Women in Westminster: In Conversation With Carolyn Quinn
The former presenter of Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour, PM and Today programmes possesses one of the most recognisable voices in British political broadcasting. As part of our Women in Westminster series, we sat down with Carolyn Quinn to discuss the changes she has seen in her career and to learn why she agreed to become a patron of Women in Westminster: The 100.
When Carolyn Quinn first joined the BBC’s political and parliamentary team, Margaret Thatcher was still resident in Number 10. When she finally stood down from presenting The Westminster Hour, early in 2023, Rishi Sunak was the latest occupant.
In a political and professional environment that is sometimes characterised by rapid change, Quinn has been an enduring presence. With a career that spans five decades, she has outlasted eight Prime Ministers whilst reporting on General Elections, political turmoil, and some of the defining moments in our recent history.
Alongside the political changes she has seen, Quinn has also witnessed major shifts in the role that women play in political and public life. The longevity of her career makes her uniquely well-placed to both reflect on the progress made by women working in political journalism and to highlight areas where more work needs to be done.
When she recollects first joining the BBC, Quinn describes an organisation and a wider profession where being a woman still felt like the exception to an established order.
“In those early days, it was very much like a gentlemen's club,” she recalls. “It was very white and very male. When I joined the Lobby, there were very few women covering politics for the papers and broadcasters. In the BBC there was me and one other female political correspondent and my role model was Eleanor Goodman who was political editor of Channel 4 News. That was pretty much it.”
Over time, the number of women in the Lobby expanded. As that change took place, Quinn remembers how women journalists tried to establish new mechanisms to support one another. However, she tells us that the response of some of her male colleagues was often less than encouraging.
“There was a group of us who tried to get a women's lunch club together,” she tells. “Some of the men complained that it was ‘sexist’ for the women to have their own lunch club. They actually used to call it the ‘Lezzie Lobby.’ Isn’t that amazing?”
In more recent times too, Quinn recalls having to deal with negative attitudes to women in broadcasting. She presented the Today programme between 2004 and 2008, initially as maternity cover for Sarah Montague. When Montague returned and the two women were put on the air together, there was uproar.
“You would think the sky had fallen in,” she laughs. “There was such an outcry. One commentator said that it was one of the worst ever days in broadcasting. It was just two women presenting the Today programme.”
Quinn acknowledges that thanks to the work of many incredible women, today’s Lobby is a very different place. Quinn herself has not just been a witness to these changes. She has also played an important role in achieving them. She was elected as the first-ever woman Chair of the Press Gallery in 2011, something that she still describes as “one of her proudest moments”.
However, whilst acknowledging the significant progress that has been made in terms of gender, Quinn believes more work is needed to ensure the Lobby reflects society more broadly.
“If you look at Parliament itself, the number of ethnic minority MPs has increased but I think the Lobby is still lagging a little bit behind,” she explains. “I also think young people today face different barriers when it comes to class. You know, the old thing about having been to the ‘right university’ or got the ‘right qualification.’ It's really difficult to push through.”
Quinn’s view that the routes to becoming a political reporter have narrowed may have been shaped by the role of what she describes as “serendipity” in her own career path. Following a degree in French, she initially considered a career in teaching before volunteering with hospital radio at Charing Cross Hospital, and then joining the BBC Local Radio reporters’ scheme. It was the start of a career in broadcasting that has been remarkable in its breadth and longevity.
Throughout that career, Quinn has always been a ready source of advice and support to generations of female journalists. Her commitment to supporting the women working in and across Westminster remains unwavering. It is this commitment that led to her recently agreeing to become a patron of Women in Westminster: The 100.
“I'm really excited about being a patron,” she tells us. “When I was included in the first Women in Westminster list, I remember thinking ‘Gosh, if something like this had been around when I was starting out, what an amazing thing that would have been.’ We wouldn't have even dreamed there would be a list like this, even in the 1990s.”
As a new patron, Quinn is particularly keen to ensure that the list continues to reach across all parts of Westminster to champion the work of women who might not always receive the recognition they deserve. With nominations for the 2024 list now open, Quinn is encouraging people to put names forward that celebrate the contribution of those who are sometimes below the radar.
“What's been great about the list, certainly in the last year, is it included more people from behind the scenes,” she explains. “This list is not just about the faces and the voices on air or the frontbench politicians. It is also about the women who actually get things done.”
Ultimately, Quinn would like to see a 2024 list that is diverse, wide-ranging, and inclusive. One which continues to celebrate the women we may already be aware of but also highlights some of those that we may not know.
“I think it's really good to have a list where you surprise people,” she tells us. “A list where you think, my goodness, that person's been doing that for years. And I didn't even know they were doing it.”
Nominations are now open for Women in Westminster 2024! There are so many talented women in Westminster who often go unrecognised. We are therefore calling on you to nominate any woman currently working in Westminster or across the supporting sectors that you believe has made an impact on politics or public life in the past year. These women could be, but are not limited to, parliamentarians, journalists, civil servants, activists, think tankers or public affairs professionals. To find out more and submit your nomination, please click here.
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