Ageism, employment tribunals and autocuties
The recent ruling of the employment tribunal in the case of former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly is a double cause for celebration: not only does it send out a welcome message that the law will support older women who feel they have been thrown on the scrap heap for no good reason, but, at first sight, it also seems to have been a landmark case in terms of wider social attitudes. It has been interesting and gratifying to note that many socially conservative media outlets which usually dismiss campaigns for women’s rights as “political correctness gone mad” have backed O’Reilly to the hilt on this.
O’Reilly is, of course, not the first older female presenter to gain public sympathy and support after being ditched or passed over for promotion by the BBC: the dropping of Arlene Phillips as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing, the end of Moira Stewart’s career as a television newsreader and the decision to hire Toby Buckland as the main presenter of Gardener’s World rather than promote Carol Klein after Monty Don’s decision to take time out after
a stroke all caused widespread public disquiet. In the case of Gardener’s World, viewing figures dropped alarmingly after the BBC’s decision to “refresh” the show by marginalising its older female presenter, so if the BBC really does believe that the public wants its factual programming to be anchored exclusively by young, sexy presenters, then it seems to be mistaken. Nonetheless, the media kerfuffle over the Countryfile case seems to have taken the public indignation at the treatment of older women on screen to a new level.
I’m not sure, though, that the widespread public goodwill to O’Reilly necessarily indicates a new dawn of woman-friendly attitudes in society. Many of the normally reactionary, normally anti-feminist voices who have spoken out in O’Reilly’s favour are doing so because they perceive this primarily as an issue of ageism, not one of sexism (a view apparently shared by the employment tribunal itself, which, while upholding her claim for age discrimination, rejected her accusations of sex discrimination – rather puzzlingly, since they themselves acknowledged that women are more vulnerable to this kind of age discrimination than men). I suspect that, in many cases, the powerful tugs of middle-class and middle-age tribalism have merely temporarily overcome a deeper distrust of the feminist agenda.
Moreover, in many of these cases of age discrimination which have captured the public imagination, it is younger women in the media industry who have been cast as the villain. In the Strictly Come Dancing row, for instance, Alesha Dixon bore the brunt of the public backlash, not the TV executives who chose to hire her or her male co-presenters. It seemed that both her supporters and Phillips’s accepted unquestioningly that there was room for only one token woman on a panel of four judges – they merely disgreed on what type of woman it should be. That perhaps there was a place for both Phillips and Dixon on the judging panel didn’t seem to cross anybody’s mind.
It seems that, increasingly, any woman in factual programming or TV journalism who happens to be under 45 and passably attractive is dismissed as an “autocutie” who can’t possibly have a brain or any relevant experience for the job she is doing. Fiona Bruce, Emily Maitlis and Katie Derham all have Oxbridge degrees, but you wouldn’t know it, from the constant sniping about “sexing up and dumbing down” that female newsreaders face.
The Madonna/Whore dichotomy appears to be alive and well in broadcasting, with audiences apparently believing that a woman can be a young hottie or an authoritative expert, but not both. While the BBC management seems to think that women exist only as eye candy and should be banished from the screen as soon as they fail to set heterosexual men’s pulses racing (and even then they fail to recognise that older women can be “hot”, too), that a woman who is not young and sexy has no right to be on TV, large sections of the audience and media who oppose the BBC’s attitude seem to fall into the opposite error, of believing that a woman who is young and sexy has no right to be on TV.
Why can’t women be treated as people, as subjects, whose sexiness or lack of is purely an incidental factor, as it is for men, rather than a defining feature of their worth?
Nonetheless, I still feel that, as a society, we are making progress, slow though it may be. I remember when Angela Rippon and Anna Ford began their careers as newsreaders in the 70s there was much comment in the press to the effect that no woman could ever have enough “gravitas” to be an appropriate person to present the national news. I don’t think many people would seriously argue that today. And voices like those of Nick Ross (who has commented that O’Reilly’s sacking was justified, because it is “natural” for people to be attracted to older men but younger women) and Cristina Odone (who has brought up that old chestnut about this legal ruling harming women’s employment chances, as it will make media employers more wary of hiring female presenters in the first place if they know they won’t be able to sack them on a whim) seem to be being treated with the ridicule that they deserve.
I know that it is true that the media is a rarefied world and that O’Reilly’s victory does not necessarily improve the lot of ordinary women outside that charmed circle, but O’Reilly winning this verdict is still, in my view, a lot better than O’Reilly not winning that verdict.