In January 2011 I won a landmark age discrimination case against the BBC after I had been dropped from BBC1’s Countryfile programme. The tribunal judges also found the Corporation had victimised me by withdrawing work because I had spoken out to senior colleagues about age discrimination.

Hurt

Taking action against an employer of over 25 years was like taking on my family.

At first I was crushed and very hurt that after giving so much for so long to my employer I could be tossed aside as if I was worthless, as if the contribution I had made meant nothing now I had reached my 50s.  I had an exemplary record and was doing well in my job. The fact that I was losing it because of my age cut deeper than I had thought possible. I knew I was lucky to still be presenting at 51. I remember thinking, ‘If I can just have one more year’. I thought I would be able to deal with the blow when it came, but when it did, I found it very hard to accept. For the first few days after I was told I felt bereft. I found myself crying a lot in private. People said to me ‘that’s showbiz’. But I worked in factual and learning which should not be different to any other job. In fact I felt, since it was a visual medium, that it should be representing people like me rather than ‘shuffling’ us off into retirement well before our time.

Anger

A few days after being told the decision I began to feel angry. It was made worse when I learned that the four middle aged women on the programme were losing their jobs and the men were being kept on. I was an expert in food, farming and the environment, my expertise added to the depth and quality of the programmes we made. Young production staff were assigned to me because I could teach them about the subject and programme making. This made no difference to the senior management I went to see in the weeks after I was told I was being ‘refreshed’. My knowledge and expertise meant nothing now my wrinkles were visible. I became increasingly angry that the BBC could be so shallow. If you lose your job it’s like bereavement and the emotions are similar, but I never reached the ‘acceptance’ stage. My anger continued to grow.

Help

I was told “keep your head down” by colleagues when I started to tell my bosses that age discrimination was illegal. I wasn’t as accepting of the decision as the three other middle aged female presenters who were dropped. Friends told me there was ‘nothing’ I could do, but the decision was so unfair I couldn’t let it go. I’m an assertive person, but I felt helpless in the situation. In a matter of a few months, all of my work, including commissioned work, was withdrawn. After more than 25 years of being on staff and then on a continuous contract with the BBC, the phone stopped ringing. My work had been withdrawn.  I hadn’t kept my ‘head down’.  It seemed to me that the BBC had disposed of the ‘problem’. A couple of months before this I had presented a File on 4 investigation during which I interviewed a lawyer at Leigh Day. Both the producer and I were so impressed as we left we agreed that if we were ever in difficulty this is where we’d come.  Half an hour after my last programme was withdrawn (just two days before I was due to start recording), I picked up the phone and called Camilla Palmer. I no longer felt helpless.

Alone

One of the most striking emotions of bringing an action against an employer is a feeling of loneliness. Apart from my family, very close friends and my lawyer, only one of my former work colleagues would speak to me. People felt afraid to have anything to do with me in case it affected their work prospects. An older female BBC journalist told me that when she raised the issue of being sidelined with her boss he said:”You’re not a friend of that Miriam O’Reilly are you”? Many of my former colleagues were embarrassed that I took the action and then went public with it. Former work ‘friends’ wouldn’t return my calls or emails. I found out later many were cheering me from the sidelines, but at the time there were days when I had exhausted my family by talking about the case and I didn’t feel there was anyone I could turn to who understood what I was going through.

Fear

Then there’s the fear. Fear of the implications of the financial cost of bringing the case. Fear of never working again. Fear of losing. People say to me now ‘of course you were always going to win’.  Not so. In bringing an age discrimination case you can take nothing for granted as it’s hard to prove. The fear kept me awake most nights. It had a temporary impact on my health. Because it takes so long to bring a case to tribunal, you find yourself in a continuous stressful state which just builds. I fully understand why many people don’t feel they can proceed to a tribunal and decide to settle with their employer. I hardly recognised myself during this time. I had to dig really deep to keep going.  Many women I have spoken with who have, or who are going through the tribunal process, say the same thing. I have come to know women who had forged high profile careers, who were floored by the pressure of bringing a claim. The process affects not just the individuals but the whole family.

Determination

Despite all of the emotions described above, the one feeling that made me see the case through to the end was the determination to let the law decide. I wanted the three tribunal judges to examine the evidence and come to a legal conclusion. This is the only way we can bring about real change.  If they had ruled against me I would, of course, have accepted their decision. We won and the ruling has laid down a marker to employers. We needed to make this very public challenge to get the message out that to discriminate against someone because of something they have no control over, getting older, is wrong and has no place in a civilised society. As a result of my case the former Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, publicly admitted there were ‘too few’ older women presenting on BBC TV and pledged to be more representative.

My case has made a big difference.  We are seeing older women as the sole anchor on prime time BBC1 programmes – which was very rare before. The white haired Margaret Mountford and Victoria Wood are just two older faces to grace our screens in the past few weeks.  The BBC has finally got the message that viewers not only want, but enjoy seeing women who look like them. We have a long way to go, but it is a positive start. News and Current Affairs is the next challenge. There are four older women presenting on the BBC’s News Channel, but there will be a big break through when we see an older woman regularly anchoring prime time news. As a result of my case the BBC has also reviewed its ‘hiring and firing’ procedure for older women. It has raised awareness amongst commissioning editors and producers that ageism won’t be tolerated. The BBC now runs workshops on ageism for senior staff. If I hadn’t seen my claim through to a tribunal this would not have happened. It’s the only way to bring about real change. I’ve been asked do I have any regrets about  bringing my case before the tribunal judges – the answer is no – not for one second. It was the right thing to do. My only regret is that I had to go through that difficult time to make the BBC accept what it already knew – that it was failing older women by not representing their existence on TV.

Miriam O’Reilly is a member of the Labour Party Commission on Older Women. Camilla Palmer, the lawyer who acted for Miriam, has also contributed to the Age Immaterial blog.

Posted on May 9th, 2013 by Miriam O’Reilly filed under: Blog