Wanted: TV news presenter. Must be female. Young need not apply

BBC responds to ageism debate with year-long recruitment drive to find a mature woman to host prime-time bulletins

John Simpson may still be touring the world's war zones and John Humphrys continues to brighten our mornings by terrorising the political elite with his no-nonsense questioning. But when it comes to growing old gracefully many of the BBC's equally mature female colleagues have long argued that the Beeb is less than sympathetic to their grey hairs and wrinkles.

When Anna Ford left the corporation three years ago after a broadcasting career spanning four decades she railed against what she perceived was a culture of ageism at the BBC that would one day see her "shovelled into" into graveyard shift because of her age. But yesterday it emerged that the BBC is looking to recruit a new female newsreader over the age of 50 in order to quell accusations that the news arm of the corporation prefers to place younger women in prime-time positions.

Mark Thompson, the director general, has ordered BBC News to find an older newsreader within a year and has also called on every director to look into recruiting more mature women presenters if they are under-represented in their department. The recruitment drive will be welcome news to campaigners who believe the BBC needs to do more to broaden the news reading pool, while others will no doubt argue the move is simply a knee-jerk reaction to appease some critics.

The BBC has always strongly denied favouring younger people but a number of high-profile female presenters have complained that they felt forced out of the news organisation because of their age.

Recently the ageism debate surfaced once more when 66-year-old Arlene Phillips – a professional choreographer with decades of West End experience – was edged out of Strictly Come Dancing and replaced with Alesha Dixon, a pop singer 36 years her junior.

Helen Boaden, the director of BBC News, has now been asked to find a more mature female news presenter. It is not yet clear whether the news presenter will be featured on a prime-time slot.

In a statement released yesterday the BBC said: "We are always looking to make sure we have the best presenters on BBC News, representing a wide range of ages and backgrounds. It's certainly true that Mark has spoken to Helen and other directors about the need to have a broad range of presenters on air, including older women."

Yesterday the broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell, who is also the Government's ageism czar, revealed that she had been in discussions with Mr Thompson about recruiting more mature women onto prime-time slots.

"I said there was a conspicuous absence of older women," she told the BBC News website. "We get lots of jowly white-haired men – that's no inhibitor of employment for them – but it seems to have been an eliminator for women until now. I'm glad it's changing."

The row over ageism that surfaced when Anna Ford announced she had quit resurfaced in 2007, when Moira Stewart left saying she had been "deeply hurt" by BBC bosses.

Last year Selina Scott reached an out-of-court settlement with her former bosses at Channel Five after she took them to an employment tribunal claiming she had been ditched by the network for being too old.

Ladies in waiting? Stars who could fit the bill

Selina Scott, 58

A BBC, ITN and Sky veteran who also worked in the US, Scott revealed it was not just the BBC who seemed to favour younger models. She left Channel 5 last year, accusing it of passing her over because of age. Now writes.

Moira Stuart, 60

Britain's first Afro-Caribbean female news presenter, Stuart was "deeply saddened" by her shock departure in 2007. Has re-appeared briefly in TV tax ads.

Anna Ford, 65

She sparked the original ageism row with the BBC in 2006 when she accused her bosses of favouring younger and prettier news presenters over older, more experienced ones. A veteran with reams of experience.

Kate Adie, 64

The former BBC war reporter now works freelance but a studio appointment would be much more sedate than dodging bullets in the field.