Three women, all experienced journalists, have described to the Independent interviews they had at WTV's headquarters outside Plymouth. They say they were questioned about their attitudes towards stories involving topless sunbathers and whether they would wear short skirts on assignments if asked to do so.
One woman is said to have left the office in tears after her interview.
John Prescott Thomas, WTV's managing director and former head of BBC South and West, has rejected the women's version of events after interviewing the two executives concerned, Richard Myers, controller of news and current affairs, and Brad Higgins, senior news producer.
Mr Prescott Thomas spoke of 'an extraordinary wave of denigration and disinformation about Westcountry over the last six months'.
The candidates who have spoken to the Independent - including one man - work in television outside the West Country region. All are settling into new jobs with other ITV companies and have asked not to be identified.
'My interview started off very, very aggressively,' the male reporter said. 'Quite frankly it was so over the top it was comical. It was made very clear, as much by Myers as by Brad Higgins that basically their approach was 'We're going to wake this region up'.
'They certainly had quite a lot of good ideas for entertaining TV, human interest stories covered in quite a wacky way and I thought that was good. On the other hand there was an emphasis at one point on a very high sexual content. They asked questions like 'If I said to you that I wanted to do something about topless people on the 6-7pm programme or we had naked people at that time, what would your reaction be?'.'
A woman reporter also said that her interview had been 'very aggressive' - 'There were certainly questions I wouldn't have thought appropriate for a job interview. Questions about my appearance in terms of my hair and things like that.'
Another of the women reporters said she was warned by the receptionist at Westcountry to expect questions about short skirts.
'I was wearing a dark blue suit and they said would I mind if they commented on my clothing,' she recalled. 'They said it didn't suit me, that I was an autumnal sort of person who ought to wear yellow and brown. They came round the desk and started pulling my shoulders and saying 'Hmm, the buttons are a bit big' and all that. It was very TV-am-ish.
'They said 'What would you say if we asked you to do a topless item on the beach?' and I said 'You're trying to wind me up' and they sort of laughed and said 'Oh, not necessarily'. And they said 'What do you think about wearing short skirts on certain assignments, if we thought it was better, if you were trying to influence men or something?' I said 'I don't take it seriously'. It was just kind of surreal. I'm in my thirties and I don't think I was young enough for them . . .
'When I left the interview I got a taxi back to the station and the driver said 'The last girl in my cab who did an interview there was in tears'. I wasn't in tears because I'd been warned what to expect. I suppose they were just trying to see your reaction to being startled like that.'
A third woman, now working for one of the new companies outside London, said she was also tipped off by the receptionist to expect a tough interview. 'I'd heard a lot of women were being asked ridiculous questions. I certainly noticed that the girl who came out before me looked very flushed and hot and bothered.
'I was in a smart blue suit and it was 'Do you think the neckline is too plunging?', which I didn't. And 'Would you lose weight, would you cut your hair if I told you to do so?'.
'The pace of the interview was very fast and I made a decision after the second question that I couldn't win on their home ground. I couldn't understand what they wanted from me, whether it was all done to see if I'd lose my temper or what.'
Mr Prescott Thomas, who discussed the allegations with Mr Higgins and Mr Myers last Monday, defended both executives yesterday. 'In some cases they certainly don't recollect what was alleged to have been said,' he said. 'In others the gloss which has been put on it and the motivations which are being imputed to them, they emphatically deny.
'The questions about topless sunbathers formed part of a hypothetical case put to several candidates, including candidates whom we appointed, and was not a simplistic question like 'Would you do topless interviews?' It was a serious inquiry into how, as journalists, these people would tackle a story in the 6pm slot.
'The story they were looking into was the health question over the incidence of melanoma, of exposure of the skin to the sun and ozone and all that.
'And the example that was put to them was there happened to be here in the South-west several areas where there were nudist beaches.
'They were asked if they thought it appropriate to go and conduct interviews with topless people about this serious health topic on a show going out before the 9pm threshold. The idea that what was being pursued was in any way salacious is strongly denied.
'I'm wrestling with a blancmange here. If you're implying that people didn't recognise this as a serious journalistic issue but regarded it as salacious then it seems to indicate that it was probably rather a good question to put to them.'
Mr Prescott Thomas said that questions about appearance were put to men and women candidates because appearances on television were important.
'Every performer that I know on television takes professional advice on the way they look. As for wearing short skirts, I've talked to the executives about this, and, as I understand it, interviewees were asked about what would be the proper dress on particular assignments. So if you were covering an event on Dartmoor would you consider it right to wear a short skirt, or what sort of gear would you get into?'
He described the aggressive style of the interviews as a 'challenging' approach designed to make candidates think on their feet. 'Everyone knows that a TV news room is a very stressful place to work.'
He denied emphatically that any woman candidate had been unduly pressurised.
'As far as I'm concerned, sexual harassment is totally and absolutely unacceptable in any circumstances at work. It's a disciplinary offence. Everyone knows that here. If the allegation is that there was some kind of sexist bias it's interesting to note that 55 per cent of our journalistic intake are women. Of five senior management people at controller level two of these are women.
'They were all appointed because of their journalistic skills. If the suggestion is that anyone's been taken on because they wear short skirts, I wouldn't go down to our news room and say that if I were you because you'd be lynched.'
Neither Mr Higgins, an Australian news producer from TV-am, nor Mr Myers, a news producer from LWT who was head of news at TSW until he left in June 1990, would discuss the allegations. 'All comments must come from our press office. Thank you for your call. Good morning,' Mr Higgins said.
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