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Equal Par or Equal Far?

Recently, I came across my postgraduate dissertation. Within it were relevant articles to my topic, which was women’s representation in the media. I am pretty please with this piece of work so thought I’d upload a few of the articles I wrote. 

Miriam O’Reilly, Moira Stewart, Michela Strachan and Juliet Morris.  These are the names of successful women, all with equally successful careers behind them. Therein lies the problem; all have been in the headlines as victims of unfair dismissal due to their age. Then take Jon Snow, Jeremy Paxman and Trevor Macdonald. All of these are the names of successful men, all with equally successful careers behind them. Although some are older than the aforementioned women, they have gone from strength to strength with not a single peek of criticism about their age.

The fact there is an ageism problem within the broadcasting industry is no secret. The most recent scandal saw Miriam O’Reilly take the BBC to a tribunal over her sudden dismissal from nature programme, Country File. This caused total outrage and a huge amount of embarrassment for the BBC. Even more embarrassing were the comments that emerged from the incident. Various, unnecessary snipes regarding O’Reilly’s appearance and hints to consider Botox should, hopefully, shake up the BBC. After all, they have their own equality regulation, which says this discrimination shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

The broadcasting industry seems to be reaching a point where it doesn’t need older women. The experience, professionalism and knowledge of women are discarded so that room can be made for pubescent teenagers and fresh faces, some with very little idea regarding the industry. BBC Radio One most recent shake up saw Jo Whiley move to Radio 2 and younger presenter Fearne Cotton, replace her weekday slot.

Jo Whiley claims her move to Radio 2 was not a reflection on her age, and that there is no age issue within the radio industry. Does that mean it isn’t an issue because the listener can’t see the presenter? So women of a certain age must be heard and not seen.

Statistics released in 2006 by the Global Media Monitoring Project revealed some shocking statistics about the representation of women in the broadcast sector. One, relevant number was the average, upper-end limit on women’s presenting careers; this was just 34 years of age. With women statistically having longer careers, gaining high-powered positions and having babies at a later age, 34 seems a rather low number to set.

ITV Tyne and Tees broadcaster Kenny Toal disagrees with this statistic with a passion: “There are lies, damn lies and statistics. I think that the majority of presenters on television at the moment delivering your news will be over the age of 34. If you are talking about entertainment presenting, then that is a different issue. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of what kind of presenting jobs they are talking about.”

Generally speaking, it should be more based around their ability to do the job, which doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to their age. A quick poll on Twitter shows the consensus among men and women to be that the general public doesn’t have a problem with the age of a television presenter, providing they can do the job effectively. Susan Barlow, 61 thinks differently:  I would rather a few more older, more mature looking women on TV as I think I would take them more seriously.

“However the younger ones would become more mature eventually,” she says, “so I think I would prefer the TV Executives to not take women off the TV just because they are getting older. There should be a mixture, and not all industry pretty.  I’d like a range of body shapes and a range of ages.

Gillian Baker, 34 speaks from Twitter: “I only want competent knowledgeable presenters of any sex”. The answer to all this seems to lie more with the broadcasting companies. It is they who care more about keep older women off our screens. Some women do break the mould of course, if only for a brief, satisfying moment of time.

Davina McCall spent an entire decade as the face of reality show, Big Brother. There is no argument she was a huge success as the main host, yet she is 43 years old. That meant she was already near the cut-off point when she was first cast on the show.

The lack of discrimination was short lived however, as now Davina is, statistically, too old for the industry, she is now fronting age defying campaigns in the beauty industry. A far cry from the days of asking a bunch of social rejects not to swear on live television.

This brings up the point of aesthetics. Or image, to use a better word. Despite the consensus generally not caring about the age of a person, Susan Barlow suggests that maybe the broadcasting companies should practice what they preach: “If the person is good, it should count, not what they look like.  We are too obsessed superficially. I don’t see young, good looking, industry-pretty females on the Executive Boards, they are usually older, fatter males – perhaps that should change too.”

There has to be an understanding that, sometimes, shows just become dated and have to be cancelled, which is no reflection on the age of presenters but more on the current flow of modern interests. A glance over the current programmes in existence at the moment show that there are older women on television, but they are confined to the cheap light of daytime television. A sudden implication arises that older presenters only appeal to the main demographic of these shows – pensioners. A highly patronising assumption to make if this is true.

Recent discussions in the media have been the salaries of highly paid presenters from the BBC. The most obvious observation is that they are mainly men; Chris Moyles, Graham Norton, Richard Hammond, Chris Evans and impressively, Christine Bleakly is considered one of the highest paid, presenters. This was supposedly before she moved from the BBC. Currently 32 years old, in five years time, she may not be in the same position.

With a quick jump over the gender line, the careers of men will grow over time and TV considers them more refined as they age. Think Terry Wogan, Jon Snow, Alan Titchmarsh. Unfortunately for women, they seem to gently fade away; Davina McCall, Carol Vordeman and Natasha Kaplinsky to name a few which, hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public: “I find it quite tiresome seeing very bimbo-like women – for example I have stopped watching ‘Countdown’ since Carol was replaced by the much younger women with extremely short skirts.” Says Barbara, an administration assistant.

Former ITV presenter, Courtnay Mcleod thinks that although in the older years, women struggle more; the pendulum swings both ways in causing gender difficulties. For example, at the beginning of a broadcaster’s career: “Young male reporters can look younger than they are at the start of their career and might struggle to look as if they have the authority / experience for the story – but female journalists can use make up to appear older than they are.”

Despite this view, journalist Alison Clarke believes it is very much, a one sided argument: “Female broadcast journalists do seem to have a very specific shelf life. The same does not seem to apply to men.”

The finger pointing appears to lay in the hype of the media: “I think as an industry there is perhaps a false notion that people care about this more than they do.” Kenny says. So the issue lies within the BBC rather than the broadcasting industry, on the whole. At ITV, the company has a very strong and rigid recruitment policy and age is never an issue.”

He continues: “I have recently seen a number of older people appointed to my newsroom ahead of younger candidates.”  It must be noted that since the BBC’s age criticism, there have been efforts to hire a wider age range.

Although ironically, one of the ‘baddies’ lying at the heart of the O’Reilly case, was a woman; Jay Hunt, “It is worth pointing out that this is not a male versus female problem” Courtnay explains: “There are lots of female editors and heads of news that reinforce ageism. It is not only men that judge women on their looks and damage their careers through ageist attitudes.  Women can be just as guilty, perhaps even more so.” A person doesn’t need to look very far in the celebrity world to see the endless cat fights between female stars, women can be their own worst enemy at times.

Alison Clarke, who is also a feminist writer, feels we are all unable to see the wood for the trees: “I think we’ve got used to seeing younger faces. I don’t think that necessarily means that’s what we want to see. Personally as an older woman (I’m 57), I would love to see women my age fronting serious and responsible programmes.

So, on the whole, although the public aren’t bothered by the age of presenter, they would still like to see more older, presenters. In modern society, image is of high importance and the pressure to remain looking young is high. Let’s remind ourselves of Davina McCall and her wrinkle-measuring guide.

Providing the presenter can do the job properly and professionally, the viewers seem happy, implying maturity might be best over the potentially recklessness of the young. To avoid pigeonholing all young presenters on television as it is more a minority; one case in point would be the rather short-lived career of Zezi Ifore, co-presenter of Big Brother’s Little Brother in 2008. After being grossly disliked by the public, her sloppy presenting and slurred speech did nothing to help her strengthen her show reel and eventually, Channel 4 fired her for failing to turn up one Sunday to present on the show.

Let’s be honest now, would Jenni Murray not bother to show up for Women’s Hour? Can you see Kate Garraway playing truant on GMTV? Despite being in her 40s, Davina McCall has all the bounce and energy of any sprightly 21 year-old and still keeps a high level of professionalism. Of course this is a sweeping statement and almost gross generalisation as there are many, highly professional yet young women working in the industry.

The point is that broadcast companies shouldn’t overlook the older women, which Kenny argues they don’t: “I don’t think that age is an issue in my newsroom and others that I have worked in. If it is then I have seen it as a positive and those within the newsroom who are older are actually benefiting from that experience.” Courtnay, by her own admission says that children might be a reason: “In many cases (including mine) women choose to leave presenting roles – they are not always pushed.” Despite women choosing to have children later in life (if at all), this still might be the cause of less older women presenting.

This is a fairly believable. Zoë Ball, Vanessa Feltz and Sara Cox all made a voluntary move to radio, with Zoë and Sara moving before their allotted time was up. Despite all this, she does agree that there is a discrimination: “I recognise there is an issue with ageism against women in newsrooms and studios.  It is wrong and needs to be tackled”.

It looks like there is no end to this debate; perhaps the ageism lies within the individual company because, like Kenny and Courtnay both say, there is no problem within ITV; none that they have seen anyway. Ageism has evidently been a problem for women; Miriam O’Reilly will surely confirm this.

Maybe if broadcast companies researched more and spoke to their audiences, they would realise the same conclusion this article has, which is that the public don’t mind about the age and care more about if the person can actually do the job (Take note Zezi Ifore).

“It’s all a bit depressing.” Alison says, “Perhaps the only way we can change things is to demand, as an audience, a bit more variety from our programme makers – both in terms of the people who present them and the programmes themselves.”

About Georgi Bomb

Journalist and presenter

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