Why is the EU referendum debate so dull? Too many men

The battle between David Cameron and Boris Johnson has dominated an almost exclusively male debateReuters

 Boris Johnson must be quaking in his polished pointy-toed boots.

On Thursday 9 June he will take part in a panel debate on the European Union for ITV. That has become bread and butter for Boris in recent weeks but what marks this one out is he will be the only man on the panel.

Johnson will sit alongside Andrea Leadsom and Gisela Stuart for Vote Leave up against the formidable trio of Angela Eagle, Nicola Sturgeon and Amber Rudd for remain.

Hats off to ITV. Elsewhere in the referendum coverage so far, broadcasters have regressed. Panels, interviews and debates have overwhelmingly featured white men.

This was first pointed out by the Lib Dem grandee Shirley Williams and echoed by Labour's Harriet Harman. The former interim Labour leader published analysis of figures that discussed the EU referendum on morning news programmes. It showed:

  • 48 out of 58 guests on the BBC Today programme were male.
  • 12 out of 14 guests on BBC Breakfast were male.
  • 18 out of 25 guests on ITV's Good Morning Britain were male.

Research by Loughborough University revealed the same trend. The report looked at ten days of evening news bulletins in May as well as a representative sample of daily newspapers. It found that only one in ten contributors to the debate in the press were women and on TV that figure was less than one in six.

With the notable exception of the "Christian EU debate" which had a 50 / 50 split, the rest of Christian contribution to the debate has also gone back to bad habits. Steve Chalke is hosting an all male debate on the referendum with himself, Iain Duncan Smith and Tim Farron. Similarly the female representation for both the Christians for Britain and Christians for Europe group leaves much to be desired. Christians should not be content with simply reflecting what the national coverage portrays. In the rest of life Christians are called to be an example to the world and this issue should be no different.

It is not that there is anything wrong with men or male contributions. What is wrong is an overwhelming male debate which doesn't offer a voice to women and people of all backgrounds. When this happens the debate is distorted and fails to incorporate everyone's perspectives. It also gives the false impression that only men are capable of understanding the EU and having an opinion. No wonder so many people are disengaged from the debate and eagerly anticipating June 24, whatever the result. It is not just that the debate has become sterile. It is because the perspectives are only coming from a small segment of the population.

No one can reasonably argue the lack of women in the media is because there are not enough qualified, intelligent women available in either campaign. Take a look at ITV's panel line up for Thursday. Rather you than me Boris. The combination of Eagle, Sturgeon and Rudd for the remain side is not something many would be confident about beating.

On the leave side Priti Patel, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom are equally impressive. The debate is not lacking women. But for some reason that doesn't get reflected in the coverage.

Maybe it is laziness on the part of producers. Or maybe it is because viewers enjoy the parallel narrative of Boris and Osborne's race to be Prime Minister and Gove's back-stab to his old friend Dave. Either way the lack of women in the referendum coverage is embarrassing.

And it is not just a point principle that women should be equally reflected in the debate although that in itself is a good enough reason. Women are much more likely to be undecided on the EU than men. The pollsters at YouGov revealed that nearly one in five women (18 per cent) are yet to make up their mind on which way they will vote. This is compared to only one in ten men. That significant constituency of undecided women should surely be a key target for both campaigns.

Obviously women aren't only capable to listening to other women. But the high proportion of women yet to decide on the EU reflects the fact that women's views and concerns have not been heard and addressed so far.

There is compelling case both from a point of principle and from a point of pragmatic campaigning to involve more women in the EU debate. Well done ITV. But we have more than two weeks to go and that must be just the start.