It’s not funny being the only woman on a TV panel show

There have been many ungenerous things said of politicians in recent years, but I can remember virtually none of them being accused of a surfeit of modesty. Hubris, yes. Venality, on occasion. But modesty, less so. And yet this virtue apparently courses through the veins of at least some politicians: the women.

It seems unlikely to me, too, but that is the reason given by Ian Hislop this week for the lack of female politicians on Have I Got News For You. The show has been presented by 11 politicians over the years, but only one of them a woman (Ann Widdecombe). The programme is certainly less of an all-male enclave than it used to be, but it is still predominantly male. Given that Hislop and Paul Merton are regulars, producers would have to book two or three women a week to even things out, and that seems unlikely, since the BBC still makes countless episodes of panel shows that have four or more men and one woman, as though women made up roughly one-fifth of society and the BBC was dutifully reflecting this.

There are plenty of reasons for saying no to a panel show, but I wonder how often modesty is one. It hasn’t prevented politicians from saying yes to, for instance, Strictly Come Dancing (Widdecombe, Edwina Currie), which surely allows just as much scope for humiliation as HIGNFY, and to a larger audience. It hasn’t discouraged them from launching themselves into a diving pool (Penny Mordaunt) or heading off to the jungle (Nadine Dorries, Kezia Dugdale). And while no politician would enjoy being skewered by Hislop in front of a studio audience, it’s hard to believe they would all prefer to be stuck in the middle of nowhere eating bugs.

Perhaps by “modesty”, Hislop means “the capacity to see that being humiliated on national television might damage your future job prospects”. Are women in greater possession of that? Or are they just aware that there is one rule for buffoonish men in public life, and another for everyone else, including women? So Boris Johnson could appear on HIGNFY (hang from a zip wire, tank millions of taxpayers’ money on a decorative – and now imaginary – bridge) with seemingly no consequences. It’s hard to imagine that being true for anyone else.

Or perhaps the problem is more to do with the set-up of panel shows. One obligatory woman per programme doesn’t make the show feel more diverse from the participant’s perspective. It means that accusations of tokenism are rife. Have a male comedian on who doesn’t raise many laughs, and people accept that he was having an off day, or that his style of humour wasn’t a great fit. But have a female comedian on who has the same tough gig, and she is all too often told she was only booked because she’s a woman. Our standards of humour for men and women still differ. HIGNFY is no worse than any other panel show. Like many others, it has a tendency to book male comedians and feature them alongside female presenters, actors and newsreaders. It books some female comics too, but the dynamic of three professionally funny men, and one woman who is pretty funny but for whom comedy isn’t her living, is damaging: it implies there is a dearth of female comics, which simply isn’t the case.

Have more professionally funny women on the show, and you might end up with more female politicians saying yes to the booking. It’s never much fun being the only woman in a room, as Jo Brand pointed out to an applauding HIGNFY studio audience last year.