Fir and loathing on the Countryfile set

Is the BBC really ageist and sexist? That's the claim at an extraordinary employment tribunal. Cahal Milmo reports

In Miriam O'Reilly's 10-year career as a reporter for the BBC's Countryfile programme,she investigated the plight of endangered rural species from water voles to East Anglian fishermen.

More recently, she has spent her time conducting an impassioned defence of what she considers to be another fast-disappearing British rarity: female television presenters in their 40s and 50s.

Inside a drab employment tribunal building in central London, a world away from the peaceable and verdant landscapes normally favoured by the BBC's rural affairs flagship, Ms O'Reilly has laid bare tensions inside the Beeb over its treatment of "women of a certain age" in an era when many feel talent has become a poor second to looks when it comes to securing a prime-time slot on the nation's screens.

The 53-year-old presenter, who was dropped from Countryfile in 2008 shortly before it was moved to a key evening slot on BBC1, is suing the corporation for age and sex discrimination in a case which has forced senior executives to defend themselves against charges of misogyny, and cast light on the BBC's portrayal of older women.

During a fortnight of riveting testimony, Jay Hunt, the former controller of BBC1, has denied that she "hates women", while lawyers for the broadcaster of Countryfile – a programme where hitherto the closest thing to violence has been veteran presenter John Craven's colourful jumpers – have vigorously contested claims that Ms O'Reilly was advised to have Botox and warned to be "careful about wrinkles". The mother-of-two was among four female presenters and reporters – Charlotte Smith, then 44; Michaela Strachan, then 42; and Juliet Morris, then 52 – who were told their services were no longer required when Countryfile was revamped last April and moved to a prime-time Sunday evening slot.

The women were replaced by younger broadcasters, including 32-year-old Strictly Come Dancing star Matt Baker. The resulting presenting team has an average age of 34, down from 48. The BBC insists that the disparity is a purely coincidental result of its decision to recruit presenters with the necessary "prime-time appeal".

Unsurprisingly, Ms O'Reilly, an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years' experience, begs to differ. On the opening day of proceedings at the employment tribunal building in Holborn, she revealed her shock at being axed from the show and claimed her attempts to gain new work with the BBC have been thwarted because of her decision to speak out about her treatment.

Of the day in November 2008 on which she was told she was leaving the programme, Ms O'Reilly said: "It is not an exaggeration to say that I was devastated by this news. The four women who were dropped were part of the Countryfile 'family'. Viewers trusted us because we had experience, knowledge and credibility. The subject matter of the prime-time show hasn't changed, it's just that overall the presenter line-up is much younger."

Ms O'Reilly claimed she had been told by a Countryfile director earlier in 2008 that the introduction of the high-definition format for the programme meant she needed to be careful about her wrinkles; another director had asked her whether "it was time for Botox". It was a joke between friends, the BBC's lawyer suggested in cross-examination. A cameraman was also said to have offered her black dye to cover a "white gap" in her hairline.

The presenter, from Gwynedd, Wales, said she had been victimised as a result of her complaints, claiming that two documentary projects for Radio 4 were dropped without warning despite being initially welcomed. She added that she blamed Andrew Thorman, the BBC's head of rural affairs, for pulling the plug on her BBC career, saying the relationship between them had become "very cold". Mr Thorman strongly denied the claim.

Ms O'Reilly was supported by Ms Smith, who told the tribunal that she was advised she was not "young" or "pretty" enough to appear in the new prime-time programme. Ms Smith added: "I do believe that the BBC decided to remove us from Countryfile partly because we are older women."

The "Countryfile Four" have not, however, presented a completely united face. Ms Morris, who according to Ms O'Reilly was the source of the allegation that Ms Hunt "hates women", issued a statement saying she had no recollection of voicing such claims, adding: "Furthermore, I do not believe this to be the case."

For her part, Ms Hunt, 43, who broke off from her gardening leave ahead of her new post at Channel 4 to give testimony this week, made a robust defence of her record on recruiting older women (including Rosa Monckton, Rosie Boycott and Angela Hartnett) and insisted that appearance was not paramount on television, all the while arriving it court in different, immaculate outfits over three days. Ms Hunt admitted it may have been "stupid" of her not to realise that the criteria she set down for the new Countryfile presenters would result in the departure of the four women. But she added: "It is not true that women in their 40s and above do not have a role in the channel. Prime-time audience appeal is not, as Ms O'Reilly seems to think, based on sex and age."

The case encourages a reopening of the debate about imbalances in the BBC's presenting rota. Yesterday, Teresa Bogan, the producer of Countryfile, told the tribunal it was "not a bad thing" if women working on screen were attractive. Asked if the same position was held by her superiors, she replied: "I can't speak for the decision-makers, can I?"

The case continues.

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