More wrinklies like me on the BBC I won't hold my breath, Mr Thompson: A blistering ripostle from Selina Scott following the Beeb Director General's concern over lack of senior female presenters
British broadcaster Selina Scott doesn't believe more older women will be cast for prominent roles
The sound of hollow laughter, grinding teeth and crashing teacups hurled against kitchen walls would, I fancy, have drowned out all other noise when Anna Ford, Miriam O’Reilly, Moira Stuart and legions of other women who have worked at the BBC read the front page of the Daily Mail yesterday.
There was Mark Thompson, the Director General, metaphorically wringing his hands and donning the hair shirt over the Corporation’s treatment of older female presenters.
‘Let’s not mince words,’ he said. ‘Those who say the BBC has a case to answer about the way it treats older women on the air are right — we do.’
Thompson promised reform and talked of his sympathy for all the discarded senior and experienced women, such as O’Reilly, who had been driven out of TV Centre.
He also spoke of the need to ‘cherish the many outstanding women broadcasters we already have and make sure age will not be a bar to future employment at the BBC’.
Could this be the same Mark Thompson who instructed his lawyers — at the taxpayers’ expense — to fight Miriam’s case against age discrimination in the courts after she was sacked as a presenter on Countryfile.
Is this the same Mark Thompson who promised to take Miriam back into the Corporation with no hard feelings but has just accepted her resignation only a few months into a three-year deal because she quickly discovered that her friends’ warnings — that there would be no real forgiveness, no job worthy of her talents, and no studio presenter’s role, as alluded to; essentially she would be a leper — proved to be sadly prophetic. ‘Tell everyone they were right,’ she emailed me.
It pains me to say this about my old friend Mark, but hypocrisy wafts from almost every word of his mea culpa. He has been in power long enough to detoxify the BBC’s misogynist attitude to women of a certain age but instead has presided over an almost Masonic male-dominated club.
There has long been a black joke at the BBC that when a woman’s age exceeds her bra size, she is finished.
The writer Cristina Odone has said that a
BBC producer told her with patronising arrogance that viewers prefer
‘pliable-looking fertile fillies to older females with a bit of
So what has provoked this publicly avowed about-turn
Certainly not the raft of female executives in places of creative power
at the Corporation so proudly trumpeted in Thompson’s confessional.
is instructive to remember that Jay Hunt, former Controller of BBC 1,
was described at Miriam’s court hearing as ‘the woman who hates women’.
'Turning point': BBC director general Mark Thompson, left, described the age discrimination case brought by the former presenter of Countryfile, Miriam O'Reilly, right, as an 'important wake-up' for the state broadcaster
They all appear to be classic case studies of the woman who kicks the ladder away when she alone has scaled the heights.
Thompson, a fundamentally decent man on the eve of leaving the Corporation, is undoubtedly anxious to secure his legacy.
without the pressure from a loose confederation of former BBC
presenters like myself and Anna Ford, Age Concern, the BBC Trust and,
more recently, the MP Nadine Dorries — who want all BBC funding stopped
until the Prime Minister agrees to set up a parliamentary committee into
the decision-making process at the Corporation — I fear he would not
have used the pulpit of the Mail to deliver his pious sermon.
attempt to demonstrate that the BBC is instigating changes, Mark proudly
quotes as evidence a peak-time show, Rip Off Britain, presented by
Angela Rippon, Julia Somerville and Gloria Hunniford —who have all blown
out the candles on their 60th birthday cake.
Forgive my cynicism,
but in TV circles it is no secret that these lavender ladies were all
brought out of the deep freeze to give Mark a fig leaf to dangle over
his exposed areas. The show is, frankly, a travesty of the BBC’s
formerly high reputation for investigation into consumer affairs.
Sidelined: Newsreader Moira Stuart, left, and former Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips, right, have also been at the heart of damaging ageism and sexism rows that have rocked the corporation
Mark really not be aware when he looks at much of his Corporation’s
output that the ageing chorus line he is so proud of — Ann Widdecombe,
Anne Robinson and Hilary Devey of Dragon’s Den — are in fact either on
the screen for comic content to be laughed at or have adopted a
theatrical character to find fame
I have been accused of hypocrisy
for speaking out on this issue and it’s true to say that when the press
labelled me ‘The Golden Girl of Television’, I was myself the
beneficiary of high-profile presenter roles such as anchoring the BBC’s
first breakfast show and the news on ITN. This was thanks, no doubt in
part, to my looks but even then I was appalled at the way most of my sex
That didn’t stop that old gargoyle Michael Winner
writing in this paper that I was like one of the three witches in
Macbeth rising out of the mist and should shut up and be happy with a
cup of cocoa at bedtime.
So much for an enlightened attitude, but
it’s a view of any woman over 60 shared by many of the two-faced
apparatchiks who rule the power corridors at TV Centre.
'Outstanding': Mr Thompson hailed Stephanie Flanders, the BBC's economics editor, but admitted there are too few women in similar roles
So why keep
on putting my head above the parapet Why keep taking the hits Even my
former agent walked away from me when I embarked on my own case for age
discrimination against Channel 5, saying the industry would treat me as
an outcast for my temerity in fighting for my rights.
thought, if it really is that kind of industry I no longer wish to be
part of it. I would rather die on my legs than live on my knees like so
many of my sisters who hate themselves for their cowardly acquiescence.
is telling when I sit in the privacy of the make-up room prior to
appearing on television to watch how most women contort themselves into
some painted and buffed vision of what they think the men who hold the
power want to see.
What’s the problem with the way women really look
If all women whose age really is bigger than their bra size are
shuffled off out of sight like elderly relatives put in a kind of
presenters’ care home, society, subconsciously, takes a message from
The consequences of this were grotesquely demonstrated to me
when my father died three years ago in an NHS hospital where managers
treated the elderly as nuisances to be disregarded.
I saw a direct
correlation between the obsession with youth culture so beloved by TV
executives, and reflected on our screens, and the shameful way we treat
When I wrote about this I was deluged with letters from
others who had also gone through the horror of watching a loved one
die, to the apparent casual indifference of many senior hospital staff.
It was these experiences which led me to be invited to present my own
dossier to the BBC Trust who, under two separate chairmen, have promised
Given the venal nature of television, I have almost
certainly scuppered my own TV career in doing so and I believe it is a
fact that those of us who have spoken out will not benefit from any
sacrifices we made.
The beneficiaries will be the generation now on
screen at the BBC such as Fiona Bruce, Emily Maitlis and Sophie Raworth.
But while they wear the victory laurels hard won by others, all British
women over 60 — and there are more than one million of them out of
work — will continue to feel disenfranchised with no voice or role
Half a century ago, Malcolm Muggeridge described the BBC as
‘a society with its kings, lords and commoners; its laws and dossiers
and revenue and easily suppressed insurrection’.
Easily suppressed Not any more. Not with the female tigers who have fought their corner so valiantly.
former chairman of the governors, Christopher Bland, a skilled
political operator, said that the BBC is like a small country, in which
regime change is frequent and sometimes violent and bloody.
Mark Thompson is beginning to understand just how violent and bloody it can be.