I’m happy for Miriam O’Reilly this morning, even though I am helping fund her happiness. She’s just had a tribunal rule that the BBC was guilty of ageism when it gave her the boot from its big rural affairs progamme ‘Countryfile’. She’s likely to get a six-figure damages pay-out. Bully for her. I know from personal experience that when you get older in the world of broadcasting, even radio, you get edged or even elbowed towards the exit door. So it’s good to see a broadcaster fight back and win.
“I don’t think having wrinkles is offensive” O’Reilly is quoted as saying. Hear hear. Women presenters on TV are chosen in considerable measure for their looks. That goes for BBC, ITV, RTÉ and no doubt TV stations throughout the world. When those looks begin to wilt, the woman presenter gets dropped. Ageism in action, again and again throughout the world. Right?
Well maybe – or maybe not quite. Being dropped as a woman presenter because you’ve begun to lose your looks isn’t quite the same thing as being dropped because you’re too old. The two usually march in tandem, true: but some women look less attractive at thirty-five, while others stay stunning until they’re forty-five or even fifty-five. It’s their looks that get them dropped, not their age. Women presenters like O’Reilly are penalised not for being older but for looking less attractive.
Which brings us back to the question: why were they hired in the first place? In some cases, because they’re very good at doing their job. But in Miriam O’Reilly’s case and in lots of other cases, her good looks almost certainly played an important part in her being hired in the first place.
So two things. First, isn’t the basic injustice that women who are physically attractive get hired before women who are not physically attractive? Shouldn’t ability to do the job rather than please the eye be what matters at the point of hiring as well as the point of firing? Secondly, if you were hired because you look nice, you can’t really complain if you’re dropped when you stop looking nice. Can you?