Presenter Miriam O'Reilly wins BBC ageism claim

Former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly, who lost her job when the show was moved to a prime-time slot, has won her employment tribunal against the BBC on the grounds of age discrimination, her solicitors said today.

The award-winning journalist, 53, is “delighted” after winning a claim of age discrimination against the broadcaster, her solicitors Leigh, Day & Co said.

“The primary claim which she has won is the age discrimination claim that on the grounds of her age she was discriminated against and was not given a role in the prime-time Countryfile,” a spokeswoman said.

“Following on from that, she was, the tribunal has decided, victimised on the basis of her age discrimination claim.”

She added that O’Reilly, who failed in a sex discrimination claim against the BBC, was “delighted” with the outcome of the tribunal. “Miriam is delighted and so are we,” she said.

The judgment comes after a hearing in November at the central London employment tribunal where the presenter alleged age and sex discrimination by the BBC following its decision to drop her from the show in advance of moving to a Sunday evening slot.

O’Reilly said she was “devastated” when she was told in November 2008 that she was being dropped after eight years of working for the show as a freelance.

Three other female Countryfile presenters aged over 40 – Michaela Strachan, 42, Juliet Morris, 45, and Charlotte Smith, 44 – were also axed alongside O’Reilly, she told the tribunal.

The tribunal heard allegations that O’Reilly was warned to be “careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in”, asked whether it was “time for Botox” and offered a can of black spray dye to cover up a white gap on her head.

The programme relaunched in April 2009 with Julia Bradbury, then 38, and former Blue Peter presenter Matt Baker, then 30, along with veteran broadcaster John Craven, 68, who was kept on for a slot called John Craven Investigates.

It was also announced that they would be supported by presenters Adam Henson, James Wong, Jules Hudson and Katie Knapman.

The BBC denied the claims brought by O’Reilly and insisted that she had been dropped because she lacked the necessary peak-time television presenting experience.

A spokesman said today that they accepted the findings.

He said: “We have just received the findings of the tribunal and are considering the full details. The BBC accepts the findings.”

The high-profile tribunal reignited the row over alleged ageism and sexism at the BBC and in the wider media.

Former BBC One controller Jay Hunt, who came under attack in 2009 over the decision to drop Arlene Phillips, 66, as judge on the hit show Strictly Come Dancing, described claims that the four women had been axed from the programme because she “hated women” as “entirely and categorically untrue”.

The senior executive, who has since taken up the post of chief creative officer at Channel 4, told the tribunal the BBC One audience was predominantly over 55 and female, and it was “important” and “entirely appropriate that they use “older female authority figures” in peak time.

Notable examples, she said, of her work to boost older women were those of Anne Robinson, brought back to Watchdog in its “peak”, and actor Sheila Hancock on the Saturday night hit show Over The Rainbow.

O’Reilly, although an extremely talented television reporter, was “completely unknown to a peak-time audience” and did not have the “skill level” to be taken forward, she claimed.

Ms Hunt told the tribunal that, since the changes brought in to the programme, the audience had leaped to an average of 5.4 million compared with 1.8 million in its daytime slot.

A statement issued later by the BBC said the corporation apologised to O’Reilly – and would welcome the opportunity of discussing working with her again in the future.

“We accept the findings of the tribunal and would like to apologise to Miriam. We will be speaking to her,” it said.

“The BBC is committed to fair selection in every aspect of our work and we clearly did not get it right in this case.

“We will ensure that senior editorial executives responsible for these kind of decisions in the BBC undergo additional training in the selection and appointment of presenters, and produce new guidance on fair selection for presenter appointments.

“These findings also raise questions that need to be addressed by the whole industry. As chair of the cultural diversity network, (Director-General) Mark Thompson will raise the topic of fair representation of people of all ages across the broadcasting industry.

“We would like to acknowledge the important contribution Miriam has made to the BBC over more than 20 years and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss working with her again in the future.”

More to follow…

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