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Passing the Countryfile test

It’s been a week of juicy headlines for the newspapers and a week of astonishing admissions from senior BBC executives as the Countryfile industrial tribunal reached the end of its first week.

For those who've been too busy to pay attention, former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly is claiming she was axed from the BBC show’s line up when it was relaunched in a prime time slot, because she failed the primetime test – she was too old. O’Reilly, 53, and other presenters Charlotte Smith, Michaela Strachan and Juliet Morris – all in their 40s and 50s – were dropped from the show when it moved to primetime. O’Reilly is suing the BBC for ageism and sexism.

The BBC’s head of rural affairs Andrew Thorman countered that the decision to drop O’Reilly had nothing to do with ageism but was based on her profile – or lack of it – as a presenter.

At the tribunal we have heard from a wide range of BBC figures including the BBC's head of daytime Liam Keelan, and outgoing BBC1 controller Jay Hunt. On the eyebrow-raising comments front, first Keelan said he rarely watched the show and had no idea who Miriam O’Reilly was – BBC bosses are usually a little more supportive of their output.

More astonishing still, Jay Hunt denied appearance was a significant consideration in television and insisted she had ‘never considered the way someone looks’ when deciding to put them on screen.

 If this is true I’m not quite sure where the phrase ‘a face for radio’ came from. Surely appearance must be a consideration when channel controllers make judgements about newsreaders and presenters.

Although this is possibly the first time that a presenter has attempted to sue the BBC for age discrimination, it’s an issue that crops up increasingly regularly. Accusations of ageism were levelled at the corporation last year when 60-year-old Arlene Phillips was turfed out of Strictly Come Dancing in favour of 30-year-old Alesha Dixon.

One thing is certain. Whatever the outcome of the tribunal, it is likely to make TV executives less cavalier in how they deal with older employees going forward. If the TV industry does – as its reputation suggests –  favour youth over experience, particularly in the case of women, it's a habit due for a re-appraisal.

But it could also make the process of rejuvenating programmes in need of a facelift much more difficult, with anybody who suffers as a consequence claiming some form of discrimination.

For its part, the BBC argues that it was the skillsets of the presenters which weren’t right for the new-look Countryfile, not their appearances. In peak time it’s a case of less journalism, more profile. Perhaps the real problem the BBC has is not a preference for younger rather than older presenters, but its editorial values. I, for one, would like to see a bit more journalism in BBC1 peak time and a bit less profile.

Posted 12 November 2010 by David Wood
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