Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: It's not only the old who are getting bullied off the screen

Very rarely, a fresh face is allowed in; but the culture never shifts, and its arrogant upholders keep their doors andminds closed

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Once in a long while, a much dreaded Goliath is brought down by an unlikely, gutsy challenger, and just as in Biblical times, gives heart to the cowed who live within the confines of the inequitable status quo. Miriam O'Reilly, a vivacious and energetic presenter of BBC's Countryfile, has laughter lines and is ageing gracefully.

BBC1 controller Jay Hunt clearly didn't have the eyes or wit to see beyond the signs on all our faces of the years that come and go – as they will for the good looking Ms Hunt too. She decided to replace the older female presenters with pert and pretty younger things. Why? Was it to sex up a programme about rivers and forests, cows and hay? Are there men out there using the programme for masturbatory pleasures?

Such foolish and obtuse decisions are made everyday by those in charge in the bizarre world of television. Everyone accepts that. Not Ms O'Reilly, though, who took the BBC to an employment tribunal which decided she was a victim of age discrimination and not sex discrimination, which I still believe was a factor. Anyway, it was a great week for us older women. Alan Yentob earnestly apologised to Ms O'Reilly on behalf of the BBC. Behind his words you could detect the tremor of insincerity and quiver of desperation.

Expect gestures of contrition over the next year, some post-fifty women put on the screen, self-flagellation, perhaps Arlene Phillips back on Strictly Come Dancing or Moira Stewart sharing the nightly news with the greying Huw Edwards. Golden girls like Angela Rippon will, hopefully, be offered slots that are not in the hours when bats fly and insomniacs pace. The bad news is that TV movers and shakers with the Nero mentality, a contagion across the industry, will still exclude and fire at will, and promote and reward at whim. They do it for crap reasons or just because they can.

Last week, the art critic Waldemar Januszczak, for example, pointed out one of Channel 4's sicko obsessions: "Was there ever a channel that chased after the youth market more hysterically and more relentlessly than today's strikingly immature Channel 4?"

After O'Reilly's case we are talking about how older people and women are shoved around in this vicious game, but not about people of colour, those whose politics don't fit, individuals suddenly deemed too old-fashioned, outspoken men and women, people who can't or won't hide their working class roots, and those who upset the powerful too often. Around a dining table just after Christmas, a very successful independent TV producer and director said that commissioning people were simply not interested in left wing liberals pointing out injustices, or attacking the Tories. What he didn't say, but I suspect, is that as society and the government becomes more right wing and libertarian, TV follows and feeds their appetites.

Just see how many reasons there now are not to let someone like me present programmes (as I once did) or show up too often on prestigious slots. There is my age, race, religion and then the problem that I am mouthy, republican, not naturally pro-establishment and left wing. Long ago I mildly criticised a series presented by one of our best broadcasters, heaping praise on him as I did so. Emails from his producer – rude beyond belief – made me realise I would never go on his shows again. And here we are believing we are free to speak and write. There is a rumour of blacklists of the unwanted – lists we can never find out about. You just know because of the way you are suddenly dropped.

Has anyone noticed we no longer see the hugely talented Rory Bremner any more? The brilliant arts correspondent Razia Iqbal was replaced by a white male arts editor who had never been before a camera and boy does it show. Mihir Bose, who was the BBC Sports Editor for a while, was quirky and clever but clearly not in the club. So he had to go.

And where are the non-white and/or women smartypants to share the loot and space given to the likes of Alan Davies, Stephen Fry and Dara O'Briain? Sometimes you can watch such favoured funnymen for ten hours a night. (Jo Brand is now an honorary member of their club). Can we use the Freedom of Information Act to see how much they are making each year? There is a similar circle of the rich and privileged when it comes to chefs, travel series, daytime shows and so on. Sometimes, rarely, a genuinely fresh face is allowed in – like Gok Wan, for example – but the culture never shifts and its arrogant upholders keep their doors and minds closed.

Makers of programmes, editors and controllers believe they need show no respect or decency. An independent company making a programme on the Asian comedy star Sanjeev Bhaskar chased me for months, got me to change travel plans, booked interviews and changed their minds four times. We let them behave appallingly because we want too much to be on the box, the most powerful medium still. Of course the poor researchers – young, freelance and exploited – have to follow orders and live with the moods of their nasty and capricious (and deluded) bosses who all believe they are born with extraordinary gifts, who know best what is best on TV.

And here is the worst crime of all – the use and abuse of people tempted by reality shows and other formats that need crowds to make the companies and channels huge amounts of money. The punters are fodder and can be relied on never to complain. Some blockbuster programme makers, I hear, don't provide water or snacks to competitors who have to wait for hours in crowded rooms. Evil psychological tricks are used to break people – so much more entertaining that way. There are many more hidden Jeremy Kyles than we could imagine in our worst nightmares.

If such blatant favouritism, cruelty and megalomania were determining fortunes in politics, there might be a riot or two. And TV would express eloquent outrage. But in that world anything goes and there is no redress. The landmark Countryfile case will not affect the devious practices and values of TV wallahs – secular gods who don't give a damn about earthly stuff like fairness and access. And there just aren't enough Miriam O'Reillys to make them.



y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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