Miriam O'Reilly & the lure of prejudice

Posted on: 12 January 2011 by Alexander Hay

In a culture where prejudice still reigns, Miriam O'Reilly's victory against the BBC is a rare blow against ageism.

If television is allowed to get old, why aren't its presenters?

So, it seems congratulations are in order for Miriam O'Reilly. The former BBC presenter yesterday won a tribunal against the BBC for age discrimination after she was sacked from her role as presenter of Countryfile, beloved among middle class housewives and deaf insomniacs alike. As the newspapers today show, she is beaming with victory. The BBC, meanwhile, has quietly moved the story off the front page.

As for what transpired, it seems O'Reilly was deemed too old to present a show with a large number of older viewers, and more confusingly, the venerable John Craven was kept on while O'Reilly and presenters like Michaela Strachan were laid off because - as the tribunal has ruled - someone thought they were too old. (In Michaela Strachan's case, this was a positively prehistoric 42.)

Suffice to say, the details are depressing. O'Reilly had to spend 14 months fighting the case and even had the then (female) BBC One controller Jay Hunt refer to her claims as "profoundly distressing and utterly offensive", not to mention "entirely and categorically untrue". Which is a roundabout way of calling O'Reilly a nasty liar. 

The myth of sisterhood aside, the other thing that was blown apart as a result of the ruling was the BBC's reputation as a liberal organisation. It meekly accepted the tribunal's findings, and even more limply offered to "discuss working with her again in the future" - its guilt was in no doubt. 

It did however manage to avoid being found guilty of sexism, despite the lay-offs all being women and O'Reilly being warned that her wrinkles would really show up on high definition television. The attitudes exposed are stone age, but they should not come as a surprise.

Where after all does prejudice come from but the human need to do people down whenever possible? The media is full of this, and the bitterest conflicts are often in television where looks (or rather management's opinion of looks) are all. The never-ending procession of stick-thin, botoxed women of a certain age in the media gives the game away, and it is often other women who are responsible for perpetuating the trend. 

Beyond that, we are still a prejudiced society. The acceptable targets for abuse have changed - fortunately, jokes about ethnicity and sexuality are mostly too unpalatable these days. But the focus of dislike has simply moved elsewhere. The overweight are regularly pilloried and abused simply because it's 'alright' to do so, much in the same way that jokes about 'coloureds' were perfectly acceptable in the 1970s. No one asks why we need to be so cruel, especially in Britain, where being a bit of a bully is acceptable as long as you make some people laugh at the same time and not anger someone who can actually strike back. 

Comedy is cruelty, and someone or something is always laughed at. The harm this can do is palpable - why else are satirists feared, hated and locked up? While it's common these days to castigate Frankie Boyle for making apparently racist jokes, no one is questioning the essential sneering nastiness underneath it all.

This brings us back to age and getting old. Hinting at mortality, as it does, getting on a bit invokes not derision but a deep fear. You make yourself feel immune to your own decay by drawing attention to others who have the same problem but are in a weaker position, perhaps because their role is based on appearance, like being a TV presenter

The more vulnerable they are, because of their gender for example, the more you can lean on them unless they can get you at a tribunal. Much as middle-aged, privileged male ancient Greek philosophers discovered that the meaning of life was one that just so happened to reflect their own needs, outlooks and prejudices, so the equally privileged managers at media organisations tend to be less charitable to those who aren't like them. 

The aged Galapagos tortoise in the room, however, is that we are an ageing society. The numbers of women who look a bit like Miriam O'Reilly will soon outnumber the ones who look like Kate Silverton, who celebrated her 40th birthday in August. Forty, as it happens, is now the median age for women in this country. In 1984, it was 36. Meanwhile, there are now twice as many people in the country over 85 now than there were 26 years ago. All of a sudden, being discriminatory to older people is starting to look very bad for business. 

After all, an older population will have needs and preferences quite different from that of a more youth-oriented (or youth-obsessed) society, and it is never good to annoy your customer base. An ever older workforce will bring major changes in many other ways too - the end of retirement for all but the most debilitated is one likely outcome. 

In that sense, then, the BBC's actions are short-sighted in the extreme, desperately pandering to a youthful ideal that simply doesn't reflect the reality that perhaps faces Britain today and will certainly face in the coming years. But then, prejudice is never a rational business.

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Alexander Hay

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