Those looking for amusement in the dreariness of the winter news could do worse than follow the progress of the racing pundit John McCririck’s lawsuit against his former employer, Channel 4. Like many public figures who pride themselves on their political incorrectness, the studiously eccentric former bookmaker has ended up taking refuge in the very culture he has always mocked. Claiming “loss of future earnings, unfair, career-damaging public humiliation, stress and mental anguish”, he is claiming £500,000, and will seek a further £2.5m for what he calls “the feared scourge of our society” – ageism. He is 72.
It will be an interesting test of the 2010 Equality Act. Any decent person will feel sympathy for a fragrant female TV presenter cast aside as soon as she acquires a wrinkle or two. To support a truculent traditionalist whose trademark has been his own bigotry is rather more difficult.
The case reveals how tricky the question of ageism can be. The fact is, the reason why this man has become painful to watch is closely bound up with his age. He represents a kind of broadcasting which has, thank goodness, become outdated: the leers of a minor public-school bully masquerading as humour, silly clothes attempting to suggest personality, the tediously predictable sexism of a saloon-bar bore.
Tanya Stevenson, McCririck’s ever-professional sidekick, was never given a name by him. She was “Female”. During a studio discussion, he once waved a mug bearing the words “Lay of the Day” in her direction. “Does this refer to you, Female?” he asked. There is a case for allowing fools to reveal their foolishness in front of the cameras, but when that fool is under contract and prejudice is part of his act, tolerance begins to look like approval.
If the case comes to court, Channel 4’s lawyers will probably argue that McCririck stands for a type of gambling that is now outmoded. Today (shamefully, many would say), having a bet is mainstream – designed to appeal to all ages and genders. They could add that the joke of having a pundit who bellows at the camera and has mutton-chop whiskers (a sure sign of humourless self-importance) has palled after nearly three decades.
If they were feeling brave, they should admit that age is indeed a factor. McCririck has had a good run for his money, appearing regularly and touting his dubious personality around the reality-show circuit, but now he is little more than the unacceptable face of nostalgia. It is not his age at issue but that of his TV persona, with old attitudes and old jokes. His days as a veteran handicapper turning out year after year to compete in the Dodgy Celebrities Handicap Chase are over. It is time for him to be put out to grass.