Emails that showed the panic that gripped the BBC in Countryfile presenter's age discrimination sacking

  • Emails reveal BBC's slapdash approach to recruitment
  • Another labels two stalwart presenters as 'no spring chickens'
  • Veteran journalist now in line for six-figure payout
  • BBC accepts ruling and apologises to presenter
  • Tribunal blasts BBC obsession with 'ethnic diversity'
Victorious: Miriam O'Reilly at a press conference following yesterday's ruling

Victorious: Miriam O'Reilly at a press conference following yesterday's ruling

As Miriam O'Reilly celebrates her £150,000 payout, a series of sensational emails have emerged that reveal the BBC's panic over her ageism sacking.

In a landmark ruling, a tribunal declared yesterday that senior executives were obsessed with ‘ethnic diversity’, ‘rejuvenation’ and attracting younger viewers when they decided to axe the Countryfile presenter at the age of 51.

But a series of revealing internal corporation emails, published by the hearing, show BBC bosses drew up a ‘risk assessment’ at the time of the Countryfile shake-up to head off expected claims it was ‘dumbing down’ and ‘pandering to a younger audience’.

Shockingly, it even made disparaging remarks about two of the stars who remain on the show – John Craven and Julia Bradbury – saying neither were ‘spring chickens’.

In an email to executive editor Andrew Thorman, the BBC Publicity Department recognises they could be labelled ageist and sexist over the cull.

And in a contrived effort to deflect criticism, the email adds: 'To counter any suggestion of ageism I will position John Craven as a central figure in the new series.'

In another exchange between Mr Thornton and Countryfile magazine editor Cavan Scott the issue over swelling numbers of reader complaints is broached.

Mr Thornton tells Mr Scott: 'If it is an age thing then Julia and John are hardly spring chickens and if it is about personalities then it is subjective and all programmes need to refresh their output and that includes faces on the screen.'

Countryfile series producer Teresa Bogan even gives Mr Thornton her thoughts on 'additional ethnic talent', revealing the corporation's slapdash approach to hiring.

She adds: 'Do you want me to [look through their showreels] or would I be wasting my time (ie is Jay just gonna pick someone)???'

One of the axed presenters, Michaela Strachan, later shows her hurt at 'being dumped'.

She wrote to Andrew Thorman: 'I'm not even much older than Julia Bradbury. Did Jay need to make it quite so brutal?'

She adds: 'Oh, it's a cruel harsh world . . . Well, I'll bring my zimmer next time I come to Birmingham.'

The emails are a stark revelation over the inner workings of BBC recruitment processes and attitudes towards age and ethnicity that inspired  Miriam O'Reilly to take the corporation to tribunal.

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Julia Bradbury took over from Ms O'Reilly and three other female presenters in their forties on Countryfile

Replacement: Julia Bradbury took over from Ms O'Reilly and three other female presenters in their forties on Countryfile

Miss O’Reilly, now 53, had been told to be ‘careful about those wrinkles’ before she and three other women were replaced by younger staff – two from ethnic minorities.

She said standing up to the BBC had been ‘the right thing to do, however hurtful, however stressful it has been’.

She added: ‘I never wanted to leave my job ... there are still years in me yet!’

Miss O’Reilly will now consider fresh offers from the BBC, which issued a humiliating ­apology and said it would be happy to work with her again.

Attack: Former BBC controller Jay Hunt had been accused of 'hating women' during the tribunal

Attack: Former BBC controller Jay Hunt had been accused of 'hating women' during the tribunal

The corporation – already under fire over the axeing of Arlene Phillips from Strictly Come Dancing – has now been forced to draw up fresh guidelines which will put a string of older stars on our screens.

Bosses, including the former BBC1 Controller Jay Hunt, were judged to have shown ‘complacency’ in their casual attitude to the way they treated staff.

It was alleged during the hearing that Miss Hunt ‘hated women’ – an accusation she vigorously denied.

She was also recorded as saying she needed ‘to achieve social engineering to re-gear the channel’.

The tribunal said this meant ‘finding presenters to reflect particular aspects of diversity to fit specific slots’. Miss O’Reilly revealed she had been offered a pay-off – thought to have been around £80,000 – to keep quiet and drop the case.

She described yesterday’s ruling as historic, a verdict backed by employment lawyers.

Helena Derbyshire, of law firm Shoosmiths, said: ‘This is the first reported age discrimination claim challenging the assumption that workers need to be youthful to be attractive.’

Miss O’Reilly revealed she had earned only £500 in the past two years, as she struggled to find work due to the BBC’s displeasure with her.

The saga began when she was dropped along with Charlotte Smith, 46, Juliet Morris, 45, and Michaela Strachan, 44, to make way for younger presenters such as Julia Bradbury, 40, and Katie Knapman, 38.

BBC bosses claimed the decision was nothing to do with age, but the need to ‘refresh’ and ‘rejuvenate’ the show.

But the tribunal’s judgment was scathing of the BBC practices – in particular of Miss Hunt and Andrew Thorman, the executive editor of Countryfile.

Miss O’Reilly told the initial 12-day hearing last year that even before she was axed she had been told to be ‘careful about those wrinkles’ in preparation for high definition television, to consider using Botox and offered a can of black hair dye.


Miriam O'Reilly began her career on a local newspaper before joining the BBC 27 years ago.

She started out at Radio WM in Birmingham as a news producer and went on to become a presenter and reporter on regional television news show Midlands Today.

Over the next decade she worked as a reporter and producer in news and current affairs, including a spell on Panorama, but left to become a full-time mother.

She returned to the corporation when she was 40 as a presenter on the series Farming Today on Radio 4.

Her appointment coincided with the foot and mouth outbreak which brought her a glut of high-profile work.

She also co-presented Radio 4's flagship environmental programme Costing The Earth.

In 2001, she was approached to join Countryfile and won a number of awards for a half-hour special she presented on the cost of fishing.

Ms O'Reilly also stood in for Jenni Murray on Woman's Hour when she was being treated for breast cancer.

In October 2008, she was told she would be axed from the flagship current affairs show when it moved to prime time.

The rest of her BBC work also trailed off.

Shortly after she launched her claim for sex and age discrimination, Ms O'Reilly wrote a piece for the Mail in which she described herself as 'a BBC person through and through.

'All I wanted to do was keep my job,' she said.

The veteran presenter, who had worked for the corporation for 25 years, said she knew this had ‘the ring of truth’ because of the prevailing ‘ageist attitude’.

Yesterday at an emotional press conference, Miss O’Reilly revealed it had taken a huge amount of courage to take a stand against the BBC, particularly since it meant all other work had dried up.

‘It was hard to take on the BBC because I love the BBC and I loved working there,’ the mother-of-two said.

‘I think it is one of the best broadcast organisations in the world but I felt that I was treated badly because of my age.

‘Standing up to the BBC was the right thing to do, however hurtful, however stressful it has been. I would like to go back to work for the BBC.

‘I took this action because I wanted to work for the BBC.

‘I never wanted to leave my job, I want my career. I am only 53, there are still years in me yet! Ageism is endemic, it is part of the culture of broadcasting.

‘We still have a long way to go with ageism in visual media. It is not just the BBC. We are seeing changes but we are not seeing enough and it is not fast enough but we hope that after this case and the stand I have taken it will happen a lot quicker.’

She said she had refused the BBC’s earlier settlement because it wanted her to sign a gagging order and would not accept recommendations for age equality audits.

She said: ‘When I was dropped from Countryfile because of my age, I felt that after over 20 years with the BBC ... I deserved to be judged on my ability and not on my appearance.

‘I don’t think having wrinkles is offensive, you know, we all get old, the alternative is pretty dire.

‘I would like to continue working so long as I am good at my job. I do not want to be judged by how I look – I know you can’t frighten the horses, you have to look presentable – but I do not believe that youth has to be key to keeping your job.’

Miss O’Reilly told the tribunal she had been ‘devastated’ when she was told in November 2008 that she was being dropped after eight years of working for the show as a freelance.

The programme relaunched in April the following year in a Sunday evening prime-time slot with Miss Bradbury and former Blue Peter presenter Matt Baker, 33, along with veteran broadcaster Mr Craven, 70, who was kept on for a slot called John Craven Investigates.

It was also announced that they would be supported by presenters Adam Henson, 44, Jules Hudson, 41, James Wong, 28, and Miss Knapman – the latter two are both from an ethnic minority background.

In its judgment, the tribunal panel said the BBC had subjected Miss O’Reilly to direct age discrimination and age victimisation, though not sex discrimination.

Axed: Juliet Morris also left Countryfile as part of the shake-up
Michaela Strachan

Axed: Juliet Morris (left) and Michaela Strachan also left Countryfile as part of the shake-up

Retained: John Craven was one of the presenters to stay on the show
Adam Henson

Retained: John Craven (left) and Adam Henson were two of the presenters to survive the cull



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It said keeping Mr Craven suggested age was not a factor, but his position was ‘quite different’ to that of the other presenters due to his high profile.

Crucially, it said: ‘If Miss O’Reilly had been 10 to 15 years younger, she would have been given proper consideration to remain as a presenter of Countryfile.’

BBC director general Mark Thompson apologised to Miss O’Reilly and said the BBC would be speaking to her to ‘discuss working with her again’.

We'll change our ways, vows Beeb


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

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

The BBC was yesterday forced to make drastic changes to its rules for selecting TV presenters following the Miriam O’Reilly verdict.

As the corporation was left reeling from the employment tribunal’s finding, it tried to repair the damage by announcing that it was changing the guidelines on how it chooses on-screen talent.

Senior bosses are terrified of other women coming forward with similar discrimination claims against the broadcaster.

Within hours of yesterday’s landmark result the corporation revealed it would produce ‘new guidance’ to ensure ‘fair selection’.

As part of the changes ‘senior editorial executives’ will undergo ‘additional training’.

BBC Creative Director, Alan Yentob, said yesterday: ‘As a consequence we will be looking hard at training, especially senior editorial executives, about recruitment in this way; we will be reviewing our guidelines so that people feel that they get the help and assistance they require.

‘I think there are questions here for the whole industry, these are not easy decisions, it is a creative industry and we need time to reflect on this and we are actually going to take this time to get it right, but in this instance we didn’t get it right.’

Miss O’Reilly received a phone call from BBC director general Mark Thompson yesterday in which he apologised and told her she was welcome back.

Mr Yentob said: ‘What we’ll be saying to Miriam is if she wants to, we’d like to talk to her about further opportunities for employment.’

BBC insiders last night predicted the coming weeks will see a series of announcements handing older women prominent presenting roles.

It is already in the process of renegotiating the deals for older women newsreaders including Julia Somerville, Zeinab Badawi and Fiona Armstrong.

But critics say unless they are given more prominent slots – such as a major bulletins rather than occasional slots on the news channel – then the moves will still be regarded as a public relations exercise.

The BBC has pointed to its decision to move Rip-Off Britain - presented by Angela Rippon, Gloria Hunniford and Jennie Bond – to BBC1 ‘peak time’ from day time as evidence it is addressing concerns.

A senior BBC insider said: ‘This [ruling] does not mean you can’t pick a presenter on the basis of what most appeals to the audience. But you need to do it in such a way that is fair and based on criteria and that the process is done properly.’