Miriam O'Reilly wins Countryfile ageism claim

Miriam O'Reilly: "I've been fighting for 14 months."

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Ex-Countryfile host Miriam O'Reilly has won an employment tribunal against the BBC on the grounds of ageism.

The 53-year-old claimed she had been unfairly dropped from the rural affairs show when it moved to a primetime Sunday evening slot in April 2009.

O'Reilly, whose sex discrimination case failed, said the outcome had "implications for all broadcasters".

The BBC has apologised to O'Reilly and said it would like to "discuss working with her again in the future".

O'Reilly said she had endured "an incredibly stressful 14 months" since launching her claim.

"I did this because it was the right thing to do - I couldn't have lived with myself if I'd just walked away," she said.

"I'm so pleased the judges have agreed with me."

O'Reilly added: "It was hard taking on the BBC as I love the BBC but I felt I was treated badly."

Analysis

This is a remarkable victory for Miriam O'Reilly and could have a real impact on the way on-screen presenters are appointed.

The BBC has not only admitted it got it wrong and apologised, but also held out an olive branch to Ms O'Reilly. It wants to discuss working with her again.

At her press conference, she welcomed that and also paid tribute to Joan Bakewell and Selina Scott, who have challenged the corporation on its attitude to older women.

The BBC is now going to introduce new guidance on fair selection procedures for presenters and give extra training for executives who make these decisions.

Both sides agree the ruling will have an impact not just on the BBC but on the whole broadcasting industry.

She said she was "impressed" that the corporation had apologised and would like to work for it again.

"I don't think having wrinkles is offensive," she added.

O'Reilly, along with Juliet Morris and Michaela Strachan, lost her job on Countryfile ahead of its move to Sunday evenings.

She was told in November 2008 she was being dropped after working for eight years as a freelance presenter on the show.

Former Watchdog host Julia Bradbury and Matt Baker were among new presenters who joined the revamped programme while John Craven, then 68, was kept on.

The BBC said in a statement that it accepted the findings of the tribunal.

"The BBC is committed to fair selection in every aspect of our work and we clearly did not get it right in this case," it said.

Senior managers who made decisions on presenters would undergo additional training on selection and appointment and new guidance would be issued, it added.

"We would like to acknowledge the important contribution Miriam has made to the BBC over more than 20 years and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss working with her again in the future," the statement said.

'Confidence affected'

The tribunal heard allegations that O'Reilly had been asked if it was "time for Botox" and was warned to be "careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in".

Creative Director for the BBC, Alan Yentob: ''We didn't get it right''

O'Reilly told the tribunal she was not given a reason for her departure and was told only that Countryfile was being "refreshed".

"It is not an exaggeration to say that I was devastated by this news," she said.

"Being dropped from the programme, I believe because of my age and sex, really affected my confidence."

But former BBC One controller Jay Hunt told the tribunal the claims were "entirely and categorically untrue" as well as "profoundly distressing and utterly offensive".

"I am a 43-year-old woman," she went on. "I have had my own difficulties surviving this industry.

"For that reason, the last thing I would ever do is ever discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender or age. Nothing could be further from my mind."

'Age discrimination'

Hunt argued that the only reason for O'Reilly's departure was because she was not recognisable to a peaktime audience.

Michelle Mitchell, charity director at Age UK, said the outcome sent out "a powerful signal that even in the youth-worshipping world of showbusiness, age discrimination can be withstood".

"The idea that wrinkles or grey hair can sound the death knell for the careers of female TV presenters is beyond appalling, especially in a country where over a third of the population is aged 50 and over," she added.

"If ageism is to be stamped out, broadcasters must start offering a more honest portrayal of our society to their viewers."

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