I got it wrong on older women: BBC boss admits there ARE too few on TVMark Thompson describes Miriam O'Reilly case as 'important wake-up' Says there are simply not enough women in 'key news' roles
BBC director-general Mark Thompson has admitted there are not enough older women on television.
The long-serving chief admitted the corporation has a ‘case to answer’ over the lack of female presenters – especially in ‘iconic roles’. In an article for today’s Daily Mail, he says there are ‘manifestly too few older women broadcasting on the BBC’.
And he reveals that he hopes a landmark age-discrimination employment tribunal brought by ex-Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly, 54, would be seen as a ‘turning point’, describing it as an ‘important wake-up’ for the broadcaster.
'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
As well as Miss O’Reilly’s tribunal victory, the BBC has been caught in a series of highly damaging ageism and sexism rows involving newsreader Moira Stuart and former Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips.
In today’s article, Mr Thompson – who is set to step down after the Olympics – says there are simply not enough women in ‘key news and current affairs presenting roles’, singling out the ‘big political interviews’.
He says that while economics editor Stephanie Flanders is ‘outstanding’ there are too few women among the most senior on-air specialist journalists.
And while there has been a ‘revolution’ in the number of older women in leadership roles at the BBC, he concedes there has not been the ‘same rate or scale of change’ on screen.
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
Mr Thompson says a ‘thoughtful critic’ of the BBC might ‘make two searching points’: ‘First, that there is an underlying problem, that – whatever the individual success stories – there are manifestly too few older women broadcasting on the BBC, especially in iconic roles and on iconic topical programmes.
‘Second that, as the national broadcaster and one which is paid for by the public, the BBC is in a different class from everyone else, and that the public have every right to expect it to deliver to a higher standard of fairness and open-mindedness in its treatment both of its broadcasters and its audiences.’
In recent years, respected figures such as Anna Ford, Selina Scott, Kate Adie, Dame Joan Bakewell and many others have spoken out about their concerns over the treatment of older women by all broadcasters.
'Outstanding': Mr Thompson hailed Stephanie Flanders, the BBC's economics editor, but admitted there are too few women in similar roles
Mr Thompson points to the findings of a survey, called Serving All Ages, which he commissioned in his role as chairman of the industry body Creative Diversity Network. It revealed, he says, that a significant minority – not just females – felt older women were ‘invisible’ on air.
‘That perception, and the reality behind it, is what we have to change,’ he says.
The Serving All Ages report revealed that both men and women were critical about the disappearance of older women from screens.
They felt it was generally the case that presenters develop ‘“a face for radio” at a certain point in their middle years’ and were ‘replaced with what people felt were less qualified but younger, more attractive women’.
More than a third of women over 55 said there were too few of their contemporaries on television.
Mr Thompson says there is a ‘duty’ to make sure that no presenters go through a ‘similar experience’ to Miss O’Reilly – who claimed she had been dropped from the programme for being too old.
He insists the BBC must ‘develop and cherish’ the ‘many outstanding women broadcasters’ and ensure that they know ‘age will not be a bar to their future employment’ at the broadcaster.
He highlights the BBC1 daytime show Rip Off Britain which is presented by Angela Rippon, Julia Somerville and Gloria Hunniford as an example of how ‘great female talent’ has been brought back to the BBC.
And he also cites yesterday’s decision to bring back former gameshow host Anneka Rice to BBC1 prime-time at the age of 53 – where the former Treasure Hunt presenter is expected to front two series about art and lifestyle.
A source at the BBC said: ‘Danny Cohen wants to bring her to the channel and we are looking at two different series across arts and lifestyle which would air in prime time.’
Mr Thompson says the corporation should ‘make sure’ all BBC editors and producers see it as part of their role in tackling the issue of older women on screen.He admits that when it comes to selecting interviewees on shows such as Question Time and Newsnight it is a ‘simple fact of life’ that many parts of British life are dominated by men.
But he adds that he does not believe sexism or ageism are rife at the BBC and that the simple act of replacing an older presenter with a younger one is not ‘automatically proof’ of prejudice.
The broadcasting boss says he believes the situation is an ‘anomaly’, with roots deep in British life and one which will not be changed ‘overnight’.
He warns against removing well-loved presenters from shows in an attempt to achieve an ‘instant fix’. And he claims a change is already starting to happen but calls on other broadcasters and media players to ‘follow suit’.
The BBC must change – older women should no longer feel they are invisible
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'Let's not mince words': BBC Director General Mark Thompson admits the corporation has 'a case to answer' over its representation of older women
Let’s not mince words: those who say that the BBC has a case to answer about the way it treats older women on the air are right. We do.
We’re hardly alone, of course. Look at any other broadcaster, at any advertising hoarding or some newspapers and you’re likely to be confronted by an obsession with young women’s faces and bodies and an ageism far more pronounced and disturbing than anything you’ll ever see or hear on the BBC.
You’ll find plenty of photographs of older men — politicians, film stars, celebrities of one stripe or another — some handsome, some frankly a little gnarly. But you’ll discover that older women are chiefly notable for their absence.
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Stealing the show: Gillian Anderson was a huge success in the BBC's adaptation of Great Expectations
There has been a revolution at the BBC in recent years in the role women play in leadership positions. Of the 12 members of our Executive Board, five are female, all of them (and no, there isn’t a completely satisfactory way of saying this) ‘older’ women. Critical BBC services — including both Radio 4 and BBC Two — are in the hands of exceptional women controllers. BBC News, once an almost entirely male management domain, is largely led by women.
But we’ve yet to see the same rate or scale of change on the air. In terms of interviewees on current affairs programmes like Question Time or Newsnight, it is a simple fact of life that many aspects of British national life are dominated by men. I believe these programmes do their best to find opportunities for women to appear, but David Dimbleby is right when he says that it would be wrong for the BBC to distort the reality of the distribution of power and influence in this country in the name of artificial gender balance.
What is true, however, is that we have too few women in key news and current affairs presenting roles, especially when it comes to the big political interviews. Stephanie Flanders is doing an outstanding job for us as BBC Economics Editor but, again, too few of the most senior on-air specialist journalists at the BBC are women. That’s why we’re delighted to have recently appointed Allegra Stratton as Newsnight’s political editor, though of course we gave her the job not because of her gender but simply because she was the best candidate.
Aggrieved: Former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly claims ageism is endemic at the BBC and has set up a charity to challenge it
I don’t believe for a moment that the BBC is riven by sexism or ageism.
As Ann Widdecombe commented last week, it’s quite wrong to conclude that any replacement of an older woman by a younger one (or by a man) is automatically proof of prejudice; all sorts of factors come into play in creative and casting decisions. The public would be alarmed if the BBC did anything other than choosing presenters strictly on merit and regardless of sex or age.
Nonetheless, the Miriam O’Reilly case — she won an employment tribunal after being dropped from her presenting role on Countryfile — was an important wake-up for the whole BBC, one which I hope will mark a turning-point on our handling of this issue. Miriam has behaved with remarkable dignity and forbearance throughout, but she was not treated as she should have been by the BBC. We have a duty to ensure that no one has to go through a similar experience in the future.
We want more: Thompson has pledged to identify the talent and opportunities to make older women more visible
With others, Miriam has now launched a new charity to draw attention to and campaign about the role of women in the media. We will support her work in any way we can.
So what is to be done First, we have to understand the extent and character of the problem. This is why, as Chairman of the industry body that looks at fairness and representation of every kind, I commissioned the report ‘Serving All Ages’ which looked at British TV as a whole.
Interestingly, it showed that issues of age were not front of mind for most members of the audience (quality of output, where the BBC scores very highly, was their top concern), and indeed that, of all age groups, it was the young rather than the old who tend to feel most unfairly and negatively portrayed by the broadcasters.
But a significant minority of respondents — and not just older women themselves — did tell us that they felt that older women were ‘invisible’ on the airwaves. That perception, and the reality behind it, is what we have to change.
We must develop and cherish the many outstanding women broadcasters we already have and make sure they know that, like any employees and freelancers, age will not be a bar to their future employment by the BBC.
Where we can, we should bring great female talent back to the BBC, as we’re doing so successfully at the moment in Rip Off Britain 2012 with Angela Rippon, Julia Somerville and Gloria Hunniford. I am also pleased to see that BBC One Controller Danny Cohen has announced plans to bring Anneka Rice back to BBC One prime time. We should make sure every BBC editor and producer understands their role in helping us address this challenge.
This is an anomaly which has its roots deep in our national life and which cannot be solved overnight. Ann Widdecombe — who clearly enjoyed herself immensely on Strictly Come Dancing — is surely right when she warns against a knee-jerk or politically correct response to the issue. We shouldn’t turf out other much loved and respected presenters and reporters in an attempt to achieve an instant fix, and no one (not least the older women in our audience) would thank us for doing so.
We need to identify the talent and the opportunities over time. But we are determined to act and already, on the BBC News Channel, on BBC One and on other services, we’re beginning to see a difference. Progress over time by the BBC is important in itself and will, I believe, be welcomed by all our audiences, young as well as old. But I hope that it will also encourage other broadcasters and media players to follow suit.