It's all change at Woman's Hour but the show can survive in Emma Barnett's safe hands

As both Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey prepare to move on from the long-running Radio 4 series, what's next for Woman's Hour?

Emma Barnett is set to take over Woman’s Hour in January
Emma Barnett is set to take over Woman’s Hour in January Credit: BBC

What a relief that Emma Barnett has been named as the new presenter of Woman’s Hour (Radio 4). When Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey both announced, separately, that they are to leave the programme that provides “a female perspective on the world”, according to the BBC website, the thought of how to fill their shoes must have made BBC executives tremble.

Woman’s Hour needs a rare kind of presenter. She must be able to interview political world leaders, survivors of sexual violence, and experts in the history of the loom, all with equal sensitivity and aplomb, and all before lunch. The programme covers “the subjects and challenges no one else goes near”, as Garvey has aptly put it. You need gravitas, a sharp mind and a sensitive manner, but a sense of humour is really essential, as well as a strong faith in the importance of women’s experiences.

Barnett is the only person up to the task. She has already been an excellent presenter of Woman’s Hour as a stand-in, and was formerly women’s editor of this newspaper. She is an incisive and dauntless broadcaster on Radio 5 Live and Newsnight. Her forensic questioning has led to some of the most memorable political radio moments of recent years, most unforgettably on Woman’s Hour in 2017, when she exposed Jeremy Corbyn as shambolic, distracted and completely unprepared. Corbyn had underestimated both Emma Barnett and Woman’s Hour. Surely nobody else will make that mistake.

Barnett is also very good at being on the side of the listener. She is keen to champion urgent causes relevant to women, recently focusing on domestic violence (in a special edition of her 5 Live programme guest edited by the Duchess of Cornwall) and menstruation (in 2019 she published Period, a witty book on the subject). 

It’s less clear how well she will handle the lighter items that are an essential part of Woman’s Hour; what Fi Glover has called the “History of the Tabard” features. Some see them as fluff. Actually I think that segments on how to make a meringue or deal with a toddler tantrum are what make the programme feel so true to real British life, and I’d miss them if they went.

But there is scope for improvement. Woman’s Hour has been muzzled by political angst and paralysed especially over how to cover the gender identity movement, easily one of the most urgent feminist debates of the time. 

The Duchess of Cornwall with Emma Barnett Credit: BBC

The resignation of Garvey and Murray within weeks of one another was, officially, coincidental, though I’m not so sure; it cannot have escaped these two experienced broadcasters that the programme needs a reinvigoration, which would be tricky if they both remained in post. Garvey has even said as much on Twitter: “I would love to have stayed in lots of ways, but it wouldn’t have been right for the programme or for the station,” she wrote. “Refresh needed definitely.”

In this week’s Radio Times, the historian Diane Atkinson, radio producer Kate Bland, and broadcaster Emma Freud all decry even the name of Woman’s Hour, suggesting that it belongs in the past. Too middle-class and “redolent of knitting patterns”, says Atkinson. Some listeners balk at the need for there even to be a programme offering a “female perspective on the world” at all.

Personally, I’m glad it exists. Woman’s Hour makes me think and often makes me laugh, and it seems as if it’s constantly in danger of being dropped, which makes me like it even more. With the level-headed duo of Murray and Garvey gone, the BBC could have courted gender identity activists by changing the name to Womxn’s Hour, which may have pleased those calling for modern “relevance” in the Radio Times, but would have caused sensible listeners to run for the hills. Or they could have cancelled it altogether.

Barnett’s appointment is a vote of confidence in the programme’s importance. As things stand, the future is bright for women’s voices on radio. Along with Glover on the joyous Fortunately… podcast, Garvey has already demonstrated another welcome approach to female-focused broadcasting. The podcast has a wise and open-hearted feel, and feels truer to the day-to-day experience of being a woman in 2020 than Woman’s Hour does. It’s getting promoted to a Radio 4 slot, and may turn out to be a second Woman’s Hour in all but name, with a much more relaxed mood. I can’t wait.

Perhaps, one day, Woman’s Hour really won’t need to exist any more. But as long as Emma Barnett presides over a small nook of radio that looks life in the eye and gives space and dignity to women’s stories, long may it reign.