BBC LOSE AGE DISCRIMINATION CASE
In a landmark ruling, a tribunal declared that senior BBC executives were obsessed with ‘ethnic diversity’, ‘rejuvenation’ and attracting younger viewers when they decided to axe the Countryfile presenter at the age of 51.
Miss O’Reilly, now 53, had been told to be ‘careful about those wrinkles’ before she and three other women were replaced by younger staff.
She said standing up to the BBC had been ‘the right thing to do, however hurtful, however stressful it has been’.
She added: ‘I never wanted to leave my job … there are still years in me yet!’
Miss O’Reilly will now consider fresh offers from the BBC, which issued a humiliating apology and said it would be happy to work with her again.
The corporation – already under fire over the axeing of Arlene Phillips from Strictly Come Dancing – has now been forced to draw up fresh guidelines which will put a string of older stars on our screens.
Bosses, including the former BBC1 Controller Jay Hunt, were judged to have shown ‘complacency’ in their casual attitude to the way they treated staff.
It was alleged during the hearing that Miss Hunt ‘hated women’ – an accusation she vigorously denied.
She was also recorded as saying she needed ‘to achieve social engineering to re-gear the channel’.
The tribunal said this meant ‘finding presenters to reflect particular aspects of diversity to fit specific slots’. Miss O’Reilly revealed she had been offered a pay-off – thought to have been around £80,000 – to keep quiet and drop the case.
She described yesterday’s ruling as historic, a verdict backed by employment lawyers.
Helena Derbyshire, of law firm Shoosmiths, said: ‘This is the first reported age discrimination claim challenging the assumption that workers need to be youthful to be attractive.’
Miss O’Reilly revealed she had earned only £500 in the past two years, as she struggled to find work due to the BBC’s displeasure with her.
The saga began when she was dropped along with Charlotte Smith, 46, Juliet Morris, 45, and Michaela Strachan, 44, to make way for younger presenters such as Julia Bradbury, 40, and Katie Knapman, 38.
BBC bosses claimed the decision was nothing to do with age, but the need to ‘refresh’ and ‘rejuvenate’ the show.
But the tribunal’s judgment was scathing of the BBC practices – in particular of Miss Hunt and Andrew Thorman, the executive editor of Countryfile.
Miss O’Reilly told the initial 12-day hearing last year that even before she was axed she had been told to be ‘careful about those wrinkles’ in preparation for high definition television, to consider using Botox and offered a can of black hair dye.
As Miriam O’Reilly celebrates her £150,000 payout, a series of sensational emails have emerged that reveal the BBC’s panic over her ageism sacking.
But a series of revealing internal corporation emails, published by the hearing, show BBC bosses drew up a ‘risk assessment’ at the time of the Countryfile shake-up to head off expected claims it was ‘dumbing down’ and ‘pandering to a younger audience’.
Shockingly, it even made disparaging remarks about two of the stars who remain on the show – John Craven and Julia Bradbury – saying neither were ‘spring chickens’.
In an email to executive editor Andrew Thorman,the BBC Publicity Department recognises they could be labelled ageist and sexist over the cull.
And in a contrived effort to deflect criticism, the email adds: ‘To counter any suggestion of ageism I will position John Craven as a central figure in the new series.’
In another exchange between Mr Thornton and Countryfile magazine editor Cavan Scott the issue over swelling numbers of reader complaints is broached.
Mr Thornton tells Mr Scott: ‘If it is an age thing then Julia and John are hardly spring chickens and if it is about personalities then it is subjective and all programmes need to refresh their output and that includes faces on the screen.’
Countryfile series producer Teresa Bogan even gives Mr Thornton her thoughts on ‘additional ethnic talent’, revealing the corporation’s slapdash approach to hiring.
She adds: ‘Do you want me to [look through their showreels] or would I be wasting my time (ie is Jay just gonna pick someone)???’
One of the axed presenters, Michaela Strachan, later shows her hurt at ‘being dumped’.
She wrote to Andrew Thorman: ‘I’m not even much older than Julia Bradbury. Did Jay need to make it quite so brutal?’
She adds: ‘Oh, it’s a cruel harsh world . . . Well, I’ll bring my zimmer next time I come to Birmingham.’
The emails are a stark revelation over the inner workings of BBC recruitment processes and attitudes towards age and ethnicity that inspired Miriam O’Reilly to take the corporation to tribunal.