Woman's Hour is one of the bravest, most humane programmes on radio, so why has it flinched from trans issues?

You couldn't open a newspaper without seeing news about JK Rowling's essay last week, yet it wasn't mentioned on Woman's Hour till today

JK Rowling hit the headlines after writing a headline that many have called transphobic
JK Rowling hit the headlines after writing a headline that many have called transphobic Credit: AP

You’d think that if any radio programme were happy to talk about women it would be Woman’s Hour on Radio 4. 

Or maybe not. You could hardly open a newspaper this week without encountering the debate over the relationship between women’s rights and trans rights, after JK Rowling wrote an essay arguing that “sex is real” and single-sex spaces should be maintained to protect women and girls. In response she received an outpouring of abuse and threats, public disowning by colleagues and former friends, and a front-page splash in The Sun for which journalists tracked down her violent former husband and invited him to tell the world he wasn’t sorry for hitting her.

What did Woman’s Hour have to say about this? Until today, very little, for almost a week. I had expected that Woman’s Hour would be concerned about a woman who had recently gone through all of that, but apparently not. 

But at last, in yesterday’s edition, Jane Garvey chaired a discussion about an issue which she introduced as “toxic”. It wasn’t specifically about Rowling, but a response to news from the weekend that the government plans to strengthen single-sex provision for women and girls. 

The first contributor was Helen Belcher, co-founder of Trans Media Watch and a parliamentary candidate for the Lib Dems in 2019. Belcher, who is a trans woman, said that she had been profoundly upset by Rowling’s words, and had recently looked into claiming asylum in Ireland.

Then we heard from Joan Smith, journalist and chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board. Smith had been willing to debate directly with Belcher, but Belcher had said she felt unable to debate (which seemed surprising in someone who recently stood for parliamentary election), so the two contributors were interviewed separately. Smith said that emotion in this debate can distract from logic and the law.

“How do we behave responsibly here? We don’t want trans women to feel wretched,” said Garvey, which seemed to be the heart of the matter. Nobody wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, even when facts get in the way. Oh to be a fly on the wall in the BBC editorial meetings on this tricky subject, where the hand-wringing could probably produce enough friction to power a small town.

Jane Garvey Credit: BBC

Jane Garvey always seems to be the presenter lined up to talk about trans issues, as Jenni Murray doesn’t seem to have been allowed to since she wrote an article for the Sunday Times in 2017 which emphasised the existence of biological sex, and subsequently received her own barrage of abuse in response. 

After speaking to Smith, Garvey changed the subject with palpable relief, and that was that. The discussion was superficial and tentative, despite going on for 25 minutes, an aeon in radio years. Woman’s Hour has already had plenty of time to decide how to approach the trans debate, and hosted a series of carefully even-handed discussions on the matter in 2018, but still seems bamboozled by it. “How can we establish a proper and civilised discussion about where we go from here?” asked Garvey yesterday. Beats me. But the programme is not new to broaching difficult topics, and Garvey and Murray are not cowardly people. 

Woman’s Hour unflinchingly confronts subjects such as violence, complex medical and social issues, racism, pornography and prostitution, alongside interviews with smart women and musings on how to cook the perfect corned beef hash. It’s one of the bravest and most humane programmes on radio – most of the time. How bizarre, then, that we seem to have found the one topic that Woman’s Hour is afraid of: being a woman.

Incidentally, the programme had a rival this week. Radio 3 has been broadcasting daily live, socially distanced recitals from Wigmore Hall for its Lunchtime Concert series in June. They are beautiful, restorative things. I love being able to hear the acoustics and feel the tingle of knowing it’s live, even with no audience. On Friday, baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Joseph Middleton performed a series of songs on a theme. All of the songs adopted a female perspective, but were composed mostly by men, and all were performed by men.

“I think playing and singing songs is an act of empathy and of imagination,” said Williams. “It doesn’t matter who we are, so long as we can access in some way emotions and feelings that we feel to be true.”

And what had Williams chosen to title his programme? He called it “Woman’s Hour”.