A BBC presenter who was dropped from the corporation’s rural affairs programme along with other women in their forties and fifties has become the first broadcaster to sue the BBC for age discrimination.

Miriam O’Reilly and three other women were told in November 2008 that they were being removed from presenting duties on Countryfile, the BBC One programme, as part of a revamp of the show, which moved from Sunday morning to a tea-time slot.

O’Reilly, 52, an award-winning journalist who spent 25 years at the BBC, lodged papers at London Central employment tribunal last week, claiming that the corporation discriminated against her on grounds of sex and age.

She also alleges victimisation, because she has not been given further work by the BBC after staff at the corporation made unfounded claims that she leaked stories to newspapers about internal discontent over the removal of the women, who were replaced by the former Watchdog host Julia Bradbury, 36, and Matt Baker, 32.

The case will be embarrassing for Mark Thompson, the Director-General, who said recently that the BBC had “taken on board” that viewers wanted “much more than just youth on screen”, after outrage over the removal of Arlene Phillips, 66, from Strictly Come Dancing in favour of Alesha Dixon, 30.

O’Reilly, who has also presented Radio 4 programmes such as Farming Today, and File on 4, told The Times: “I think ageism is endemic at the BBC, and women have been reluctant to speak out, because they have their careers to think about and it is a big risk.”

As part of the revamp, O’Reilly left along with fellow reporters Juliet Morris, Charlotte Smith and Michaela Strachan, who were all in their forties and fifties. The male hosts, Ben Fogle and Tom Heap, were also removed, but Fogle has been given a new countryside show, and Heap returned later.

O’Reilly said: “Initially they didn’t tell me who was being dropped from the programme. I had no idea. It was only later that I found out it was the four women.

“The reason given was that they wanted to refresh Countryfile. Ben Fogle was given Country Tracks and Tom Heap has returned, but none of us has been asked to return. It seems this refreshing of the programme applies only to the women. I believe that it’s an insult to people like me, like Charlotte and Juliet and the others who are dropped from BBC screens because they have wrinkles. I think it’s an insult to the viewers for women like us to be dropped. The only reason is because we’ve got older. I can’t walk away and leave it because I believe what’s happened to me is wrong.”

O’Reilly has engaged Camilla Palmer, who is one of the leading authorities on discrimination law. They are considering summoning Jay Hunt, the BBC One Controller, to explain her comment that the show was being “refreshed”.

The BBC has recently fought back against accusations of ageism, after the exit of older women such as Moira Stuart, 60, and Anna Ford, 66.

Harriet Harman, the Equalities Minister, has said that broadcasters such as the BBC value older men “as having experience and wisdom because they’re older but I don’t think they find it possible to value the older woman”. Stuart has since returned to the corporation as the newsreader on Chris Evans’s Radio 2 breakfast show, and the BBC has appointed three new female newsreaders over the age of 50, on the orders of Mr Thompson. A spokesman said: “Any suggestion the presenters of Countryfile were replaced on the grounds of age is absolute nonsense. Matt Baker and Julia Bradbury were chosen based on their proven successful record in prime-time as presenters and extensive rural knowledge and keen interest in countryside issues.

“Kirsty Wark, Maxine Mawhinney and Martha Kearney regularly feature on BBC television and radio shows as well as presenters including Gloria Hunniford, Jennie Bond, Angela Rippon and Annie Nightingale.” 

Article from The Times