A BBC executive pinned me to a wall and made a crude pass. But even other women told me to forget it – or lose my career
08:42 GMT, 18 October 2012
Fighting back: Ex-Countryfile star Miriam O'Reilly says the BBC must create an environment where inappropriate behaviour can be exposed
Last week I was talking to an ex-BBC colleague about the Jimmy Savile scandal, particularly the allegations of sexual harassment of women at the corporation.
My former workmate mentioned that, back then, people at the company considered me ‘a woman of the world’, someone you ‘mistreated at your peril’.
So, when I mentioned that I’d been sexually harassed by a senior executive, I think he imagined that I’d probably turned on the offender and kicked him where it hurt the most.
But I didn’t do that. Instead, I found myself at a loss as to how to handle a situation involving a man who held a position of authority and had control over my career.
That’s why I haven’t been surprised at the increasing number of people coming forward claiming Savile — and other famous names at the BBC — sexually abused them.
As we have seen over the past few weeks, harassment was commonplace at the time and the victims powerless to do anything about it.
When I joined the broadcaster in 1982, I found it to be an exciting environment full of talented people who dedicated themselves to making challenging, entertaining programmes.
But I also found a culture where women were largely regarded as second-class citizens, disposable objects, whose longevity in a career depended on their looks and whether a boss fancied them or not.
When I caught the attention of an executive keen to offer me presenting work on a programme, I jumped at the chance of doing it. Not only would it be a promotion for me, but also a great opportunity to progress within the BBC.
What I didn’t know was that it came with strings attached. A few days after the offer, my colleagues and I were killing time in a pub before catching an early train home when that executive pinned me against the wall and said he’d always found me attractive and wanted to get to know me better.
I couldn’t blame alcohol for his behaviour, as we’d only had one drink, but I was genuinely shocked at his advance because he knew I was happily married with two small children.
I made my lack of interest clear to him. But he seemed to think it wasn’t an obstacle. When I told him I wasn’t interested again, the offer of work I was so pleased to get was never mentioned again. His attitude at work completely changed towards me. He wouldn’t acknowledge my presence at meetings. I began to feel as if I was being frozen out.
So I decided to get some informal advice and told my story to two women in junior management. They listened sympathetically to what I had to say, but their response left me cold.
Part of a wider problem: The allegations against Jimmy Savile are just one aspect of the BBC's culture of silence
They said I wasn’t the first woman to come to them with this sort of accusation. But, as they had told the others, if I made a formal complaint, as a freelance journalist it was likely I wouldn’t get anymore work because the BBC ‘always took the side of management’.
They felt it was only fair to warn me of this so I would be aware of the risk I would be taking because the BBC, like other media organisations, is dominated by men who tend to stick together.
And I needed the work to help pay our mortgage — I had the welfare of my family to think of.
Besides, I knew if the word got out that I’d complained — which was likely — it would be my word against his. I risked being labelled a troublemaker and might never work again.
The fact that I’d backed down from exposing this man made me feel cowardly. He, meanwhile, went on his merry way, using his position to pressurise young women into sleeping with him.
His reputation stretched far and wide within the BBC and was so toxic that even if a woman who worked in his department managed to sidestep his advances and progress her career, there was a presumption that she only got promoted because she’d slept with him.
The memory of not being brave enough to stand up for my rights was one of the reasons why I decided to challenge the BBC for its ageist attitudes towards women. I went to a tribunal and in 2011 won my case.
But while putting your head above the parapet exposes shameful attitudes towards women, it continues to have personal consequences. Despite a contract, and public promises of work from the BBC, I lost my career.
My experience of sexual harassment is in no way comparable to what’s been revealed at the BBC over the past two weeks. I was not a vulnerable young woman either. But I’m telling my story as an example of what can happen when a culture enables some people to abuse their position of power.
Of course, the broadcasting industry isn’t the only workplace where such behaviour exists, but I would argue that TV and radio are particularly prone to it, because the executives and presenters who deliver successful programmes become powerful and, therefore, untouchable.
Head above the parapet: Miriam (pictured with her lawyer Camilla Palmer) struck a blow for women when she brought an age discrimination case against the BBC
No one wants to upset the ‘talent’. It’s easier to ignore or get rid of the person who’s complained. I’ve heard from a woman this week who recounted several incidents of sexual harassment involving the same presenter early in her career. Some of the young women involved were on work experience.
Although she complained to human resources, no formal disciplinary procedure took place against this man; instead they just had an ‘informal chat’ with him. It led her to believe it was because the women were ‘expendable’, whereas the presenter was not.
Another ex-BBC employee told me her career faltered because her boss liked a sexually-charged atmosphere at work, but when she refused to play ‘the game’, she was eventually bullied out of her job.
Women I know who’ve objected to sexist treatment have been accused of not having ‘a sense of humour’, of being ‘uptight’. One young reporter I worked with who was rubbed up against by a male colleague as she stood editing a report for the evening bulletin was told ‘don’t blame me — that skirt says you’re gagging for it’.
During the 25 years I spent at the BBC, I often came across women in the loo, upset at inappropriate sexist remarks or behaviour by a senior male colleague and wondering how to handle it. Making an official complaint was never an option. We all knew speaking out could signal the end of a career.
So when the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, said last week that, in the light of the Savile scandal and the admission by Liz Kershaw that she’d been groped live on air, he’d written to the BBC’s director-general asking him to check, among other things, that the corporation’s policies on whistle-blowing were fit for purpose, I shook my head in disbelief. What policy on whistle-blowing
The BBC’s first priority must be to help the police with their investigation. They need to look at the process which led to the BBC Newsnight expos into Jimmy Savile being shelved, and they need to do as much as they can to ensure Savile’s victims get the help they’ll need.
Then they have to find a way of providing a safe environment at the BBC so that anyone who feels they’ve been subjected to inappropriate behaviour can speak out, because silence allows the likes of Savile — and others — to thrive.