Age is only a number

As an employment lawyer and a 45 year old woman it’s hardly surprising that I followed with interest the progress of the employment tribunal claim brought by Miriam O’Reilly against the BBC.  The 53 year old former presenter of Countryfile claimed she was the victim of age and sex discrimination when the BBC ruled her out as a presenter of the programme when it moved to a new prime time Sunday evening slot.  Last week Ms O’Reilly won her claim of age discrimination but not her claim of sex discrimination.

Ms O’Reilly was not the first woman working in television to argue that she was the victim of a knotty combination of age and sex discrimination.   Former newsreader Selina Scott settled her discrimination claim against Channel 5 in 2008 for a rumoured £250,000.   When 66 year old Arlene Phillips got axed from Strictly Come Dancing in 2009 in favour of 30 year old Alesha Dixon, hundreds of viewers complained of discrimination on her behalf.  However, Ms O’Reilly’s case was the first one to go all the way to a final hearing resulting in a reported decision that other employees in similar positions can seek to rely on.

The tribunal found that 68 year old John Craven being retained on the show did not demonstrate that age was not a factor in the BBC’s decision-making process and instead found that Ms O’Reilly’s age had been a significant factor in the decision not to retain her for the primetime show.  The tribunal found that if she had been 10 to 15 years younger it would have given her proper consideration.

Ms O’Reilly did not win the sex discrimination claim.  The tribunal found that comments about needing to watch out for her wrinkles when high definition television came in and that it was “time for botox” gave an insight into the particular problems that older women working in television face but went on to determine that had she been a man of the same age with the same skill set she would still not have got the job because the BBC were looking for youthful second tier presenters.  Therefore her sex was not the reason for the treatment she received.

The tribunal gave short-shrift to the idea that the BBC could justify replacing older presenters with younger ones to help achieve its legitimate aim of attracting a wider audience.  Whilst wanting to attract a wider audience was potentially a legitimate aim, discriminating against Ms O’Reilly to achieve it was not a proportionate means of achieving that aim.

BBC producers may think that young presenters achieve bigger audiences but actually the recent viewing figures attracted by Rip Off Britain demonstrate that the viewing public are less youth obsessed than the BBC think.  Presented by Jennie Bond (60), Angela Rippon (66) and Gloria Hunniford (70) Rip Off Britain has been attracting viewing figures of between 5.5m and 5.2m, 24.2% of the share.  Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion (watched that, wish I hadn’t wasted 3 hours of my life on it) got viewers of between 4.7m and 5.8m, the Silent Witness two parter that same week got viewers of between 5.9m and 6.3m.   What is particular noteworthy about these viewing figures is that Rip Off Britain had already been shown on BBC1 in a 9.15am slot in November and December and got 2m viewers then.  Big #ff for Glo, Ang and Jen – Here come the women! Time for you ladies to renegotiate your daily rate which was apparently only around £400 per day each, compared to, say, Christine Bleakley’s daily rate of £1730.  (A rate entirely justified according to one of the men in my office on account of her being “a honey”).

So what with 59 year old Sting and his 57 year old wife Trudie Styler (who even if they are not still engaging in lengthy tantric sex sessions look fit enough to do so if they were so inclined) age really is becoming only a number.

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