Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s programming boss, was labelled a “serial age discrimination offender” by John McCririck, the racing commentator who has launched a £3 million discrimination claim against the broadcaster.
The flamboyant McCririck, 73, is taking former employer Channel 4 and TV production company IMG Media Limited to an employment tribunal, alleging his sacking last year after 29 years as a racing pundit was motivated by age discrimination.
Mr McCririck, who was paid £180,000 a year at the height of his career and enjoyed a starring role in Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother, said his employment came under threat with the arrival of a new executive team. Hunt defected from the BBC to become Channel 4’s chief creative officer in 2011.
Mr McCririck told the tribunal that Ms Hunt was a “serial age discrimination offender.” He said: “The channel lost its unique ethical and moral high ground and quickly became just another money and ratings motivated broadcaster.”
Shortly after joining Channel 4 Ms Hunt, who had been Controller of BBC1, lost an age discrimination and victimisation case brought by Miriam O’Reilly, the former Countryfile presenter. O’Reilly, then 51, was sacked when Ms Hunt relaunched the show with a new team of thirty-something presenters.
Ms Hunt denied Ms O’Reilly’s claim that she “hated women” but said after the tribunal ruled in favour of the presenter: “I am very mindful now that decisions you take have a very deep impact on people's lives. I absolutely regret it, the distress it caused for Miriam.”
Ms Hunt previously prompted an outcry when she axed Arlene Phillips, then 66, as a judge from Strictly Come Dancing in 2010, replacing her with 31 year-old Alesha Dixon. Ms Hunt defended her decision, saying it gave an opportunity to a “young, black, woman presenter”. Although Harriet Harman, a campaigner for older faces on television, said she suspected age discrimination had played a role, Phillips did not lodge a complaint against Ms Hunt.
Mr McCririck told the tribunal that his appearances as a “pantomime villain” in reality TV shows did nothing to reduce his “gravitas” as a serious racing pundit and journalist.
His image as a bigot and a sexist had gone “side-by-side” with his image as a highbrow journalist and denied it had ever damaged the sport of horse racing.
The presenter’s hours had been dramatically reduced before he was ultimately axed after Channel 4 awarded the racing contract to IMG Media Ltd in August 2012, which brought in a new team, led by Clare Balding.
The tribunal was told of several occasions Mr McCririck had acting in a way he accepted was seen as a sexist and a bigot, including incidents in the Big Brother house; one occasion when he was thrown off Alan Titchmarsh's ITV show for making rude comments to Ingrid Tarrant about her relationship with her then estranged husband Chris Tarrant; and his reference to wife Jenny - who was supporting him at the hearing - as “The Booby”, because she was “not very bright, squawks a lot and was easy to catch”.
Mr McCririck said he had regularly campaigned for more women on Channel 4 racing. When Channel 4 cut his days in 2008, Ms Balding tried to help him by acting as an intermediary in getting him to join her on BBC Racing.
“My pantomime villain sexist image has been deliberately cultivated and played up,” the presenter said. “You could say it attracted more people to racing, people knew me, watched what I was saying on and off racing. Channel 4 approved of all of this, they never once called me in. They approved it, they sanctioned it.”
Mr McCririck was repeatedly urged to “control his aggression” and “refrain from grandstanding” or passing comment during his appearance.
Describing his “sacking”, Mr McCririck said he was told by phone by Jamie Aitchison, Channel 4 sports editor, while on holiday, that his services would no longer be required.
“No notice was given, no discussion, no face-to-face meeting, despite my work for C4 over 29 years. I had been sacked by my employer.”
Asked by about the nicknames used on Channel 4 racing, such as “saucy minx” and “the pouty heiress” for presenters Alice Fox-Pitt and Emma Spencer, Mr McCririck said it was all for effect.
“I think it livens up the programme. We liked to think we were a family and people coming in were watching and the family were in the drawing room. We tried to entertain the public and give them information as well.” The hearing continues.