Attractiveness 'not a bad thing', BBC tribunal told
Friday 12 November 2010
A producer working on a BBC show from which a female presenter claims she was axed for being too old today told a tribunal it was "not a bad thing" if women working on-screen were attractive.
Teresa Bogan, series producer of Countryfile, recommended former Loose Women presenter Jackie Brambles fill a gap on the show because she was "pretty" and "bright".
The admission came during an employment tribunal in which former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly, 53, is suing the broadcaster for sex and age discrimination after losing her job when the show was moved to a prime-time slot.
The London hearing was told that concerns were raised about a woman presenting gap on the programme due to presenter Julia Bradbury having commitments elsewhere.
Ms Bogan had recommended in an email that Ms Brambles fill the gap because she was "pretty, bright" and had a farming connection.
Under cross examination by Heather Williams QC, representing Ms O'Reilly, Ms Bogan was asked if her bosses saw attractiveness as an important factor when choosing a new presenter.
She replied: "I think it (television) is a visual medium. If they look good on screen it's not a bad thing."
Asked again if attractiveness was a relevant factor she said: "I can't speak for my decision-makers can I?"
In a witness statement handed to the tribunal, Ms O'Reilly said she was warned "to be careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in".
She said comments by Countryfile director Dean Jones "sent a shiver down my spine" when he warned her in February 2008 that HD could be "crunch time" for her BBC TV career.
"I do not believe that a man would be asked about his wrinkles nor offered hair dye.
"It was clear to me that this was a reflection of the BBC's view that women on TV needed to look young."
Ms O'Reilly was told she would no longer be working on the rural affairs programme in November 2008.
She said she was "devastated" by the news that she and three other women presenters would lose their jobs when the show relaunched in April 2009 with Bradbury, then 38, and Katie Knapman, then 36.
Three other female Countryfile presenters - Michaela Strachan, 42, Juliet Morris, 45, and Charlotte Smith, 46 - were also dropped from the show, Ms O'Reilly said.
Meanwhile, the show's main presenter, John Craven, 68, and Adam Henson, who was in his 40s, were to be kept on with Ben Fogle, 35, who was given Country Tracks to present.
Today one of her colleagues, Radio 4 producer Lucy Lunt, dismissed her as a "little black dress presenter" and said she could understand why the decision had been made to move her from the programme with its new prime-time slot.
Ms Lunt said she had initially been furious when Ms O'Reilly told her she had been axed because of sexism.
She said if that had been the case she would have been "ashamed" to work for the BBC.
Ms Lunt went to confront Andrew Thorman, then executive editor of factual learning, as to why O'Reilly had been ditched.
She told the hearing today she was convinced ageism or sexism had not been factors in the decision to move O'Reilly on.
Asked what Mr Thorman had said to persuade her, she replied: "Miriam is a safe pair of hands, she can do it, but she's a little black dress presenter.
"You can use her, she's safe, she will deliver, she will be fine.
"But prime time is about red carpet, it's about people who can punch through, that can connect with the audience in a special way."
The BBC has denied a claim of sex and age discrimination by Ms O'Reilly and has said she was dropped from the flagship programme because she lacked the necessary prime time television experience.
Ms O'Reilly also worked as a presenter on BBC Radio 4's Costing The Earth programme.
The tribunal heard that she was upset after being asked to present a programme about pensioners shortly after being axed from Countryfile.
Producer Maggie Ayre told the hearing she had not intended to be insensitive when asking Ms O'Reilly to present the show.
Ms O'Reilly found her presenting opportunities dwindled at the programme despite requesting more work after leaving Countryfile.
Ms Ayre told the tribunal that she was uneasy about granting Ms O'Reilly more presenting slots as she had not shown "commitment" to Costing The Earth in the past.
Ms Williams asked Ms Ayre if she had "engineered a plan in quite an unpleasant way" to make Ms O'Reilly feel as though she was being pushed out of the programme.
Ms Ayre denied this.
The hearing was adjourned until Monday.
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