Jude Collins

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Miriam O'Reilly: older but richer

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?


  1. Hello Jude

    Interesting article. And yeah I take your point that if you live by the sword of beauty then you die by it too. But I think Miriam O'Reilly's point has always been that this particular edict only applies to women. John Craven, 68 was not told to be "careful of the wrinkles on hi def tv," and he is fifteen years older than Miriam. Considering he kept his job on Countryfile, you can only conclude that wrinkles on a man are not considered offensive.

  2. I totally agree, Jane - women presenters whose looks begin to go get a much, much tougher deal than their male counterparts. My main point, though, which I find none of the commentaries picking up on, is that good-looking people - especially women - have a huge advantage in getting hired in the first place. That strikes me as unfair too. And ironically, it's the very people who start with an unfair advantage who then suffer unfairly when the wrinkles set in. What's needed are clear criteria for such work, which don't include looks if we're all agreed those aren't necessary (mind you I suspect a lot of people prefer to look at nice-looking people) and then let the best man/woman win.

  3. William not as pretty or as smart as I thought I was14 January 2011 at 06:44

    Do we want to watch competent unattractive people? I think there is some room for debate on that but the audiences bias to "pretty faces" can't be completely discounted.

  4. Indeed, William napoasaitiwa. Eye-candy addiction is widespread.

  5. I'm fine with attractive and competent news readers. But its clearly sexism when a woman is thought to be losing her looks 15 years before a male, who being her elder has certainly lost his looks as well. If we're going to boot women for getting older and looking like hell, we ought to boot the men as well. Yet everyday men who are an assault on my senses are reading the nightly news.