· 8 min read · Features

Miriam O’Reilly vs the BBC

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The BBC bit off more than it could chew when it dropped Miriam O'Reilly (pictured) from Countryfile. A tribunal found Auntie guilty of age discrimination – and O'Reilly hasn't let it forget the fact.

Right from the get-go, there was no interest from HR in my case,” recounts a still audibly upset Miriam O’Reilly.

"But as a journalist, I felt I simply couldn't let it go. The BBC never thought I would go to a tribunal; when it finally realised I was serious, it tried to settle. But I refused. Signing anything meant accepting gagging orders, and someone needed to speak out. I felt that being free to do this allowed me to be as damaging to it as I could."

It is 18 months since former Countryfile presenter O'Reilly emerged from the employment tribunal as a triumphant woman. When it was determined her abrupt cull from the show in 2009, coinciding with its switch from BBC Two to a primetime Sunday evening slot (veteran presenter John Craven remained), was age discrimination, to the outside world O'Reilly's future appeared bright.

Olive branches were offered; she was herself welcomed back to the BBC on a three-year deal and, importantly, it was felt change was afoot. The then director-general Mark Thompson - under pressure from previous ageism rows involving newscaster Moira Stuart and Strictly Come Dancing's Arlene Phillips - described the judgement as an 'important wake-up'. Management would be retrained. Lessons would be learned.

And yet 18 months later, it is clear from her savage criticism of the BBC, and what she will reveal later about HR professionals more generally, something has since killed this initial optimism.

"I was naïve in thinking people would suddenly bury the hatchet," she confesses. "There were still a lot of people at the executive level that were not going to make it easy. They buried me," she adds, referring to piecemeal appearances on Radio 4's Farming Today and Woman's Hour, and of promised projects that never ever came. And so she left once more, this January. But this time, there was to be no second case. "I was advised I could claim for breach of contract," says a deflated-sounding O'Reilly, "but it wasn't something I wanted to go through again. Leaving felt like the best option."

It is clear O'Reilly lacked the energy to return to court - a period in her life she called "a very lonely experience" and one she admits she was only 50-50 sure she'd win. And so it is not difficult to see why O'Reilly feels attack is the only form of defence against her former employer: she is no longer sure whether she has actually 'won'.

"I left on the basis that 'once you accept I have won my case, I come back'," she says. "Until then, I'll campaign. I never wanted to be a poster girl, but I kind of am." She adds: "So many women have come to me, regretting signing contracts that prevent them from speaking up. So it is my task to speak for them."

As well as being a thorn in the BBC's side, she is the go-to woman on ageism, recently writing for the likes of The Guardian about the vilification of TV historian and Meet the Romans presenter, Mary Beard, deemed "too ugly for TV" by writer and critic, AA Gill. O'Reilly has also recently set up online forum, Women's Equality Network (WEN). Co-run by her now close friend, Camilla Palmer, the lawyer who won O'Reilly's case (pictured above), it is a place for women to anonymously have a voice - one O'Reilly wants to evolve into political clout. "Bringing my case to court was career suicide," she says. "But you can't change things without some bravery. There are so many women who fear never having another career if they stick their head above the parapet. I hope WEN fills this gap."

Since the demise of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2007, when it merged into the Equality and Human Rights Commission, O'Reilly says a mechanism has been lost for exposing and highlighting age and sex discrimination. She says the emails she now receives from other women convince her of the need for WEN to have some sort of influencing role.

"The BBC was just angry because I had the audacity to stand up to it," she says. "But discrimination was not just there; it is very real. It is not just ageism, but sexism too [her own sexism claim was not upheld by the employment tribunal]. Discrimination is happening everywhere," she says, sweepingly.

To HRDs making strides to stamp out all forms of unfairness, this statement undoubtedly cuts to the chase. But does she genuinely believe this? "There is no real equality in the workplace, in the way people are treated," she continues. "I truly believe it. Women get pregnant and they are still forced out. I hear stories that would break your heart. No allowances are made for flexible working," she continues. "People are shelved at an early age."

It is quite a barrage. Out of context, O'Reilly sounds truculent, but based on what she hears from others, and certainly recalling how she herself was dealt with, she is adamant the HR profession is one she has little regard for: "I have had no contact, ever, with HR at the BBC," she says, somewhat startlingly. "When my case was unravelling, the head of HR came to my tribunal, but never once looked at me - just squirmed a bit."

According to O'Reilly, what contacts she did have (by email, and from the legal team at that), completely missed the point. She says: "HR didn't think I was even an 'employee' - because I was hired on a contract basis." Much of BBC 'talent' is officially freelance, as evidenced by recent scandals surrounding how some of its presenters manage their tax affairs. "Even after that," O'Reilly adds, "when I tried to see HR, I just got a very curt email, which pretty much said 'get lost'."

It is impossible to verify this, but it is explosive, and O'Reilly is determined to explain that this is how she was treated. "I just didn't feel HR was somewhere where you could go; where it wouldn't just take the company's side," she adds. "I didn't think it would give impartial advice, and other women have since told me the same thing. HR takes the side of the company, not a neutral ground."

And it is Palmer, her co-partner at the Women's Equality Network, with 30 years' experience in employment law, who also tells a grimly similar story. "I have seen too many women suffering because they are on their own," she says of the WEN's mission to be a forum for debate. "Miriam's case put a lot of this stuff back into the limelight. Pregnant women may survive at work with one child, but not when they have two," she says, summarising the details of countless cases Palmer has dealt with. She announces: "There has been depressingly little change. Employers now understand it is unacceptable to discriminate on race, but what really depresses me is that there is still little compunction about openly discussing how inconvenient it is hiring someone of child-bearing age."

The pairing of O'Reilly and Palmer is a curious one. Palmer has spent most of her career advising "95% of clients" to go for settlements - burying the details, in effect masking the true scale of the problem they both talk about. Palmer says compensation "is often the best way of getting justice, even if it doesn't seem right at the time".

O'Reilly, by contrast, is more of the publicist. Perhaps on Palmer's advice, the role of WEN will also be to seek compensation, rather than give women the mettle to try their own public case. "I told Miriam that if you did bring a claim, you may have to accept you might never work again," says Palmer coldly. "She paid a price. Bringing a case forward is never a stress-free, risk-free exercise. But what has come from this is a certain amount of media interest. That is what the Network can bring."

Sadly, a sour note for O'Reilly is that, even among her own peer group, the decision of the tribunal a year and a half ago has not been universally supported. Most publicly, she was chided by comedian Rowan Atkinson, who claims the BBC should have been free to drop her. In a letter to Radio 4's Media Show, he wrote that her main point [on age] was no more sensible than "Pierce Brosnan complaining that he was sacked from the role of James Bond for being too old. Which he was and which he is." He argues because TV is a visual medium, producers should have "complete creative latitude to include or exclude anybody or anything for any reason." To this, O'Reilly has a simple retort: "He thinks I should have been denied justice!"

But if Atkinson feels justice has not been had, O'Reilly takes comfort from "other presenters" she says have supported her privately, but cannot be seen to do so publicly, and the "overwhelming employed majority" - ordinary women who work, and who take the opposite view to Atkinson. "The tide is turning," she says. "I captured the mood of people. I caught people's imagination because they somehow thought I was brave. The idea of someone saying 'no' and seeing it through really inspired people."

Unlike Palmer, O'Reilly says it is a shame more women aren't braver in bringing their discrimination cases to the public's attention. Perhaps she secretly wants more people to do what she did - to take the gaze of the media away from her. "Women want to come to us anonymously; that is why employers have been getting away with it for so long," she growls. "I speak to these people, and they don't want to go public, but that is where I hope the Network could be some sort of force. I want it to do something constructive."

With the Network ticking along, O'Reilly says she will continue to take her campaigning role seriously. At some point in the future, she says she has plans to launch a new web-based magazine - called Certain Age - which will be another online portal for discussing the issues affecting older women. In the meantime, she frequently pops up on Channel 5's topical phone-in show, The Wright Stuff - often talking about discrimination issues. "He [Matthew Wright] has really 'got' what I do," she says spiritedly.

This, plus her ultimatum to the BBC not to be asked back until it has proved to her it has made a difference, and - more importantly - accepted the court's verdict, doesn't appear to have left the door open for a return anytime soon. Talking of leaving the corporation for a second time, she says: "Some were upset, but I felt many could have done a lot more to let me stay. They said they would keep in touch, but I'm not holding my breath…"

However, HR magazine interviewed O'Reilly prior to a certain George Entwistle, the BBC's former head of vision, becoming the new director general over the summer. He is the only executive she names as someone she still has genuine respect for. "When I left earlier this year, George asked me to make sure I wrote to him with any ideas for formats I had," she says. "I said I was flattered, and said I hoped this was a genuine offer."

That was O'Reilly speaking before his appointment in July. Immediately after his role was confirmed, it was widely reported in the press that Entwistle had written to O'Reilly, wanting her back, and in a prominent presenting role. So could she finally be on her way back, and willing to bury the hatchet? Disappointingly for those wanting a fairytale ending, her update is crushingly succinct: "That story was blown up by the paper," she retorts. "I haven't heard from George Entwistle since he became DG." She adds: "I haven't heard from Mark Thompson either, even though he said he would be in contact with me over the summer."

It is a typically no-love-lost response, and it is all she has to say on the matter. Tales of her imminent return seem greatly exaggerated. But if/when it ever occurs, it could well be that being back (again), to a truly repentant BBC, would be her finest hour. Until that happens, though, O'Reilly, Palmer and the legion of women who blog on the Network, will be unstinting in their vigour to have their voices heard. "This whole journey is one of those great things that has happened," says O'Reilly. "I feel we are about to create lasting change. People quietly have respect for me."

HR magazine asked the BBC to respond to the specific points made by Miriam O'Reilly about HR not seeing her during her discrimination case, and of her view that HR would not act with impartiality. We also asked if it would like to draw attention to its diversity policies and improvements since. In response, it said: "We have nothing to add to what we have said publicly in the past."

When the BBC lost to Miriam O'Reilly, its statement at the time was that it was "committed to fair selection", but "clearly did not get it right in this case".

It added: "We will ensure that senior editorial executives responsible for these kind of decisions in the BBC undergo additional training in the selection and appointment of presenters, and produce new guidance on fair selection for presenter appointments. These findings also raise questions that need to be addressed by the whole industry. As chair of the Cultural Diversity Network, Mark Thompson will raise the topic of fair representation of people of all ages across the broadcasting industry.

"We would like to acknowledge the important contribution Miriam has made to the BBC over more than 20 years and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss working with her again in the future."