BBC Loses Age Discrimination Claim
11 January 2011
"Youth," according to Herbert Henry Asquith, "would be an ideal state if it came a little later in life." Whether or not this sentiment was foremost on the mind of the Judge in the tribunal claim brought by Miriam O`Reilly has yet to be known. We can be more certain of the fact however that today`s Judgment from the London Central ET will have far-reaching implications in the media.
Miriam O`Reilly, the former Countryfile presenter, won her claim against the BBC on the grounds of ageism and victimisation, although her claim for sex discrimination failed. The 53-year-old was one of four presenters who were asked to stand down when the rural affairs programme moved to a primetime Sunday evening slot. The show`s new presenters, the Tribunal noted, are significantly younger than Ms O`Reilly. The BBC argued on the other hand that Ms O`Reilly was dropped from the programme simply because she was not recognisable to a primetime audience.
Allegations of this kind, it should be noted, have been gathering pace in recent years. As a firm that has advised broadcasters and programme producers, Clarkslegal are well aware of the sensitivities that have surrounded this issue since age discrimination legislation was first introduced.
First, the experienced newsreader Anna Ford claimed she was forced out of the BBC amidst allegations she would have eventually been ‘shovelled off` into a graveyard slot because of her age. In response to this, the corporation responded by re-hiring so-called veteran newscasters Julia Somerville and Fiona Armstrong, although the value of this PR offensive was questioned when it became public that both had been engaged on 30-day contracts.
In 2008, eyebrows were raised when Selina Scott claimed she was overlooked to cover Natasha Kaplinsky`s maternity leave because of her age. That allegation led to a confidential settlement being concluded between the newsreader and Channel 5 thought to be worth £250,000, together with a formal apology from the broadcaster. Most recently, viewers of Strictly Come Dancing will recall the furore that surrounded the appointment to the judging panel of Alesha Dixon at the apparent expense of the older Arlene Phillips.
In Ms O`Reilly`s case, the Tribunal concluded that, "If the claimant had been 10 to 15 years younger, she would have been given proper consideration to remain as a presenter of Countryfile." However valid the BBC`s decision for dismissing Ms O`Reilly from the show, it doesn`t appear the Tribunal was persuaded that the decision was objectively justified. Further, it`s difficult to imagine the Tribunal would have been impressed by claims that Ms O`Reilly had apparently been told by her colleagues to consider Botox injections, or to beware the unfavourable attention her wrinkles would attract on an HD channel.
The Tribunal concluded that the discrimination of Ms O`Reilly was not justified. "The wish to appeal to a primetime audience, including younger viewers, is a legitimate aim," it said. The Tribunal added however that "...we do not accept that it has been established that choosing younger presenters is required to appeal to such an audience."
The implications of this decision are clear. Commissioners and broadcasters are entirely justified in their attempts to broaden the appeal of programmes and to bring them to the attention of younger viewers specifically. Giving preference to younger presenters at the expense of more senior presenters however is not a justifiable means of doing so.
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