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TV women on sexism (Read 8401 times)
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TV women on sexism
Feb 5th, 2011, 1:09pm
This is taken from the Guardian:

Who are you calling past it?
The Miriam O'Reilly case exposed ageism at the BBC - but what's it really like for older women working in broadcasting? From Joan Bakewell (77) to Jennie Bond (60), we ask the women who know

Joan Bakewell, 77

I was taken aside recently by a famous woman television figure: "I'm getting on for 50: do you think I should worry?" I was appalled to be asked the question and unsure how to answer. There is certainly an air of concern, if not panic, among women television presenters as they get older. That in itself is a terrible state of affairs. But is it justified?

No men nudge up and seek my advice: male broadcasters are clearly not in post for their appearance. How else could the distinctly rumpled Mark Mardell ever have succeeded the svelte Matt Frei? This difference has been there since the beginning of television, but in those days it wasn't any kind of issue. Women were capable and attractive announcers Sylvia Peters and Mary Malcolm and perky reporters: Polly Elwes on the Tonight programme. There was a scattering of powerful producers behind the cameras Catherine Dove, Revel Guest and the occasional top dog: Grace Wyndham Goldie, head of BBC Television News in the 1950s. The issues emerged when women wanted a place at the table of newsreading and reporting on current affairs.

At my age, with four decades of broadcasting behind me, I can take the long perspective: and it's proving to be a long haul. When, in the late 1960s, I approached BBC Television's head of news Derek Amoore to ask why there were no female newsreaders, he gave me a glass of whisky before explaining there were clear reasons voice, dress, distracting looks women were intrinsically wrong for newsreading. It wasn't that I was canvassing for such a job for myself. I had a slot on BBC2's Late Night Line-Up. But the tide of feminism was flowing and I was well placed to pose the question. It was to be years before the barrier fell: Angela Rippon on BBC news in 1975. Anna Ford on ITV news in 1978. As in all walks of life, women's progress is long and drawn out, with their complaints denied and their demands heavily resisted at every stage. There has, over the decades, been incremental progress, interrupted by some blinding setbacks. The dismissal of Arlene Phillips and by a woman executive took the story from the media pages to tabloid headlines. A management own goal.

For the past decade, the issue has increasingly focused on ageing. It is a widely shared cultural belief that women "lose" their looks while men mature. It was ever so and it is taking a cultural earthquake to shake it. Fortunately that earthquake is upon us. It is the changing demographic of a steadily ageing population. Whereas in 2008 only 16% of the population was over 65, by 2033 it is projected to be 23%. Whether or not we like it and I am naturally perfectly happy with it older people will be more central to the arena of public affairs. So broadcasters are facing a major reassessment of their television faces.

Some two years ago I put the case to director general Mark Thompson that the BBC should have older women newsreaders. I set out the argument that an ageing audience would expect to see their own society represented in all its different age groups among the people who bring them the news. One group is still conspicuously absent: older women. He agreed. The process was set in motion that brought the appointment of four older women as BBC newsreaders. However, those newsreaders still do not command the major evening news bulletins of the domestic channels.

Now we have the courageous Miriam O'Reilly, who has brought a case of age discrimination to an employment tribunal and won. Courageous because her reputation as a troublemaker risks damaging her work prospects, and also because she risked being told she was not up to the job. A senior radio producer, a woman, had already called her "a little black dress" when the evening slot calls for a "red-carpet frock" of a presenter. This shaming remark focuses on the nub of the question. Television producers cast their programmes like theatrical impresarios; their dream is to make their show the best of its kind, in the hope of top ratings, good reviews and a crop of career-boosting awards. They hold a beauty parade of talents that they hope will fulfil these ambitions. When an existing programme is moved from a humble daytime slot to a more conspicuous evening transmission, these pressures are even greater, with a channel controller breathing down your neck to ensure you deliver on the break you've been given. Loyalty, rewards for service, quiet consideration of people's proven merits are out of the window. It's a cruel world, and often those inflicting the pain are themselves successful women.

The freelance nature of today's television makes these things easier. Your contract expires and you are not offered another. Nothing is said about why, or what else you might do. My dismissal from Newsnight in the 1980s a restructuring by John Birt wiped out my job was conveyed only to my agent. No programme editor or producer spoke to me directly. BBC management has improved a little on such cruel indifference, but not by much.

Interest around these issues is now intensifying. There is an almost feverish eagerness to see things improve. Between 2006 and 2009, 5,000 women left the industry compared with just 750 men. The exodus was mostly among the 30 to 39 age group. The industry's premier membership organisation, Women in Film and Television, has recently set up a working party on gender and age. The industry body Skillset, Broadcast magazine, the Fawcett Society, Equity and Pact are all gathering evidence. Dossiers are being compiled. I sense that change is quickening. For many talented women, it can't be quick enough.

Arlene Phillips, 67

'I was quite shocked when the whole ageist thing exploded. I've never looked at an older presenter and thought: I wish you were younger.' Photograph: Kate Peters for the Guardian
I never thought about a career in television. I still see myself as a choreographer. But the producers of Strictly Come Dancing approached me, and I did six series. Then they didn't renew my contract. Was it ageist? The only people who really know are at the BBC and I've never asked. If people made comments about my age, it would have been in a locked room somewhere. I couldn't, and wouldn't, have done what Miriam O'Reilly did. You have to have facts, and I have absolutely none. The only thing I can do is to move on as positively and as graciously as I possibly can.

I was quite shocked when the whole ageist thing exploded. I've never looked at an older presenter and thought: I wish you were younger. I love listening to women talking on TV, and if they're good at their job, it doesn't matter if they're young or old. People think that if you're older, your followers and fans are older, but masses of my fan mail comes from young people.

Jo Whiley, 45

I don't think ageism applies in radio. Annie Nightingale is still broadcasting; Vanessa Feltz; Kirsty Young; Janice Long all the people I looked up to are still making programmes. I think we've all been very fortunate. There's no denying the pressure on a woman if you're on television is immense and you are much more conscious of your age. I remember Selina Scott presenting the news, and then she did seem just to disappear.

There was an assumption that I was no longer doing the daytime show on Radio 1, and Fearne [Cotton] was doing it, because I'd got to a certain age. I was reading that it was an ageism issue, and it wasn't. Radio 1 is a young station. You have to have someone who can speak to your audience. I was doing that show for a long time and change is good. Moving to Radio 2 is a natural progression for me. It's part of growing up.

But I would be mortified to think I'd be passed over for TV jobs because of my age. I still have a passion for music, and hopefully that is the most important thing. I love presenting Glastonbury and I'd be gutted if I wasn't asked back.

What has happened with Miriam O'Reilly is a wake-up call. It's not just the media and bosses that are ageist, as a society we are ageist and care about the appearance of the people we watch on TV and see in the papers. I want people to be judged on the merit of what they do and how good they are at their job. That is the bottom line.

Gloria Hunniford, 70

In this business, nothing is for ever. You can't expect that it's your automatic right to be retained. I'm not saying this was the case with Miriam [O'Reilly], but you are at the behest of the viewer. They have taken Countryfile to Sunday night and made it a huge success. A producer that comes fresh on to a programme surely must have the right to say: "This is what I want to do." The new broom wants to sweep. You can't turn round and say, "Excuse me, I've got a God-given right to be in this programme for the next 10 years." Life doesn't work like that.

I have never felt the butt of ageism. I went into broadcasting in Northern Ireland in 1969. The first day, the man who brought me in looked around the newsroom and said, "Don't think you're coming in here to do women's things like recipes and sewing. You're as good as any bloke in this room and you'll take your place in the middle of the Troubles out on the streets reporting like the rest." That's the way I've progressed. I have been very lucky. I've never been out of work. Nobody's said to me, you're too old, you can't do this. But there would be no point putting me on a pop programme. On the other hand, I think I am the perfect age to do consumer shows, magazine programmes and discussion, because I've lived. I've had children, I've been divorced, I've lost a child, I've lost my parents. I know what life is like. I still feel I've got a contribution to make and I want to do it for as long as I have the energy.

Jennie Bond, 60

My main job at the BBC was as royal correspondent, but I also read the news for eight years on and off. You can go on for much longer as a correspondent than as a presenter when I gave it up in 2003, after 14 years, the BBC were very keen for me to stay on. Newsreading is different. I considered doing it full-time, but was taken aside by a senior editor who said, "Being a presenter is so precarious don't go there." He didn't mention my age, but I'm sure it was at the back of his mind. And I'm sure that wouldn't have occurred to him if I had been a man.

In 1999, we were told they were "changing the faces" on the BBC newsreading team. Suddenly lots of new people came in, in their 30s and 40s including Huw Edwards and Fiona Bruce. And lo and behold, Moira Stuart was moved to one side, and so was I. At the time I was 49. I still had my main job as a correspondent, but I was very upset.

It didn't occur to me to say anything. I have always been the breadwinner, so I couldn't afford to antagonise them. I lay down and accepted it.

No one ever said anything to me about my appearance, but there has always been one rule for men and one for women. Christ, look at Peter Woods, for goodness sake. What an ugly, baggy-eyed so-and-so he was (though I loved him to bits, of course). Imagine if I'd read the news looking like that. That said, Huw Edwards told me he was taken aside once and told he had to watch his weight.

Angela Rippon, 66

'When I was 50 John Birt put his arm around me and said, "Angela, you just have to accept that you have had your day. You have to make way for the younger women."' Photograph: Kate Peters for the Guardian
I've been a newsreader and presenter on daytime and prime time for 44 years, but TV cannot be seen as a job for life. People and programmes go in and out of fashion. I used to present Antiques Roadshow and Top Gear. On Come Dancing I was the 16th presenter. Maybe I was dropped because of my age on some occasions, but I will never have any way of knowing.

The only naked age discrimination I've come across was when I was 50 and John Birt put his arm around me and said, "Angela, you just have to accept that you have had your day. You have to make way for the younger women." It was so shocking it's engraved on my memory, but it toughened me up. I thought, "Not flipping likely."

After TV:am I was told I'd never work for the BBC again. I went to America, worked for NBC for a year and came back with an Emmy. My self-esteem had been on the floor, but after America I thought, "I am actually quite good at what I do." And the phone started ringing again.

I get annoyed when people ask where all the older women are on TV, because there are plenty of us working our butts off on daytime. Cash In The Attic gets about 2.5m viewers, and Rip Off Britain gets 5.5m. It shows that, as far as audiences are concerned, age is immaterial.

I'm not going to "stand aside", I'm going to welcome this younger generation, and say, "Come and join me, isn't it great?"

Miriam O'Reilly, 53

When I turned 50 in 2007, I got a real sense that the clock was ticking on my career. I had been on Countryfile since 2002, and I'd been working in broadcasting for 26 years, but attitudes towards me changed. Comments came from the team: "Watch out for those wrinkles when HD comes in", "You're a rare breed in television", "You're nearly as old as John". John Craven was then nearly 70. There was 18 years between us.

I found the comments disturbing, but I pushed them to one side. I was good at my job and had won three top news awards for Countryfile. Despite that, in 2008, the executive editor Andrew Thorman took me to one side to tell me that Countryfile was going to a prime-time slot and that I "would not be moving forward" as the line-up was "being refreshed". "Refresh" was a code word for "young" at the BBC.

When I found out that all four women myself, Michaela Strachan, Charlotte Smith and Juliet Morris were going from the show and the men were staying, I got a bit cross. We had made it successful. Everyone accepted that we were going because of our age the invitation to our leaving party had our faces superimposed on to the bodies of pensioners. When I called Andrew Thorman to talk about the decision to drop me being based on my age, he said, "One day, Miriam, someone will tell me I'm too old to do my job and I'll be shuffled off into retirement."

One of the reasons I'm a journalist is because I believe that if someone is treated badly, it should be exposed. I decided I had to stand up to the BBC.

I didn't feel jubilation when I won, but I felt proud. If we don't see older women on television, it's as if they don't exist in society. This affects everyone. Young women have supported me because they don't want to disappear at 51. Many women in high-profile positions have thanked me for helping them keep their jobs a little bit longer.

Now the BBC has put Rip Off Britain on at prime time with Gloria Hunniford, Angela Rippon and Jennie Bond, and they're getting 5m viewers. I don't think it would be on prime time if it wasn't for the campaigning work of Joan Bakewell, Selina Scott and this discrimination case. It's because we're kicking up a fuss that older women are being allowed on screen, and broadcasters are finding that, surprise, surprise, viewers are watching

Interviews by Becky Barnicoat and Liese Spencer
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