Botox betrayal: Ex-Countryfile producer Louise Pyne applauded Miriam O'Reilly's battle against BBC sexists – until she found she was being named as a culprit
00:14 GMT, 1 April 2012
00:29 GMT, 1 April 2012
Miriam O'Reilly has experienced something of a career metamorphosis after her landmark age-discrimination victory over her BBC bosses.
Formerly a regular, but rather under-the-radar, presenter on Countryfile and Radio 4, she is now a feminist icon and poster girl for the older woman.
Last Thursday saw the official launch of her new charity venture, the Women’s Equality Network, which aims to provide ‘peer to peer’ support for women facing discrimination in the workplace.
'Victim of spin': Louise Pyne, last week, is 'more than a little dismayed'
After becoming the first person to win a case against the BBC for age discrimination, Miriam returned to work with the Corporation, but quit 12 months into her three-year contract, believing she had been rehired only as part of a ‘damage-limitation exercise’.
She also said she had encountered ‘seething resentment’ from certain executives, who were angry that she had challenged them and won so resoundingly.
As a former friend and colleague of Miriam’s on Countryfile (where I worked as a director), and a firm believer that our society is depressingly ageist and sexist, I should be thrilled that she’s struck a blow for the sisterhood.
In reality, I feel more than a little dismayed. Perhaps I can explain why.
Back in the autumn of 2008, a few months after I had left the BBC to work as a freelance director, Miriam called to tell me that Jay Hunt, the new controller of BBC1, was moving Countryfile to a prime-time slot, and that she was being dropped as a presenter.
I spent more than an hour consoling her and learned that Jay Hunt apparently wanted bigger ‘names’, with more of a prime-time profile.
Discrimination: Miriam O'Reilly arriving at the tribunal hearing
A wave of press articles appeared, criticising the BBC for yet more ‘ageism’, so when, in early 2010, Miriam, then 53, told me that she was suing the BBC for unfair dismissal because of ageism and sexism, the time certainly seemed ripe to bring such a case.
I applauded Miriam’s resolve not to take a slight lying down, but worried that she was in for a hard time.
Always viewed as a bit of a loose cannon, she’d long been nicknamed ‘Miriam Oh Really’ by colleagues due to a tendency to dramatise herself, to embellish mundane stories for shock effect.
I was concerned that she was bringing a case on rather tenuous grounds, but her lawyers obviously felt there was a case to answer, so in the months that followed I gave Miriam my wholehearted support.
My sympathetic ear was a receiver for all the pre-tribunal gossip – who was being called to testify, a possible book deal, a meeting with PR man Max Clifford, the latter a sure sign that Miriam was finally going to become a ‘celebrity’.
Early on the first day of the tribunal hearing, I sent Miriam a text wishing her well, and she responded: ‘Thank you so much, Louise. Photographer from The Times here!’
Feeling nervous for everyone involved, but eager to see how the day progressed, I periodically scanned the news online.
A few hours later, the headlines started to appear: ‘“Careful with those wrinkles,” Countryfile presenter was told.’ And ‘Countryfile’s Miriam O’Reilly “dropped by BBC in revenge”’. And ‘Countryfile wanted “pretty” presenters’.
And then I read the line that left me gasping: ‘Ms O’Reilly also claimed, “In about March 2008, when I expressed my concern about visible signs of ageing affecting my career to director Louise Pyne, she said, “Is it time for Botox”’
I read the article again – perhaps my eyes had deceived me. But no, here I was, down in black and white as part of an ‘ageist’ BBC production team.
Utterly stunned, I called Miriam’s solicitor, Camilla Palmer, who stated that she had no idea how the press had come up with such a line, as I hadn’t been mentioned in Miriam’s witness statement.
Later, she emailed to tell me that Miriam had, in fact, referred to a private discussion we’d had about Botox – and that it would become clear what she was trying to say when her evidence was complete.
I recalled a chat with Miriam about a nasty scar she’d suffered between her eyebrows, after falling off a stepladder. It caused her great concern, despite my reassurance that it was hardly visible on camera, and we’d discussed whether it was worth investigating cosmetic filler to smooth it out.
She mentioned that her dentist was offering fillers and Botox, which she was considering having done, and, as usual, I told her that she looked great and didn’t need it.
It seemed odd Miriam hadn’t informed me that I was being mentioned in her witness statement, but I was vaguely reassured when she sent me a series of texts.
She wrote: ‘Louise, I said I had raised the issue of ageing to a friend and we talked about whether it was time for Botox, it makes it sound different than it was . . . When I said friend they said who
'I hate the papers! You have been such a good friend. I was horrified . . . I won’t get over that, you’re one of the best people I know – and I look fat in the pictures!’
Countryfile: The BBC programme's then editor Andrew Thorman and producer Teresa Bogan leave the 2010 employment tribunal in London
Still unclear as to why a private conversation about a scar was relevant to the case, I obtained a copy of Miriam’s witness statement, discovering to my dismay that it did indeed say: ‘. . . when I expressed my concern about visible signs of ageing affecting my career to director Louise Pyne, she said,“Is it time for Botox” Even though I wanted to keep my job, I didn’t want to have Botox.’
I realised that I, and my former colleagues, had become victims of what is generally known as ‘spin’ – and we were being spun so negatively, so grotesquely unfairly, that I felt sick and utterly betrayed.
Miriam’s line seemed to be that the Countryfile production team had colluded in a bizarre ageist conspiracy, casually lining up to hurl derogatory comments about wrinkles, hair dye and Botox.
She stated that a cameraman had once produced a can of black spray dye and asked if she wanted to use it to cover a ‘white gap’ on her head.
As she had made the poor man supremely aware that he must avoid filming her visible ‘double crown’, he had offered his make-up-artist wife’s black scalp spray (normally used on balding men) as an additional measure.
Hardly an ageist stance and yet Miriam (whom I’d sat next to in the hairdresser’s while she had her tresses coloured) complained: ‘I do not believe a man would have been offered hair dye.’
A further claim, held up as ‘proof’ that Miriam had been victimised, was that Countryfile’s executive producer believed her to be behind the negative stories about her removal from Countryfile in the press.
Legal battle: Miriam O'Reilly with Camilla Palmer, discrimination expert from Leigh Day & Co who represented her, after their win
Apparently, I had passed this suspicion on to her in November 2008. But as at that time I hadn’t returned to the BBC to work (I returned as a freelancer in February 2009), it’s a mystery how I could have gleaned such information.
I was puzzled why the BBC hadn’t asked me if this claim was correct, or warned me that I was mentioned in Miriam’s witness statement. I was never asked by the BBC to appear at the tribunal as a witness, nor was I given the opportunity to respond to Miriam’s claims.
I received no support whatsoever from my former employers, and when I belatedly contacted the BBC to find out why I’d been left in the dark, their response was robustly dismissive.
I was told that it would be inappropriate for me to meet any of the litigation team to discuss the case, and was offered no explanation as to why I hadn’t been contacted about Miriam’s claims in the first place.
Presumably they felt that there were bigger fish to fry, but since I’d been done to a crisp by the intense media roasting, I expected them to show a little more concern.
With no legal support or public voice, I was mercilessly portrayed as a stupid and shallow example of all that was wrong with ‘TV types’.
Columnist Katharine Whitehorn questioned my character in The Guardian, and when I complained, she sent a terse half-apology in return.
She blamed her sub-editor for the slur while pulling me up for spelling her name incorrectly (it’s Katharine with an ‘A’, not Katherine with an ‘E’, should anyone need to know).
I paid for legal advice, only to be told what I had already suspected – that I was powerless to pursue Miriam for defamation as she had made her claims under legal privilege as part of the employment tribunal.
During the months that followed, I found it hard to move on. My directing work dried up and I suffered from terrible depression.
The ‘Time for Botox’ line was repeatedly regurgitated as ‘fact’ by the media.
So it was with disbelief that I read an interview with Miriam that stated: ‘Miriam admits that when she was “in the culture of ageism” she considered having treatments such as Botox, oxygen facials and chemical peels to help her look younger. “I explored them all . . .”’
In her witness statement she’d said: ‘Even though I wanted to keep my job, I didn’t want to have Botox’, yet here she was a short time later, freely admitting that she’d considered using a variety of anti-ageing treatments.
Even more surprising still was Miriam’s appearance on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff, gleefully joining in the fun, joking at Australian cricketer Shane Warne’s newly buffed and youthful appearance.
Smile: The tribunal victory has been somewhat of a career metamorphosis for former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly
Wasn’t this the woman who shouted discrimination when her own appearance was supposedly criticised by others
Certainly, I recall no howls of outrage from Miriam when other women at the BBC were facing hardship.
A good friend and colleague of mine failed in her battle to return to work part-time after becoming a mum, but Miriam remained remarkably quiet for someone intent on helping women in the fight for equality.
Miriam never called or emailed to see how I was bearing up after the fallout from her case, nor did she put a brake on the ‘Time for Botox’ bandwagon, which heaves back into action every time the case is mentioned.
As one friend in the TV industry said at the time: ‘Never trust the “talent”, or think that they’re your friend. They’ll tread on your head if it’ll give them a few more days of fame, and they’ll have no qualms about doing it.’
Miriam O’Reilly said: ‘As I told the tribunal under oath, it was Louise who raised the issue of Botox, we were not talking about a scar, but about signs of ageing.
‘I was very concerned for Louise at the time because of the way some of the newspapers had misreported what was said. If Louise had felt her comments during our conversation about Botox weren’t true, she had the opportunity to say so during the period of the tribunal, but she never did.
‘In fact, at the time she sent me a text message saying, “Don’t worry, I quite like my evil alter ego.”
It’s odd that after so much time Louise is now attempting to rewrite the facts.’
Last night a spokesperson for the BBC said: ‘We are aware of these allegations.’