If anyone needed proof that the old men whose faces (faces that surely only a blind mother could love!) dominate this country's televisual news and current affairs are not culled with the same rigour applied to their female colleagues – a practice which will hopefully cease now that Miriam O'Reilly has won her landmark victory against the BBC after a two-year court case – they should have watched Jon Snow "interviewing" Mariella Frostrup on Tuesday's Channel 4 News.
There it was, slap bang on prime time – all the intellectual rigour and respect displayed towards the cool, clever interviewee as that of a scaffolder leering loudly at a passing hottie. But, regrettably, without the manual labourer's legendary looks. Does Mr Snow have "laughter lines"? Nothing's that funny! Does his face looked "lived in"? If it was a house, it would have been condemned as unfit for human habitation by now! Is he "distinguished"? With his embarrassingly studenty protests over the world-shaking issue of "poppy fascism" (and WHAT an insensitive choice of word from a man whose linguistic skills are his living!), he seems distinguished mainly these days by his inability to pick his fights wisely. So it was business as usual with Miss Frostrup, whose bare-faced beauty and common-sense feminism made him appear almost half-witted when he attempted to counter her argument that O'Reilly's victory was a milestone for marginalised middle-aged women in the workplace. (Sensitive readers may wish to avert their eyes now.)
"When people are considering whether they should hire someone or not for television, you have a screen test," Snow preened. "And that phrase comes up – 'Does the camera love her – does the camera love him'."
"They RARELY say does the camera love HIM!" smirked Mariella, the minx. (I've got to come clean here, I was friends with her two decades ago, and she doesn't look a day older than she did then. Mind you, the lighting in the Groucho Club was very dim and I was drunk from dawn till dusk, then back again by the scenic route. But still. WHAT a woman!) "They look for personality, they look for opinions, they look for all kinds of things in men that they don't necessarily look for in women."
"You don't think that whether the face works with the camera has any relevance at all?" purred the Silver Snow Fox, by now so openly fishing for compliments that he seemed in danger of toppling into the same pond where Narcissus met his match.
"But look at all the faces that do work!" Mariella responded. No one could have denied her the tiny dig that came next, as swift as a stiletto heel puncturing a balloon already fit to burst. "I mean, Jon, you're obviously a beauty, but there are many faces on television that aren't necessarily made for television..."
Gloves off! The Silver Fox came out fighting dirty, draping his diss in a cloak of chivalry: "Let's be candid about this. You're blonde, and you have a very nice ... quite husky ... voice." (I TOLD you to look away. And now see what you've done. Gosh, that porridge looks even less appetising the second time around, no?) "That will have played in your advantage..."
"Certainly it will, I work in a visual medium ... but why should I be retired because I have a couple of wrinkles?"
There was no answer to that, and the blonde husky won it game, set and match. And not only did she make mincemeat of Snow, but she made me rethink my views on this issue completely.
In the past, I've been of the opinion that TV is a medium which quite naturally favours youthful faces. And that old birds should basically throw in the make-up towel when they reach the menopause and shuffle on somewhere less show-offy. But in my defence I would say that it was the bleating of Saint Selina Scott on this issue which got my goat, when she pocketed a cool £250,000 from Channel Five in 2008 after launching a legal action on the grounds of age discrimination.
When Scott became famous in her twenties, she was possessed of a beauty as cool and as sexually suggestive as a cucumber. But she was brainy too! Who even now, two decades later, can forget her groundbreaking journalistic work when she acted as the first ever human suppository to that triumvirate of Titans Prince Charles, King Juan Carlos of Spain and King Constantine of Greece?
As if that superannuated prissy princess – now staring 60 in the face – ever threw her hands up in horror at the peak of her public profile and earning power, protesting "Please! I'm not worthy of this jammy plum! Won't you please give it to a woman who may not look anywhere near as cute as me squinting sternly at an autocue, but who has real skills and experience acquired through decades of thankless graft at the coal-face of current affairs rather than a CV which centres on sucking up to domestic and foreign royals to such an extent that it could almost qualify as an extreme sport"?
No, she didn't.
The Miriam O'Reilly case is altogether different, and the – literally – shocking exposure of the BBC Billionaire Boys' Club state-subsidised canteen culture which led to the verdict in her favour changes everything. There is an unmistakable, unacceptable luvvie echo of the dog days of the New Labour regime here, with that clammy combination of pious public announcements and private culture of contempt towards the people who pay its wages. O'Reilly wasn't a show-pony auto-cutie who had walked into her cushy billet by way of entitlement, but someone who had worked steadily in a modest position for some eight years before being bullied out of her job. All in the course of some quota-filling, box-ticking exercise in social engineering by the expensively educated, to-a-man snobs who run the BBC. Talk about "Not In My Name"!
By seeking to enforce fairness at the expense of others but never themselves, the BBC fat cats have finally united this nation, even though it took decades and millions to do it. The way in which these BBC people we so childishly, inherently trusted turned out to be as vile as any MP with his snout in the trough, attempting to up the ethnic quotient of the corporation without giving up any of their own positions, became surreal eventually. And this lack of judgement led to their public humiliation. Why on earth would you try to up your ethnic face-count by slipping young people of colour into COUNTRYFILE, of all places? No aspiring black or Asian TV journalist wants to put their hand up a barnyard animal on national television, and all credit to them for it. Mucking about in slurry is an acquired taste, and Miriam O'Reilly had put in two decades acquiring it. To snatch her speciality away from her and thrust it upon an urban wannabe was both unjust and possibly even hazardous. Where are the stringent health and safety rules that the BBC holds so dear when they are actually needed? When we have a homie, wearing a hoodie, who has never been nearer to a chicken than Nando's, now required to handle the squirming, salmonella-ridden livestock and smile for the camera at the same time? No one gets prepared for that in media studies!
It's almost funny – but not quite. This sleazy, lengthy, costly and totally avoidable affair was as much a betrayal of journalists from ethnic minorities as it was of middle-aged white women. How empowering, to know that you won your job not on your own merit but because the self-confessed hideously white men at the BBC top table decided that they could keep their own enclave completely intact by sidelining you into situations which became vacant when they did the humiliating math that two incoming ethnics equalled one outgoing old biddy. And this is a first – I read back now how lightly I treated the institutionalised bullying of women by the BBC, and I cringe.
Mariella, I owe you one.