Age case presenter Miriam O'Reilly 'did the right thing'

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The Independent Online

Axed presenter Miriam O'Reilly today said she had done the "right thing" by "standing up" to the BBC after she won an age discrimination case against the corporation.

Ms O'Reilly, 53, who lost her Countryfile job in advance of it moving to a prime-time Sunday evening slot, also said she would like to return to work at the BBC.

Fighting back tears at times, she told a news conference in London she was "overwhelmed" after winning her case.

She also said she was "really impressed" by the BBC's decision to apologise to her following today's judgment and the corporation's announcement that it would like to talk about working with her again in the future.

"It was hard to take on the BBC because I love the BBC and I loved working there," she said.

"I think it is one of the best broadcast organisations in the world but I felt that I was treated badly because of my age.

"Standing up to the BBC was the right thing to do, however hurtful, however stressful it has been. I would like to go back to work for the BBC.

"I took this action because I wanted to work for the BBC."

Ms O'Reilly said there was a "long way" to go with ageism in the visual media, not just at the BBC.

She said she hoped the case would help speed up the elimination of ageism in this field.

"We are seeing changes, we are seeing the start, but we are not seeing enough and it is not happening quickly enough," she said.

"Hopefully it will.

"I hope that this case and the stand that I have taken will help that happen a lot quicker."

She added: "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 on 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 am good at my job. I do not want to be judged by 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 key to keeping your job."

O'Reilly told the London employment tribunal last November she was "devastated" when she was told in November 2008 that she was being dropped after eight years of working for the show as a freelance.

Three other women Countryfile presenters aged over 40 - Michaela Strachan, 42, Juliet Morris, 45, and Charlotte Smith, 44 - were also axed alongside O'Reilly, she told the tribunal.

The programme relaunched in April 2009 with Julia Bradbury, then 38, and former Blue Peter presenter Matt Baker, then 30, along with veteran broadcaster John Craven, 68, who was kept on for a slot called John Craven Investigates.

It was also announced that they would be supported by presenters Adam Henson, James Wong, Jules Hudson and Katie Knapman.

In it judgment, the tribunal said the BBC had subjected O'Reilly to direct age discrimination and age victimisation.

The judgment said it could be argued that keeping Craven suggested age was not a factor in the decision-making about who would go forward to the revamped programme.

But, it said, it considered his position to be "quite different" from that of the other presenters.

"The general age profile of the programme became considerably younger when the new presenters were appointed, particularly for the second tier group for which the claimant might have been considered," it said.

The new second tier presenters did not have the "substantial" network profile that might attract prime-time audiences which was suggested to be the principal criteria in selection, the judgment said.

"We consider that a significant factor in their choice was their comparative youth and, in the decision not to consider the claimant, her age," it said.

"We contrast the treatment of the claimant, 51, Charlotte Smith, 44, and Juliet Morris, 43, with the new second tier presenters Jules Hudson, 38, Katie Knapman, 36, and James Wong, 26.

"If the claimant had been 10 to 15 years younger, she would have been given proper consideration to remain as a presenter of Countryfile."

The judgment said the age discrimination had not been justified.

"The wish to appeal to a primetime audience, including younger viewers, is a legitimate aim," it said.

"However, we do not accept that it has been established that choosing younger presenters is required to appeal to such an audience."

The tribunal said it did not accept that the decision to axe her involved combined age and sex discrimination or sex discrimination in addition to age discrimination.

But it noted "we do not doubt that older women have faced particular disadvantage within the broadcast media".

The high-profile tribunal reignited the row over alleged ageism and sexism at the BBC and in the wider media.

Former BBC One controller Jay Hunt described claims that O'Reilly and the three other women were dropped from the show because she "hated women" as "entirely and categorically untrue".

The senior executive, who has since taken up the post of chief creative officer at Channel 4, told the tribunal the BBC One audience was predominantly over 55 and female, and it was "important" and "entirely appropriate that they use "older female authority figures" in peak time.

Notable examples, she said, of her work to boost older women were those of Anne Robinson, brought back to Watchdog in its "peak", and actor Sheila Hancock on the Saturday night hit show Over The Rainbow.

O'Reilly, although an extremely talented television reporter, was "completely unknown to a peak-time audience" and did not have the "skill level" to be taken forward, she claimed.

Ms Hunt told the tribunal that, since the changes brought in to the programme, the audience had leaped to an average of 5.4 million compared with 1.8 million in its daytime slot.

A statement issued by the BBC said the corporation apologised to O'Reilly - and would welcome the opportunity of discussing working with her again in the future.

"We accept the findings of the tribunal and would like to apologise to Miriam. We will be speaking to her," it said.

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

"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.

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

"We would like to acknowledge the important contribution Miriam has made to the BBC over more than 20 years and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss working with her again in the future."