So the BBC has been caught with its pants down? After a fight to the death – most employment tribunals get settled before they go to court, the BBC has had to apologise to Miriam O’Reilly and wonder of wonders, are going to ‘talk’ to her about her future broadcasting career. The tribunal upheld her claim for age discrimination. It also upheld O’Reilly’s claim for victimisation.
Miriam O’Reilly is 53, not 93. Even if she was 93, if she could do the job, she should not have been sacked because of her age. Nobody should.
I must admit to feeling absolutely thrilled when I heard today that the employment tribunal had found in her favour. I could not believe it when I heard the BBC had dropped her, or when other excellent presenters such as Juliet Morris and Arlene Phillips had also been discarded.
This is surely a wake up call for all employers of older people. Chris Ball, chief executive of the Age and Employment Network, commented: “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.”
Alan Yentob said in an interview that the BBC is a ‘creative industry’. Does that make it any less culpable? Older people are becoming increasingly fed up with ageism and the creative industries, particularly television must wake up and realize that viewers won’t have an apoplectic fit if they see a woman over the age of 49 appear on the screen as a presenter. And anyway, don’t they also know that most of the viewers for programmes like Countryfile are themselves older?
Only a couple of years ago, a friend of mine applied for a job with British Telecom. The interview was held over the phone and carried out by a woman with a very young sounding voice. My friend, who also had a very young sounding voice was asked how old she was. The interview came to an abrupt end when she said she was 60. ‘Oh, sorry’ said interviewer, ‘we retire people at 60.’ The phone went dead. I presume BT has changed its attitude to people over 60 who apply to them for jobs?
Miriam O’Reilly was very happy with the result of the tribunal and her words give hope to all of us over fifty and still keen to earn a crust: “Words cannot describe how happy I feel. It’s historic and it’s going to have huge implications for all broadcasters.” Not just for broadcasters, Miriam.
I am also glad that the BBC has promised to retrain its senior editorial executives and to issue new guidelines of the fair selection of presenters. I want to see mature women presenting on TV, just as much as I want to see young people. Presenters should represent all sections of society. After all, the viewers do. If it is true that the director of the Countryfile programme told Miriam that she should ‘be careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in’ months before she was sacked, then retraining should include how not to be crass and stupid.
The Chair of the Cultural Diversity Network, Mark Thompson says he will raise the topic of fair representation of people of all ages across the broadcasting industry. About time! It is nonsense to suggest that older presenters might not attract primetime audiences. The BBC along with all broadcasters must address the fact that older people and particularly older women are marginalized in our society. Any organization with the amount of power that broadcasters have, must take on board the fact that they affect how viewers see certain sections of the community.
I am very relieved that Kate Kinninmont, the chief executive of the creative industries networking organisation Women in Film & TV, said she was “absolutely delighted” with O’Reilly’s “landmark” victory. She also said that the BBC’s acceptance of the decision should be applauded. Yes, applauded, but the BBC and all broadcasters should know that there are expectations from now on.
In the light of the current government initiative to look at the sexualisation of children, when girls of 8 years old want to mimic young celebrities by wearing makeup and clothes that are far too old for them, when cases of eating disorders are rising, when old people in the UK are often ridiculed and patronized (unless their money is the target for unscrupulous crooks), surely it is time to redress the balance and raise the profile of older women who have minds, faces and bodies that express life experience and wisdom? Joan Bakewell, where are you?