This week a seemingly anonymous folder landed on the desk of Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, the autonomous body set up to represent the licence payer at the corporation. It may at first glance have seemed to him to be just another document to be answered, dismissed and forgotten about but I believe that the report in front of him will trigger nothing short of a revolution within Television Centre.
The dossier contains an exhaustive account of blatant and sometimes malign sexism and ageism against women within what is probably the major taste maker and social arbiter in Britain. It has been compiled with the research facility of Age UK, the country’s leading charity for older people, Equal Justice, a legal organisation dedicated to fighting social causes, and myself. And I believe our findings will shock any fair minded person.
I have worked extensively in the BBC; I not only launched Breakfast Television but once was considered, and this is a phrase I’ve always hated, “The Golden Girl” of the corporation. Even as a young person enjoying my moment of fame I could see and was horrified by the discrimination meted out against women who weren’t in the first flush of youth. But until we conducted our report I was not aware of how pervasive and institutionalised this disease had become at the BBC.
Indeed, 12 years ago, even the BBC agreed with me. In 1998 Age Concern commissioned its own investigation which revealed “older men” far outnumbered older women on BBC screens (72 per cent versus 28 per cent female), and noted “older women were considerably under-represented in spite of the fact that older women in the real world outnumber men”. The BBC was immediate in its response: it had “a sense of responsibility”, it said, as a public service broadcaster, to right this anomaly.
Yet what happened to this report and what has happened on our screens since? Nothing. The obsession with youth and the rejection of older women in television has increased.
In the executive offices on the sixth floor of TV Centre, alarm bells should be ringing - if they have not already been doing so. This is because a discarded BBC presenter who was effectively sacked from her job after being told that if she wanted to keep on working she should try botox injections decided enough was enough. Miriam O’Reilly, 53, was dropped as a presenter from Countryfile and replaced by a younger woman. Miriam has launched a high-profile action against the corporation and has spoken publicly about its ageist attitude. The case comes before an industrial tribunal in November.
It has been reported that this case has sparked many others and that the BBC has settled out of court with 12 other female presenters, all with similar claims. Many more are said to be awaiting the outcome of the O’Reilly hearing before launching their own actions. Sometimes a pebble can start an avalanche.
My own journey on this difficult road which has seen me castigated, ridiculed, portrayed as one of the witches in Macbeth and told I’ll be for ever treated as a leper by the broadcast industry because of my audacity in standing up for myself began in the most unlikely circumstances.
For legal reasons I am forbidden for disclosing the details of why I sued Channel Five for ageism but what I can say is that it was the final rejection in the past couple of years that I’d suffered at the hands of both the BBC and ITV. I experienced in this period a disregarding, unthinking, almost casual maiming which leaves women like me with their confidence and career in tatters but which is done in a sly and at times almost unspoken and Machiavellian way. You are rarely told outright that you are not wanted. There is never a conversation. It seems to be conducted by whispers in corridors. It’s insidious, cowardly and unworthy of the great traditions of a public broadcaster like the BBC.
I’d reached the point where I wasn’t going to take any more of this kind of treatment, and would rather have died on my legs than live on my knees as, sadly, so many of my sex have chosen to do, taking crumbs from the table that are thrown their way and hating themselves for doing so.
It was during my year-long battle with Channel Five, which ended in December 2008, that I experienced a personal tragedy which increased my determination. After a short illness my father died in Scarborough hospital on Christmas Eve. I had always been a supporter of the NHS but I was left reeling at the disregard shown towards him by hospital managers. It seemed that he was given up as a lost cause because of his age and that this affected much of the treatment he received in his last years. It made me determined not to let this issue rest.
Of course the BBC is not alone in creating a youth-obsessed society in which anyone over 50 is considered redundant and of no value. However, it is the leading reflector of social values. It creates attitudes and therefore how the BBC shapes its programmes and who presents them exerts an influence, usually subconsciously, on us all. With what some think is staggering self-regard, the BBC described itself in its annual report published this week as “Britain’s favourite channel … at the heart of our cultural life” and “part of the national conversation”.
If the BBC really believes it is part of the national conversation it is a pretty dumbed-down conversation we’re having. If all we ever see on television is young people and older women either treated as joke figures or presenting themselves as caricature – Anne Robinson as Cruella de Vil or Loose Women as gossiping harpies - what are we to think?
I can tell you from personal experience: the ridicule I suffered for having the temerity to proceed with action against Channel Five 5 confirmed my view that the only way for reform was through political channels. I approached Jeremy Hunt, then shadow secretary for culture, in January. He was enthusiastic, telling me: “This is a very important issue and I absolutely commend you for your courage. I want you to compile a report, make recommendations, bring it to me and I will lay it before the BBC Trust and demand they take action.”
At last I felt we were getting somewhere. But now Mr Hunt is in government, his secretary has told me that he doesn’t feel it is pertinent for his department to lay this before Sir Michael Lyons, despite the fact that months before he sent me an email which read: “Thanks so much for sending the report. I think it really hits the nail on the head and gets to the heart of an issue that will resonate with a large number of licence payers. The evidence you have uncovered really deserves a thorough response/inquiry from the BBC and BBC Trust … I really look forward to seeing how the BBC reacts.’
I can only conclude that either Mr Hunt feels this issue is too hot a potato for him or that he has been advised to drop it. Who knows.
It will be difficult for Sir Michael to take the same dismissive attitude towards women in the BBC as his predecessor, Sir Christopher Bland, did 12 years ago but it will be even more instructive to know the response of his board. There are seven women on the Trust. They outnumber the five men. They are Chitra Bharucha, Diane Coyle, Alison Hastings, Patricia Hodgson, Rothan Johnston, Janet Lewis-Jones and Mehmuda Mian.
If ever women needed to stand up for themselves and if ever a group of women needed to stand up for their sex, these seven women need to do so now.
Article from The Telegraph