11 Jan 2011

Ex-Countryfile presenter wins BBC ageism case

Health and Social Care Correspondent

Ex-Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly wins her claim against the BBC for age discrimination. TV presenter Mariella Frostrup tells Channel 4 News it was a “landmark judgement”.

BBC Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly wins employment tribunal over age discrimination (Reuters)

Miriam O’Reilly – a 53-year old award-winning journalist – lost her job when her BBC show was moved to a primetime slot. She said in a statement that she was “delighted” with the outcome of the employment tribunal.

Her lawyers – Leigh, Day and Co – said: “The primary claim which she has won is the age discrimination claim that on the grounds of her age she was discriminated against and was not given a role in the primetime Countryfile.

“Following on from that, she was, the tribunal has decided, victimised on the basis of her age discrimination claim…Miriam is delighted and so are we.”

‘Landmark judgement’

TV presenter Mariella Frostrup told Channel 4 News that Ms O’Reilly had done “an incredibly brave thing” in bringing the case.

“It is a landmark judgement and we should all welcome it because it is not just representative of a battle for women on television – which is a tiny minority of people – but there are many, many women out there across the country who will suffer similar problems in their careers as they reach a certain age – and I think this is a blow for the right side.”

But Nick Ross, who was removed from Crimewatch in 2007 after presenting the programme for 23 years, told Channel 4 News that being replaced by younger rivals was ultimately something that everyone had to accept.

“I think it is undoubtedly tougher for women as they get older,” he said. I think it might be easier for some women – on looks – when they are younger, and I don’t hear people complaining about that.

There are not many mingers who make it onto TV in their 20s and 30s. TV Presenter Nick Ross

“There are not many mingers who make it on to TV in their 20s and 30s.”

The ruling follows a hearing in November when Ms O’Reilly alleged age and sex discrimination by the BBC when it dropped her from Countryfile ahead of moving the show to a primetime Sunday evening slot. She lost the sex discrimination element of the case.

Age discrimination

Three other female Countryfile presenters aged over 40 – Michaela Strachan, 42, Juliet Morris, 45, and Charlotte Smith, 44 – were also let go by the programme at the same time.

The tribunal, held in central London, heard allegations that Ms O’Reilly was warned to be “careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in” and asked whether it was “time for Botox”.

The BBC had argued that Ms O’Reilly’s dismissal was because she did not have the experience for peak programming – but today it accepted the findings.

In a statement, the broadcaster said: “We accept the findings of the tribunal and would like to apologise to Miriam. We will be speaking to her.

“The BBC is committed to fair selection in every aspect of our work and we clearly did not get it right in this case.”

David Sinclair, Head of Policy at the International Longevity Centre (UK), told Channel 4 News: “These sorts of cases are indicative of the fact that we have an ageing society – in 50 years we’re looking at half a million centenarians in the UK.

“Television, like other industries, has to start thinking about age management of its staff, how to manage and use the skills of a more diverse staff as the population gets older, and also about the average age of its viewer – they may want a more balanced age of presenters.”

Ms O’Reilly was “devastated” when she was told in November 2008 that she was being axed after eight years on the show. The programme relaunched in April 2009 with Julia Bradbury, then 38, and former Blue Peter presenter Matt Baker, then 30.

John Craven, 68, stayed with the programme and the team were supported by presenters Adam Henson, James Wong, Jules Hudson and Katie Knapman.

Wider row over sexism and ageism at BBC (Reuters)

Wider row

The case highlights again a row over sexism and ageism at the BBC. The former BBC One controller Jay Hunt, who has since taken up the post of chief creative officer at Channel 4, faced criticism in 2009 when 66-year old Arlene Phillips was dropped as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing.

But Ms Hunt described claims that the four women were axed from Countryfile because she “hated women” were “entirely and categorically untrue”.

She told the tribunal that it was “important” and “entirely appropriate” to use “older female authority figures” in peak programming to reflect the audience. She cited Anne Robinson, who was brought back to Watchdog in its peak, and Sheila Hancock, on the Saturday night show Over the Rainbow, as examples of her work to boost older women on primetime TV.

However she stressed that Ms O’Reilly did not have the “skill level” to be taken forward as she was “completely unknown to a peak-time audience”, despite her talent as a television reporter.

Ms Hunt told the tribunal that since the changes at Countryfile, the programme’s audience had leaped to 5.4 million on average, compared with 1.8 million before.

‘Time to put its own house in order’

The Age and Employment Network said it “welcomed” the findings.

Chief Executive Chris Ball said: “Miriam O’Reilly is one of a number of older women who have been displaced from highly visible public-facing roles. The BBC has mistakenly pandered to advertising industry values of youth and glamour in judging an employee, rather than assessing people by their performance.

“It is time for the BBC to put its own house in order and allow viewers to see presenters more representative of the real world than the sanitised and stereotyped versions they have preferred hitherto.” Age and Employment Network Chief Executive Chris Ball

“The fact that these ageist standards were unequally applied to men and women in the BBC, with older women coming off worst, exemplifies the complexity of ageism and the way it is found in workplaces. It is encouraging to see the tribunal identify this and make an appropriate finding that will discourage other employers from similar bad practices.

“It is time for the BBC to put its own house in order and allow viewers to see presenters more representative of the real world than the sanitised and stereotyped versions they have preferred hitherto.”

More training

In its statement, the BBC said it would ensure there was more training for its staff.

“We will ensure that senior editorial executives responsible for these kind of decisions in the BBC undergo additional training in the selection and appointment of presenters, and produce new guidance on fair selection for presenter appointments,” it said.

“These findings also raise questions that need to be addressed by the whole industry. As chair of the cultural diversity network, (BBC Director-General) Mark Thompson will raise the topic of fair representation of people of all ages across the broadcasting industry.”