Inspirational Women – Miriam O’Reilly

Miriam O’Reilly is a journalist, and a rather special woman. That’s not just my opinion; last year The Guardian newspaper included Miriam O’Reilly in its list of Top 100 inspiring Women in the World after she took on, and won a case for age discrimination against the might of the BBC.

It’s earned her plenty of plaudits and admiration (count me in) but there has been a lot of criticism too, such as Rowan Atkinson’s little outburst a few months back. Obviously I’d like to talk with Miriam about that time, but I also want to hear a little bit more about the woman behind the infamous court case.

Jane: Miriam, let’s get the BBC case out of the way first. You were incredibly brave to take them on? Did you get much support from colleagues within the corporation itself?
: When it was first announced in November 2008 that myself and three other middle aged women were being dropped from Countryfile as it was moving to prime time, there was a lot of support from women at the BBC in Birmingham. Several expressed disgust that we were being dropped and agreed this was an age issue. It was only after I started legal action in 2010 that all, bar one woman, distanced themselves from me.

Charlotte Smith was one of the female presenters who were dropped from the programme, and she was very brave as she came to the Tribunal and made a statement in support of me. Charlotte was still working at the BBC so it was an incredible thing for her to do. She told me she couldn’t have lived with herself if she hadn’t stood up and told the truth about what had happened. You say I’m brave, Jane, but in my eyes Charlotte was the brave one.

When did you first realise that you had to act on this? Did you realise quite how big a story it would be?
As I say, we were told in November 2008. The programme was to be relaunched at primetime in April 2009. When I found out that all of the middle-aged women were being dropped I was really angry, and said so to senior members of staff, reminding them that ageism was against the law. I was told to ‘keep my head down’ that I ‘couldn’t win’ on this issue. Moira Stewart and Arlene Phillips had already been dropped from programmes, so there was a lot of controversy in the press when it came out that we had lost our jobs too.

Because I had been outspoken at the BBC, it was wrongly presumed that I had leaked those stories to the press. As a result, the work I had been given on Radio 4 (I’d presented Woman’s Hour, File on 4 and Costing the Earth), started to be withdrawn. I was writing articles for the Countryfile magazine at the time and that work was also withdrawn. It was when the last programme I had been commissioned to present was pulled in November 2009 that I picked up the phone and called the employment lawyer Camilla Palmer. Camilla thought I had a strong case so I decided to fight the BBC.

What happened was so wrong, and no-one was doing anything about it. I felt that unless someone took a stand they could continue treating older women in this way and get away with it. As a journalist I had to tell this story. I decided to go public at the time because I felt this was an issue that needed public debate. Sadly, none of the women (except Charlotte) felt they could openly support me because they were afraid for their jobs. I can’t blame them. I didn’t ask for this fight, it came to me. It was my decision to stand up to ageist attitudes at the BBC, I couldn’t expect other women who had financial responsibilities stand with me. I did have a lot of support from the sidelines at the BBC. And since I won my case, even more so.

Who or what sustained you most through this difficult period?
Knowing that I was doing the right thing kept me going. My mother always used to instil in me that if something was wrong I had a responsibility to put it right, there was no point waiting for someone else to come along and do it because they might never appear. When I told her about the Countryfile decision the first thing she said to me was ‘what are you going to do about it’. She died shortly afterwards but when I was going through the awful experience of the tribunal I felt her strength.

After you won your age discrimination case the BBC actually gave you a 3 year contract. How was it returning there after all the publicity and furore surrounding the case?
I hoped for the best. The BBC had apologised and I accepted their apology. 99.9% of staff, particularly the women, were wonderful to me and supportive. Sadly some of the men, particularly those who had been caught up in the tribunal or who felt angry that I had won my case, made my life difficult. I was sidelined and ridiculed by some. I realised nothing I could do, even when the programme I was co-presenting was getting record viewing figures,  would ever be ‘good enough’ for the executives who had been drawn into my case.

After nine months there I was told I wouldn’t be getting the programmes I was contracted to do, because a senior executive had ‘forgotten’ to tell producers I was available for work. I went to see the Director General, Mark Thompson, and gave him a candid account of what had been going on.  I was not going to be sidelined by them. They wanted to take away my voice in the hope that my profile as a campaigner for equality would die away and the issue of ageism would be buried. I wasn’t prepared for that to happen. I left so I could campaign for the Women’s Equality Network and speak out about inequality in broadcasting, which I continue to do. The DG said he would write to me later in the year with work offers but I’m not holding my breath. If they didn’t give me the work I was contracted to do then I’m sceptical they will offer me work when they don’t have to. Sadly these men at the top of the BBC don’t like strong women. They are not used to being challenged. This has to change if we are going to have true equality at the Corporation.

What have been the three most positive things for you to have come out of this bruising (but ultimately triumphant) encounter?
The first is the incredible women I have become friends with as a result of my case. Although I lost friends at the BBC I have gained far more and these will be lasting friendships. I have made friends through the Women’s Equality Network, but also with inspirational women from other walks of life who got in touch with me during the fight and afterwards.

I have also realised what a wonderful family I have and how much unselfish love and support they have for me.

I’ve also learned that, win or lose, if you stand up for something you believe in you will always triumph as a human being.

Miriam, what were your aspirations as a young child growing up on an Irish farm? Did you always know you wanted to work in journalism?
When I was eight I asked my parents for a tape recorder for Christmas. No-one was safe from my microphone! I had reams of taped interviews with family and friends. I didn’t really understand what journalism was but I was really interested in people’s opinions and stories. I was fascinated with the word ‘why’.

Have there been other events in your life that ‘prepared’ you for this most recent episode?
Apart from my mother’s influence, I learned when I was very young that you have to stand up for yourself. We left Ireland for England when I was six. In those days there were still signs outside B&B’s which said ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ – it’s shocking to think of that now. I didn’t believe I should be judged as a lesser human being because I was Irish, I was very proud of where I came from and who I was.

My parents worked really hard to establish our family here. My father held down three jobs – no-one gave us anything for free, we worked for it. I think that experience has made me into the person I am, so I wasn’t prepared to let the BBC treat me differently just because of my age.

What was your first ‘proper’ job? Do you remember what you were paid and what your main duties were?
I left school at 17 because I knew I wanted to be a journalist and I applied for several apprenticeships on local newspapers. I was eventually successful, but before I joined the Kidderminster Times I was lucky enough to be offered a job at Central TV in Birmingham as a general dogsbody. However, I pestered enough people to be given opportunities to get experience in the newsroom and on TISWAS, which was a children’s live TV show hosted by Chris Tarrant. It was great fun.

I joined The Kidderminster Times as a cub reporter in 1978 on a salary of £43 pounds a month. We used to be paid in cash in a little brown envelope. I covered marriages, funerals, fetes, local council meetings, and the local magistrates court. It was a fantastic grounding in journalism. I was paid as I learned and was sent to college to study. I look back with great fondness at that time.

Who was the biggest influence on you in the early days? Did you have a role model or mentor?
Not really, although I did have a very romantic view of journalism at the start, and was inspired by journalists like Harold Evans of the Sunday Times, and Woodward and Bernstein who exposed the Watergate scandal.

Did you plan out your career? Or was it more reactive?
I never planned a thing. I freelanced at the BBC in Birmingham at the weekends while I was still working on my newspaper and it worked out so well I was offered a staff job. For most of my career I was given opportunities through recommendations. I just did the work I loved, even if it wasn’t high profile, because the work was always more important to me than being a big name at the BBC or earning a large salary.

Who do you most admire in the TV world of current journalism? And why?
Orla Guerin, the BBC’s foreign correspondent, because she’s an extraordinary journalist, and Alex Crawford at Sky News. Her reports from Iraq were riveting.

You have been in journalism/TV at a really interesting time for women; both in your profession and reporting on events. What has been the biggest change re women that you’ve seen in your career?
This is a hard one to answer. I’m afraid my response isn’t a positive one. I think our present culture pressurises women into judging themselves and others by how they look rather than who they are and what they can contribute to society. We have a glass ceiling in the work place that many women find impossible to break through. Women are still lagging behind on pay. Older women aren’t given enough respect in society. I wish my answer was different but sadly here we are in 2012 and women still aren’t treated equally to men.

What advice would you give to any woman thinking of entering journalism today.
Trust in yourself that you can be as good as any man. Keep an open mind at all times – and LISTEN to what people are telling you.

If you could have any career you wanted, what would you choose?

And what’s next for Miriam O’Reilly? What adventures await you now?
Well, if I wait for the phone to ring with job offers from broadcasters I’d wait forever, so I’m setting up my own on-line magazine for older women. I hope to launch Certain Age in the autumn. It’ll have news, features, lifestyle, health, and beauty, all of those things expected in a magazine but targeted at women of a certain age who aren’t catered for adequately at the moment.

Miriam, I wish you huge success with your new venture. Please do let us know when it launches and we’ll add it to the ChangingPeople blog role and let readers know through the newsletter. Thank you!

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Posted on April 30th, 2012 by

4 Responses to “Inspirational Women – Miriam O’Reilly”

  1. Shona Easton says:

    Fabulous interview Jane. Miriam is a true inspiration, she was so brave to stand up. I also loved her on radio 4, I wish she was still one of the regulars!

    • Jane says:

      Yes, she was really lovely and very brave. She has had some very nasty comments made, but she stood firm. I have a lot of admiration for her.

  2. Great interview Jane, what a strong, interesting & inspiring lady Miriam is, & how sad that the BBC still has such wide seams of sticky chauvenism running through it! I’ll look forward to reading her Certain Age magazine.

    • Jane says:

      Hi Cathy, thanks for dropping by. Yes, Miriam is an extraordinary woman. I’ll keep you posted about her magazine!

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