Former BBC presenter Miriam O'Reilly was warned "to be careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in" nine months before she was dropped from Countryfile by the BBC, a tribunal heard yesterday. Ms O'Reilly, 53, is suing the broadcaster for sex and age discrimination after losing her job when the rural affairs show was moved to a prime-time slot.
In a witness statement, she said comments by Countryfile's director Dean Jones "sent a shiver down my spine" when he warned her that the advent of high definition could be "crunch time" for her BBC TV career in February 2008. She wrote: "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 not be working on the programme in November 2008. She said she was "devastated" when told that she and three other female presenters would lose their jobs when the show relaunched in April 2009 with Julia Bradbury, then 38, and Katie Knapman, then 36. Ms O'Reilly said she was told only that the show was being "refreshed".
The former presenter, of Gwynedd, Wales, said: "This news was a huge disappointment. I was happy for the programme and its success but felt that this success was linked to the presenters' connection with the audience. I had worked for the programme on a freelance basis for about eight years. I had won awards for the programme and had demonstrated my commitment to it by refusing other work."
Three other female Countryfile presenters – Michaela Strachan, 42, Juliet Morris, 52, and Charlotte Smith, 44 – were also dropped. 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.
"The four women who were dropped were part of the Countryfile 'family'," Ms O'Reilly said. "Viewers trusted us because we had experience, knowledge and credibility. We brought a level of understanding to the programme that I don't believe exists now. It's still very much identifiable as Countryfile; it's just that overall the presenter line-up is much younger."
Ms O'Reilly said her departure was reported heavily in the national press. She claimed her relationship with Andrew Thorman, then executive editor of factual learning, whom she had known since she started at the BBC when she was 25, became "cool and off-hand, then gradually became very cold". She claimed she was victimised because she was suspected of being the source of negative media reports about alleged ageism at the BBC. After she was dropped, Ms O'Reilly continued working on Radio 4's Costing The Earth.
When the radio programme was extended, producer Maggie Ayre told Ms O'Reilly she had been allocated a show about old-age pensioners. Ms O'Reilly said: "I actually laughed, thinking she was joking because so much was being made of the negative newspaper coverage regarding the Countryfile changes and the many accusations from BBC viewers that the corporation was ageist. I asked if it was the idea of Mr Thorman. She didn't say whose idea it was." The tribunal is expected to last for 12 days.