Miriam O'Reilly: Older female journalists 'forced' to take redundancy and gagged by BBC

Older women have been "forced to take redundancy" from BBC news and current affairs jobs and gagged with confidentiality clauses, TV presenter Miriam O'Reilly has claimed.

The 57-year-old former Countryfile (pictured, BBC) host told the House of Lords Communications Committee that the corporation was avoiding criticism of age discrimination and "comeback" for its actions.

She read out a number of statements from older women who she said were "forced" into redundancy.

"They signed confidentiality agreements as part of the pay-off, which means they can't speak publicly about the way they went," she said.

"In some ways this is what protects an organisation like the BBC. There's no comeback on them because these confidentiality clauses act as gags."

O'Reilly won an employment tribunal against the corporation when she was rejected for a role on a revamped prime-time version of Countryfile.

"I refused to sign (a confidentiality agreement) and that's why I'm always speaking out because I haven't been tied into one of those," she explained.

"These women were on top form. These women had all the time in the world to concentrate on the job and they really wanted to be able to do that and continue."

O'Reilly was given a deal to return to the corporation after winning her legal case but she left after one year to work on other projects including her charity, Women's Equality Network.

She said: "I was not given the programmes that the BBC was contracted to give me.

"I was supposed to do a number of Radio 4 programmes. They didn't materialise.

"I wasn't given a pass, I wasn't given a computer log in. I was sidelined onto a religious programme on the World Service."

She added that the NUJ is looking into claims from BBC staff that she has been "blacklisted" from the corporation.

"They do say publicly they want to work with me but privately the phone doesn't ring," she said.

Equalities minister Nicky Morgan told the committee she believed that the TV and radio audience wanted to see more older women on the air.

"Why is diversity important? Because over 50 per cent of the population are female," said Ms Morgan.

"I would strongly suspect that the evidence has shown that a lot of older women take their news and watch programmes particularly on TV and radio.

"Actually, I would have thought the broadcasters themselves would be thinking about having the right people on screens and broadcasting in order to reflect the audience themselves.

"There's no reason why broadcasters can't, when recruiting, look for older women and it is now, I think, for the broadcasters to realise themselves that there is a need or a demand from consumers of the media for older women to be on our screens and in our radio studios.

"It goes back to … thinking about the audience and those who consume the news and the programmes that are being broadcast.

"I stand to be corrected … but I would have thought we already have some extremely talented older female broadcasters and I see no reason why they shouldn't go on for as long as the men do."

The BBC said in a statement: "We don't recognise the picture painted at the select committee.

"As we explained to the committee last week, nearly half of the BBC's news and current affairs workforce is female, with 37.3 per cent in leadership positions in network news and 35.1 per cent in global news and we have a large number of on-air and management positions filled by women in news.

"Meanwhile, the BBC has led the industry through our Expert Women training programme and we have a range of flexible working arrangements, as well as committing to a number of steps to improve things further."

Responding to O'Reilly's comments, the BBC said: "As we've said before, she hasn't been blacklisted. When Miriam left the BBC, she said she had a rewarding time here."

Morgan told the committee: "It was only a few decades ago that broadcasters would not allow women to be radio newsreaders, as their voices were deemed 'not quite right'. How far we have come.

"The broadcasting industry plays such an important role in influencing and challenging social norms we see around us every day, so having more women in visible positions would be more likely to provide positive role models for current and future generations."

Morgan said the Government had a role to play in highlighting the issue of the representation of women in broadcasting and bringing people together to discuss it, but added: "I'm not entirely convinced that it is for the Government to interfere or to comment on particular sectors."

And she said she was "not in favour of mandatory quotas" for female representation in particular jobs.

"I'm instinctively against setting quotas," said the equalities minister. "I prefer a voluntary approach, which I think does yield results and more importantly yields longer-term cultural changes, which is what this whole area needs."

Culture minister Ed Vaizey told the committee: "This is a very important issue. The Government is taking action across the whole piece in terms of business getting better representation of women, but I think we all understand that broadcasting is particularly high-profile because still – even in the age of the smartphone and the tablet – broadcast programmes come into the living room and people look to broadcasting in order to see role models.

"People say that television programmes are the record of our contemporary society. If you were to look back at programmes being broadcast now in 20 or 30 years' time, you should be asking yourself the question 'Do these programmes accurately reflect the make-up of our society?'. And of course that includes the prominent representation of women."

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