on television. But while men whine about the one seat they have lost, women are eyeing up all the seats that remain to be taken. Don't be flummoxed when they are.