Miriam O’Reilly’s Speech at Ageism Sexism in Media Conference

A while ago I attended an Ageism and Sexism in the Media event where Miriam O’Reilly gave the keynote address. She was brilliant,  (see here). Now you can see for yourself why I was so impressed as she has given me permission to reproduce her speech in full here. Sit back and enjoy.

I was on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 earlier this year when Ray from East Sussex phoned in to give his opinion of older women on television. This was a view formed over years of not just watching TV, but also having worked in the industry. Ray said: “The majority of women get old and they don’t look so palatable, they’re not so interesting to the viewers’.

But many men” continued Ray “actually do look better as they grow older”. Ray, himself an older man so therefore by dint of his argument good looking and interesting to know, was perpetuating the prejudice against older female faces that society has bought into over many decades. What he said showed just how influential television is in shaping opinion. We live in a culture which measures a woman’s worth by youth, and TV has played a large part in that.

I started challenging the BBC on the culture of ageism and sexism in television in 2009. Since then I’ve heard opinions like Ray’s expressed time and again. It astonishes me that in 2012 there is an entrenched view that only young attractive women are suitable for TV. One producer, still at the BBC, actually said to a group of us women that as men age on TV they become distinguished, women become a problem.

When I and three other middle aged women were dropped from Countryfile when it moved to primetime in 2010 I found myself in a position to do something about this outdated prejudice, so I took it. The argument about the exclusion of older women on TV was a hot topic of debate. Moira Stewart had been dropped from her TV news-reading role, Arlene Phillips had been replaced on Strictly Come Dancing by the much younger Alesha Dickson. I remember the broadcaster Mariella Frostrupp remarking at the time that:

“Watching the small screen on any given night is enough to convince the most sceptical viewer that euthanasia runs rampant in the medium. No sooner do female presenters hit 50, they disappear faster than Mugabe’s opposition,

This isn’t just a problem at the BBC, it’s across broadcasting, but I’m talking today about my experience with the BBC. I was 51 when I was dropped from Countryfile. Before it happened I was very much aware the clock was ticking on my career, but I hoped that as a multi award winning journalist I would be allowed to continue working. I felt at the top of my game, my children were off my hands, and just at the time when I could put my all into the job, I was effectively thrown onto the scrap heap when Countryfile moved from a morning slot to primetime, because of something I had no control over – getting older. Ray, I mentioned earlier, also said on the Jeremy Vine show that there are plenty of older women on TV during the day and he’s absolutely right about that – there are – but there are very few on primetime TV , when most people are watching, and I’ll tell you why.

On primetime, viewing figures matter to TV executives and putting an older woman in front of the camera is thought risky because, well, to attract viewers to a programme you have to have a young pretty face don’t you….? That’s the entrenched view in TV.During my tribunal the Controller of BBC Daytime Liam Keelan wasasked why, when he was picking presenters for Country Tracks, the programme which replaced Countryfile on Sunday morning, did he choose Ellie Harrison to present the programme. He didn’t consider me at all even though I was eminently qualified to be considered I had a background in farming and the environment, I’d presented on Countryfile for over eight years – and I’d won the most news awards for the programme. Mr Keelan’s response was “I just liked the look of her”. It would be hard not to like ‘the look’ of Ellie, and she is a talented presenter with a background in the environment, but that wasn’t his reasoning for giving her the job.

If Liam Keelan, who decides who’s going to be on TV and who’s not, bases his decisions on ‘liking the look’ of someone, if that’s the criteria, then the chances are many older women won’t get an onscreen opportunity.Over the last three and a half years, and particularly since I won my case against the BBC, we have seen a few more women over 50 on the box – and some at primetime, like Anne Robinson and Mary Beard, but I think we will have made real headway when we see an older woman regularly read the news at primetime. The Saturday night before last, Julia Somerville, who’s 65, was reading the primetime BBC news. The Twitter response was immediate. It was great to see her and I’m sure no one switched off, but the last time I saw her on a primetime bulletin was at the start of the year. It’s a small breakthrough, but predominantly on news programmes we are still seeing older grey haired men with younger, female co-presenters.

The former Directors General of the BBC, Mark Thompson and George Entwistle, both said they had to reach out to older women, particularly older women experts to appear on TV, because as Mr Thompson admitted, there is “an underlying problem, that – whatever the individual success stories – there are manifestly too few older women broadcasting on the BBC, especially in iconic roles and on iconic topical programmes”.

He also said that, as the national broadcaster and one which is paid for by the public, the BBC is in a “different class” from everyone else, and that “the public have every right to expect it to deliver to a higher standard of fairness and open-mindedness in its treatment both of its broadcasters and its audiences.”

I’d like someone to tell me, if the commitment is there from the BBC, and I have to presume it continues to be of importance despite the recent scandals and upheavals, why it’s taking so long to find these older women and put them on our screens. In 2009 as a result of campaigning by Joan Bakewell the BBC took on four older newsreaders for the News Channel, Julia Somerville was one of them. {See Why No Grey Haired Women Reading the News}Another of those chosen, Carol Walker, later claimed the whole thing had been a PR stunt because since she had accepted the role she hadn’t been given the number of news reading shifts she’d been promised.

I also know that hundreds of older women, some of them ex BBC,whose contracts had at some time not been renewed, applied for the opportunity to come back to work. The women are there, but I would argue that the impetus to put them back on screen is not. I believe Rowan Atkinson encapsulated the reason why that is when he publicly attacked my successful age discrimination win. He said it amounted to an “attack on creative free expression”. He said the BBC should have been free to drop me without attracting any accusations of age discrimination because “television was the wrong place to deal with anti-discrimination issues” and that the legal tools used should never have been available to.

In a letter to Radio 4’s media programme he said:

If either at the outset of a TV programme, or at any time during its screen life, you want to replace an old person with a young person, or a white person with a black person, or a disabled straight with an able-bodied gay, you should have as much creative freedom to do so as you have to change the colour of John Craven’s anorak,”

He was basically saying the creative arts should be above the law. But as I mentioned earlier if some of these decisions are made on a whim, then there is a serious danger certain sections of society won’t be fairly represented.

Many people disagreed with Rowan Atkinson I’m pleased to say. I saved this comment from the internet. It was from an unnamed source, but I think it lays out why broadcasters have an obligation to include and not exclude older women. ‘A society’s creative arts are an important repository of its moral knowledge. The arts transmit moral concepts that tell us what actions and feelings a society condones and condemns.

The last frames of the last episode of Black Adder, for example, carried a clear moral statement on the futility of war, as eloquent and persuasive as any sermon. Atkinson’s assumption that the creative process is, or ought to be, somehow insulated from the moral implications of its output is therefore supremely self-deceiving.The BBC shapes the tastes, fashions and opinions of its audience and so has a clear obligation to consider the moral impact of its creative choices.’

My stand against ageism at the BBC wasn’t simply so that I could hold on to my career ‘after I had developed a face for radio’ as one critic put it. I knew when I went public with my case that it would mean I probably wouldn’t work again. It’s why many women in broadcasting go away quietly. Others who are in a position to join the debate don’t want to because they’ve accepted that ageism is ‘just the way TV is’. The broadcaster Fiona Phillips said my ageism case was ‘cringeworthy’. Kate Humble says she’s resigned to losing her job, that “older women have no place on TV but she’s not sobbing”.

Sadly Fiona and Kate aren’t seeing the big picture. As I’ve argued, this issue is important because TV shapes which prejudices are acceptable and which are not. I’ve also been told that by staying in our jobs older women are denying younger ones the opportunity of having a career. When this argument applies to older men too I might invest some time in considering it.To lose one’s job has a devastating personal affect. Before I was dropped from Countryfile I thought about what my life would be like as an older woman, after I was dropped I began to fear it.

I want to read you part of a letter I received from an ex BBC journalist. This woman was made redundant earlier this year at the same time Mark Thompson was saying “there are manifestly too few older women broadcasting on the BBC”. She was in her late fifties and had worked on some of the BBC’s flagship programmes. She loved her job and didn’t want to go. In fact she is exactly the type of woman Mark Thompson and George Entwistle said publicly that they wanted to ‘reach out’ to. She told me of the personal impact losing her job had:

You can tell them about the messages you’ve been getting from women inside the BBC who tell you they are being ignored and side-lined, offered broken promises made to feel unwanted and invisible, not used,and who eventually “go quietly” accepting that women over 50 must never show their faces -or necks – in public. How they internalise the organisation’s disgust at them and absorb these views into a kind of self-loathing  They become depressed and begin to believe that yes their bosses are right. That they should run away and hide, that that they do not have the right to continue working as journalists or reporters because they have become old and ugly and no-one wants to see them on screen or listen to what they have to say. They are falsely likened to “nanny” or “schoolmistress” “elderly matron’ or strident old battle-axe -And told no-one wants to be “talked at by an older woman“.

She becomes persuaded it is just a fact of life that men can age on screen and women can’t. Yet now, the BBC only selects women with model good-looks to front what used to be investigative journalism. The men continue to function as normal – permitted to be ugly, grizzly old and peculiar. They can be naughty, child-like, outspoken, opinionated and rule breaking – but not the women, not the women”….
The culture at the BBC which allows this treatment was summed up for me in three words. The ex-editor of Newsnight Peter Rippon said in an email that he dropped the Newsnight report which would have exposed Jimmy Savile as our sources so far are ‘just the women’. For me those three words implied that the testimonies of the women who were abused had no value on their own. They’re ‘just the women’.

Sexism isn’t confined to broadcasting, of course not, but like ageism it’s rife within the BBC. Who we see or don’t see on screen reflects an attitude inside the Corporation towards women as disposable objects who have to disappear once they develop grey hair and wrinkles. That has to change because as TV is most people’s window to the world this is the message which is being transmitted to society.

Thank you, Miriam. Hearing that speech live made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and rightly earned rousing applause.

If this issue has affected you I’d love to hear from you. There will also be more Ageism and Sexism in the media events and your stories will be very useful in helping address the situation. Either use the comments section  below or email me in confidence at jane at changingpeople.co.uk

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Posted on December 10th, 2012 by

2 Responses to “Miriam O’Reilly’s Speech at Ageism Sexism in Media Conference”

  1. Andre says:

    Perhaps the BBC should re-brand as “The BBC Brotherhood”….reminds me of a great sexism cartoon from Punch which no doubt poked fun at Punch’s own readership who were mostly middle class males- but drawn by cartoonist Riana Duncan- of a sexist boardroom affectionately known as the “Miss Triggs” cartoon: http://punch.photoshelter.com/image/I0000eHEXGJ_wImQ

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