Editor-At-Large: Two cheers for Miriam, but the BBC won't change

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The Independent Online

Is former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly brave or bonkers? Try as I may, I can't see her ageism victory over the BBC as another great leap forward for womankind, or pensioners. Of course, it's terrific that Miriam will receive a full apology from director-general Mark Thompson, as well as a large sum of money. But, as she basks in the limelight following her successful court appearance, will she be asked to present a prime-time programme on BBC1 as a result of her victory over the corporation?

True, there's been a lot of hand-wringing at Television Centre. The management wheeled out Alan Yentob to make a mealy-mouthed statement about changing ways and "learning lessons". As a former senior BBC executive, experienced television presenter and pensioner, all I can say is, ha, bloody, ha.

After a short period of self-flagellation, expect normal service to be resumed as before, our screens awash with pretty women, white men of all ages and plenty of Welsh and Scottish accents.

A couple of months ago, I was told I'd been shortlisted to present a new BBC series about food. Last week, I received the news someone else has got the job. I'm not snivelling: that's the way things are. I will not be conducting an inquiry into the successful presenter's age, ethnicity or sex. The truth is, the BBC got itself in a dreadful state about on-screen talent a long time ago, and the resulting mess isn't only about age or sex.

Decades ago, the BBC started relying on focus groups and "research" into their output. They dumped Terry Wogan's chat show at 7pm, spent months investigating what people wanted to watch in that slot, only to discover we wanted a programme we could have on while doing something else, like ironing or eating supper, or talking to each other. Wogan, in fact, had fitted the brief perfectly – telly as pleasant background material.

When I was in charge of Fantasy Football League years ago, a brilliant series presented by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and an eccentric in a dressing gown called Statto, BBC bosses started agonising about female viewers. Around £10,000 was wasted discovering that women watched the show and loved it. Not all women, but quite a number, considering it was fronted by blokey men.

Over the past two decades, every decision the BBC makes about a programme, from content to presenters, goes through ridiculous focus groups. Playwrights and comedians from Alan Bleasdale to Victoria Wood have complained, but it persists, stifling originality and resulting in an obsession with box-ticking. Every programme team has to have the right number of gay, black and disabled personnel. Every programme has to be presented by men as well as women, and in the approved regional accents wherever possible.

Alongside this lunacy of box-ticking is an obsession with targeting programmes to attract key audiences. In the case of Countryfile, BBC controller Jay Hunt wanted to relaunch the programme in peak time. She was perfectly right to examine the line-up of presenters to see if they would appeal in this new slot. In fact, the combination of John Craven and Miriam O'Reilly might well have been too bland. Getting rid of Miriam, Michaela Strachan and Charlotte Smith, all of whom were middle aged, was just stupid, especially when it emerged that the BBC was seeking someone with an ethnic background to replace them – blatant evidence of box-ticking.

Dumping Arlene Phillips from Strictly Come Dancing and replacing her with a far younger woman who just happened to come from an ethnic background is another example of this. If you want to attract as many viewers as possible, then you have to find the person most viewers connect with. They could be old smoothies like Bruce Forsyth, offensively macho like Jeremy Clarkson, or outrageously camp like Graham Norton.

Like doesn't always attract like, and the genius of successful presenters is their ability to draw you into their world, no matter what their age, sex or skin colour. Which is why choosing people because of their age, sex, or skin colour is always doomed.

The BBC needs to be braver about its presenters. Ticking boxes is getting them nowhere. First and foremost, viewers want to be entertained, uplifted and enthralled. That's not about age or colour, but talent and originality. Miriam could just be too boring.

Ann, your gallumping inspires no one to dance

Pictures of Ann Widdecombe prancing around in an unflattering fringed frock and leggings, trying to do the charleston with Craig Revel Horwood on the Strictly Come Dancing live tour make me feel slightly queasy. I'm all for Ann "having fun", as she puts it, but hasn't the panto season ended? The former MP has always maintained that she enjoyed taking part in the show, and didn't find it demeaning. She says that she hoped her participation would encourage other people of a certain age to realise that "they could do it too". I wish I thought that was true. Sadly, I know from experience that the appearance of clumsy non-professionals is just one way canny TV producers boost ratings. Ann's comedic effect won't have got a single pensioner into dancing shoes. Senior citizens who want to dance can do so without morale boosting from her, and many will be excellent dancers, appalled by her gallumping. Ann is a limited role model for older women, reinforcing the notion that unless you're prepared to be a figure of fun, you're not worth bothering with.

A foolish student deserves a chance

Animal rights campaigner Maria Neal, 21, was in a gang that attacked four branches of Barclays because of its links with Huntingdon Life Sciences. She sprayed slogans on buildings, glued up cash machines and trashed vehicles. Damage was put at £40,000. Maria received a suspended two-year sentence and must do 120 hours of unpaid work. Contrast her with Edward Woollard, 18, who threw a fire extinguisher from the roof of a building during the tuition fees riots. Edward, who is studying for A-levels, apologised in court but was sentenced to two years and eight months in a young offenders' institution. Yes, he could have killed someone with his appalling behaviour, but locking him up with drug dealers and violent youths is no answer. He should have been given a suspended sentence and community work. Both young people are idealistic. Why was only one given a second chance?

Wake up, and smell hypocrisy

I loathe focus groups. They stifle creativity in television, and are used by politicians desperate to connect with disillusioned voters. Now Nick Clegg's got a laughable new initiative: "alarm clock Britain" is aimed at reaching those who work long and unsociable hours for little reward. Cleggover thinks that if the Lib Dems can engage with households earning less than £35,000 a year, he'll win back disillusioned supporters and prop up his plummeting popularity. Shame, then, that he's chosen David Laws to lead his campaign. Bankers regularly get up at dawn and work unsociable hours, and Mr Laws made millions like this before he entered politics. Privately educated, he stood down as Chief Secretary to the Treasury when it was revealed he had wrongly claimed over £40,000 in expenses. Laws said he'd made an honest mistake, declaring he was avoiding making it public that he was gay. I don't care how clever he is: this bloke is a hypocrite.