Verdict puts age prejudice in the TV spotlight

Miriam O'Reilly was not what you'd call a household name. She may have spent eight years filing reports for BBC One's Countryfile, but when the show went out early on Sunday mornings only a dedicated hardcore of viewers tuned in.

Now, everyone within the Corporation and many outside know exactly who O'Reilly is. She's the woman who went where others previously feared to tread, who accused her former employers of age-discrimination, who took them to a tribunal and won.

The verdict, in her favour, was delivered yesterday, more than two years after the BBC unveiled a new-look Countryfile, a move which was a case of out with the old and in with the new.

O'Reilly was not the only one to go when the show moved to its new prime-time slot. Three other female presenters – Michaela Strachan, Juliet Morris and Charlotte Smith, all in their 40s, were also axed, but the 53-year-old was the only one who sought legal redress. Suddenly the rural affairs programme, which had been quietly going about its business since 1988, found itself reigniting the debate over the Beeb's treatment of older female presenters.

When details of the case were aired during the hearing last November, it only served to further fan the fires. O'Reilly, who yesterday fought back tears when she was told her claims of age-discrimination had been upheld, was asked by senior executives whether it was time for Botox, was offered a spray can of black dye to cover up some rogue white hairs and, perhaps most revealing of all, was told to be careful "with those wrinkles when high definition comes in".

They might have been the kind of thoughtless remarks carelessly thrown around offices up and down the country, but they served to undermine O'Reilly's confidence and when she was let go, she had little doubt about the reason why. The Beeb has, of course, been here before.

Ever since newsreader Anna Ford resigned in 2006, admitting she feared being "shovelled" into the graveyard shift at the age of 62, many eyes have been watching the BBC's treatment of older presenters. They have witnessed a lot.

The year after Ford's departure, Moira Stuart followed suit, after being dropped from the current affairs programme Sunday AM. When Arlene Phillips, then 66, was replaced by a much younger model – 30-year-old Alesha Dixon – on Strictly Come Dancing, fans she never knew she had came out of the woodwork to protest at the decision. Even June Whitfield has accused the BBC of ignoring its older viewers when it emerged the long-running sitcom Last of the Summer Wine was to be axed.

With each new wave of accusations, the BBC has insisted it does value and rates the experience of its older employees. But O'Reilly's case is different because, unlike 22 other employment tribunals the corporation settled out of court last year, hers has been played out in the full glare of the media and the facts of the case have made the most uncomfortable reading.

When the tribunal panel, which spent more than a month considering its verdict, yesterday concluded that if "the claimant had been 10 to 15 years younger, she would have been given proper consideration to remain as presenter of Countryfile", the BBC, which had claimed she had been dropped because she lacked the necessary experience of peak-time presenting, had no option but to hold up its hands and apologise. In a statement issued by the broadcaster, it also promised to review its training of senior editorial executives and take a lead in raising the issue of fair representation across the broadcasting industry.

Yesterday it was rumoured O'Reilly, whose allegations of sex discrimination were dismissed, could expect a payout in the region of 100,000, including compensation for loss of earnings and injury to feelings, but the cost to the broadcaster could be much more. Selina Scott certainly seemed to think so.

"In the executive offices on the sixth floor of TV Centre, alarm bells should be ringing," said Ms Scott, shortly after lodging a dossier with BBC Trust Chairman Sir Michael Lyons, which she described as an exhaustive account of blatant and sometimes malign sexism and ageism against women. "This is because a discarded BBC presenter, who was effectively sacked from her job after being told that if she wanted to keep on working she should try botox injections, decided enough was enough. Many more are said to be awaiting the outcome of the O'Reilly hearing before launching their own actions. Sometimes a pebble can start an avalanche."

Scott successfully sued Channel Five after she was told she was too old to replace newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky during maternity leave and, from her home in rural North Yorkshire she has become a vocal critic of the "Machiavellian tactics" she says have been used to oust presenters deemed past their best before date. As far back as 1998 an investigation by Age Concern, now Age UK, revealed older men far outnumbered their female counterparts on the BBC by 72 per cent compared to 28 per cent.

The report, however, did little to redress the balance and, in the wake of the O'Reilly tribunal, the organisation has renewed its calls on broadcasters to properly represent the society they were set up to educate and entertain.

"Even in the youth-worshipping world of showbusiness, age discrimination can be withstood," said Age UK charity director Michelle Mitchell. "The idea that wrinkles or grey hair can sound the death knell for the careers of female TV presenters is beyond appalling, especially in a country where a third of the population," is aged 50 and over. Simply by appearing to favour younger over older women, television sends out an incredibly negative message, suggesting that as women grow older they are no longer valued or trusted.

"If ageism is to be stamped out, broadcasters must start offering a more honest portrayal of society to their viewers."

Jay Hunt, who was BBC One controller at the time of the Countryfile revamp, has denied accusations she "hated women", dismissing them as "entirely and categorically untrue" and the issue of ageism within broadcasting is far from black and white. Countryfile is now helmed by 40-year-old Julia Bradbury, a veteran in TV terms. Stuart has returned to the fold, albeit on radio, where she is now part of the fixtures and fittings on The Chris Evans Breakfast Show, and Hunt, who admitted she'd had her own difficulties surviving in the industry, also pointed to the fact Anne Robinson, 66, had been brought back to Watchdog under her watch and Sheila Hancock was in her mid-70s when she took her seat among the judges on Over the Rainbow.

Yet, the over-60s do seem to be an increasingly endangered bunch on the small screen. And it's not just the women who are fearing for their careers. While Nick Ross stopped short of accusing his bosses of ageism when he resigned three years ago following a review of Crimewatch – the programme he had presented for 23 years – when he talked of the BBC's "patronising obsession" with younger presenters it was a sentiment which rang true with many. And when Peter Sissons waded into the row, claiming the Corporation treated men of all ages just as badly as women, it seemed the problem was more widespread than anyone previously thought.

Whether she likes it or not, O'Reilly, who has not ruled out returning to the BBC, has now become a poster girl for those determined to stamp out ageism across the entertainment industry.

"There is a long way to go with ageism in the visual media, not just at the BBC," she said.

"We are seeing changes and we are seeing the start, but we are not seeing enough and it is not happening quickly enough. I hope that this case and the stand that I have taken will help that happen a lot quicker.

"When I was dropped from Countryfile because of my age, I felt that after over 20 years with the BBC I deserved to be judged on my ability and not my appearance. I don't think having wrinkles is offensive, you know, we all get old, the alternative is pretty dire.

"I would like to continue working so long as I'm good at my job. I do not want to be judged on how I look. I know you can't frighten the horses, you have to look presentable, but I do not believe that youth has to be the key to keeping your job."

Age of unrest at corporation

"I honestly don't think the BBC likes old people." (June Whitfield amid rumours Last of the Summer Wine was to be axed, 2009)

"There are no grey-haired women on TV as there are grey-haired men. It's like they have all somehow died off." (Joan Bakewell delivering her verdict on the BBC to director general Mark Thompson in 2009)

"How many presenters do you know on television who are over the age of 60? There are more than 16 million people in this country over the age of 55 and... I don't think the BBC is intent on making programmes for them." (Anna Ford, 2007)

"I think that the broadcast media finds it possible to value the older man but I don't think they find it possible to value the older woman." (Harriet Harman, then equality minister, 2010).