> The BBC has found itself embroiled in another age discrimination argument. Is the corporation ageist? Or does this latest case represent a case of sour grapes from a former employee?
On the afternoon of the January 11, Arlene Phillips must have been rubbing her hands with glee and carefully choreographing her next move.
This general feeling of jubilation felt by the ‘older’ women on television comes after the former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly, aged 53, won her landmark unfair dismissal appeal against her former employer, the BBC. Miriam had formerly worked, for eight years, as a freelance presenter on the long running, and little watched, Sunday morning show, Countryfile. In November 2008 she was informed that when the show was to move time slots, to a primetime Sunday evening slot on BBC2 the following April that she, and two other female presenters, would not be kept on. Meanwhile their co-presenter, John Craven, 65, would complete the scheduled move but also be taking on a different, and smaller, role in the future presenting of the show.
Miriam maintained that she had been treated unfairly by her then employers claiming that the decision behind her dismissal was based on her age and gender, saying in a press conference held after her win that ‘it was hard taking on the BBC as I love the BBC but I felt I was treated badly.’
Here lies an interesting argument; was she treated badly or did she react badly to her treatment? Whilst the distinction between these two options might not seem substantial, they are markedly different, and they very much place the blame with the opposing parties involved.
Society’s obsession with youth and the notion that aging naturally is becoming rarer for those in the public eye seems to have been ratified by this case getting the media coverage it has. O’Reilly has asserted that she doesn’t ‘think having wrinkles is offensive’. As a television watcher, I can genuinely say that I have never been offended by their appearance on TV, although, if this ever changes I promise that I will write to Points of View, at the earliest opportunity. After all, we have to remember that Ms O’Reilly was working on Countryfile, a nature programme focussing on, well mainly birds and trees. A young and sexy image is not really necessary, after all it’s not exactly Babestation. The point I mean to raise was that age and gender are barely relevant in her dismissal, and as her employers did not exploit it or expect her to change it, it remains almost irrelevant to the case. It would be very different if someone had suggested that she tried botox to sort her wrinkles out, but nobody did. Personal image isn’t relevant in these terms unless you make it relevant, which O’Reilly has definitely done. Whilst her image was fitting to the style and the subject matter of the programme she was working on, in the eyes of the BBC, she just wasn’t primetime presenter material. The whole thing boils down to viewing figures, and creating a show that people will watch and enjoy, and anyone working in the industry should understand that this means that sometimes, and certainly not always, decisions are made that upset people.
Let’s be honest, losing your job is never nice, and it is easy to see why she took offence and placed the blame with the BBC. After all we do live in a society where blaming other people has become natural.
Interestingly, Miriam was replaced by two presenters who both have experience in primetime presenting, having worked on two key BBC programmes, Blue Peter and Watchdog. When the ageism element of this argument is removed and the substitution is seen in context, this replacement seems logical. Especially when you consider the change in demographic that the show underwent when it was ‘refreshed’. Yes these two presenters are younger, that is obvious, but not significantly so. What they have is more experience in the Prime Time slots and, crucially, a permanent, rather than freelance, contract.
It is possible to sympathise with the grounds for O’Reilly’s dispute., When she stated ‘I am a 53 year-old-woman, I have my own difficulties surviving this industry’ she voiced the fears of many who find themselves in both her age bracket and line of work. Ironically though what she pinpoints here is the exact argument she has embroiled herself in; does age matter in terms of television? I would argue that it is does and doesn’t, but it is less relevant for men in the industry. Male television presenters and newsreaders have a certain ageless employability that their female counter-parts seem to lack.
O’Reilly’s QC raised this point, saying that there is a ‘notable disparity’ between the treatment of the sexes and that ‘physical appearance is an issue for women in a way that it is not for men.’ Intriguingly the other two female presenters of the show, Michaela Strachan and Juliet Morris, 44 and 45 respectively, kept very quiet about it all.
What seems to have been seriously ignored in this argument, and the court case, is that she wasn’t really a very good presenter. Former BBC controller, Jay Hunt spoke to defend his choices at the tribunal saying that O’Reilly’s claims were ‘profoundly distressing and utterly offensive,’ adding that they were also ‘entirely and categorically untrue.’ He has his programming to fall back on here, if you look at many programmes on the BBC, they are more often than not presented by ‘older’ women, that is, when they are presented by women. Yes, here there are of course a few exceptions, and this is where Arlene Phillips comes in. When the BBC saw how successful Simon Cowell’s X-Factor replacement of Sharon Osbourne with the young, beautiful and apparently musical Cheryl Cole, they jumped on the bandwagon. The un-cool cousin of the television world ditched their Sharon-O, judge Arlene Phillips, 66, from the panel on Strictly Come Dancing and replaced her with Alesha Dixon, 30, of popular 90’s girl-band fame. She might have less than half the ballroom dancing experience but she also happens to be less than half her age. If any woman recently fired from the BBC had a valid ageism argument it was Arlene, but she didn’t take it any further than a few moans to Doctor’s waiting-room magazines. Miriam on the other hand received a formal apology from the BBC, who somewhat sheepishly said that they would be interested in working with her again, and received an undisclosed payout from the BBC. I hope Arlene Phillips has been taking notes.