The BBC should have been free to drop Miriam O'Reilly from Countryfile without attracting any accusations of age discrimination, according to comedian Rowan Atkinson, in a controversial intervention into the debate about the lack of older women on television.
The 57-year-old Blackadder, Mr Bean and Johnny English star said – in a letter to Radio 4's The Media Show – that O'Reilly's successful age discrimination case against the BBC amounted to an "attack on creative free expression" and that television was the wrong place to deal with anti-discrimination issues.
Atkinson wrote that he did not blame O'Reilly for taking legal action, but added that his argument "would be that the creative industries are completely inappropriate environments for anti-discrimination legislation and that the legal tools she used should never have been available to her".
In January 2011, O'Reilly won a landmark age discrimination case against the BBC after she was one of four women in their 40s or 50s who were dropped from a peaktime revamp of BBC1's Countryfile.
She never returned to the programme, but has since hosted a daytime spin-off of Crimewatch. O'Reilly quit the BBC in January, 12 months into a three-year BBC contract, to set up the Women's Equality Network with the lawyer who secured her tribunal victory, Camilla Palmer.
Atkinson said O'Reily's complaint was no more sensible than "Pierce Brosnan complaining that he was sacked from the role of James Bond for being too old" and that true creative freedom for both Bond films and Countryfile could only mean that producers should have complete artistic latitude.
"If either at the outset of a TV programme, or at any time during its screen life, you want to replace an old person with a young person, or a white person with a black person, or a disabled straight with an able-bodied gay, you should have as much creative freedom to do so as you have to change the colour of John Craven's anorak," Atkinson wrote.
O'Reilly, who was not invited to take part in the programme, told MediaGuardian: "I think very few people will agree with Mr Atkinson. At one time we didn't think black people should sit next to white people on a bus but fortunately we live in a fair and civilised society."
She added: "Television has an enormous influence on shaping society and how we see each other and we have got to have fair representation of everyone on TV. We can't leave it up to the whims of the so-called creatives.
"It was very unfortunate that I had to take legal action against the BBC for them to fairly represent women and older women. I would have liked them to have done so without me having to take action but it has already made a difference already. Mark Thompson has said it was a turning point in the representation of older women on screen."
Atkinson's intervention comes at a point when the BBC has finally admitted it has a problem with under representing older women on screen, after years of criticism.
Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, acknowledged earlier this month that the broadcaster does not have enough older female newsreaders and presenters.
Thompson said O'Reilly's age-discrimination tribunal win had been an important "wake-up call" for the BBC, adding that the corporation had a case to answer over the lack of older women in key news and current affairs presenting roles.
"First, that there is an underlying problem, that – whatever the individual success stories – there are manifestly too few older women broadcasting on the BBC, especially in iconic roles and on iconic topical programmes," he said.
"Second, that as the national broadcaster and one which is paid for by the public, the BBC is in a different class from everyone else, and that the public have every right to expect it to deliver to a higher standard of fairness and open-mindedness in its treatment both of its broadcasters and its audiences."
Thompson is due to meet with Nadine Dorries and other MPs on Monday, 27 February, to discuss the representation of women on and off screen.
The meeting was arranged by culture minister Ed Vaizey following a Commons debate on gender balance in broadcasting which was proposed by Dorries and supported by Lib Dem MP Tessa Munt.
Article from Guardian