Countryfile presenter wins Age discrimination case

Dated:

The Central London Employment Tribunal has recently decided in the case of O'Reilly v BBC & Anor 2200423/2010 that Miriam O’Reilly, the former Countryfile television presenter, was discriminated against by the BBC and Bristol Magazines Ltd because of her age but not because of her sex.

Age Discrimination claim – Employment Law Specialists

Background


The Claimant had worked as a journalist and presenter for the BBC for several years on a number of programmes, including Countryfile, and had received various awards for her work, particularly with regard to environmental issues. A decision was then made in 2009 to move Countryfile from its weekend airing to a new ‘prime time’ television slot. Once this decision was made the Claimant and three other female presenters in their 40s and 50s were dropped from the programme and replaced with presenters who were in their 30’s.

After the Claimant and her colleagues were dropped from the programme, allegations of discrimination began to appear in the press and some viewers of Countryfile wrote to the BBC complaining that the change in presenters was discriminatory. The Claimant tried to find alternative work within the BBC after she was dropped from Countryfile but found that she had several difficulties. In particular, the Claimant was no longer used as a contributor in Countryfile magazine. Finally, the Claimant made a proposal to the BBC for a new programme, however this proposal was rejected.

When giving evidence before the Tribunal, Miriam O’Reilly said that until her proposal for a new programme was rejected, she had hoped that she could continue with her career with the BBC. However, when her new proposal was rejected she felt this indicated that her career with the BBC was at an end and she therefore took steps to pursue a claim for age and sex discrimination against the BBC and Bristol Magazines Ltd (which produces Countryfile magazine).

The Tribunal


The BBC claimed when giving evidence to the Tribunal that a criteria had been applied to potential candidates for the presenting jobs in the new Countryfile programme based on the candidates’ ‘network familiarity’ and/or ‘primetime experience’. The Tribunal found that there was a lack of documentation to evidence this and in fact that there had been a failure to follow any formal selection procedure. The Tribunal noted that, while this in itself did not prove that the Claimant had been discriminated against, the lack of evidence and failure to follow a proper procedure made it more difficult for the BBC to explain its decisions and prove that they were not discriminatory. Further, the approach used by the BBC was held to have been pursued "without equality of opportunity" for all candidates, regardless of their age.

The Tribunal held that the BBC had the legitimate aim of wishing to appeal to primetime audiences (including younger viewers). However, the Tribunal also held that the age of candidates had been a ‘significant factor’ in choosing which presenters to present the programme. Choosing younger presenters was not a means of achieving the aim of appealing to younger viewers, and even if it had been, this was not a proportionate way of achieving it. The Claimant and her two female colleagues who also lost their jobs were held to have been "dismissed almost entirely out of hand". The Tribunal therefore held that there had been discrimination on the grounds of the Claimant’s age, and this could not be justified.

The Tribunal also found that the Claimant had not been used as a contributor in Countryfile Magazine after allegations of discrimination against the Claimant had appeared in the press. The Tribunal held that it was suspected within the BBC that the Claimant had told the press that she had been discriminated against and the editor of Countryfile Magazine had therefore been told, or had inferred, that he should no longer use the Claimant as a contributor. The Tribunal therefore held that, because the BBC suspected that the Claimant had made allegations of discrimination and this caused her to be treated less favourably by stopping her from working as a contributor to Countryfile Magazine, she had been victimised and her claim for victimisation therefore succeeded.

It was also considered whether the Claimant would have been treated differently if she had been a man and therefore whether the Claimant’s claim for sex discrimination should succeed. The Tribunal came to the conclusion that the Claimant would not have been retained if she were a man because a man of the Claimant’s age would also not have had "the element of comparative youth required" for the relevant presenter roles. Therefore, the Claimant’s claim for sex discrimination was rejected.

The Tribunal must now decide what remedy the Claimant should receive at a separate hearing, however the date for this is not yet fixed. The Claimant has said she will ask the Tribunal to make an order for compensation, a statement that the BBC discriminated against her and an order for the BBC to conduct age equality audits and take steps to address under-representation of older employees. Whether all of these remedies will be awarded to the Claimant remains to be seen, however the BBC have recently said that they hope to continue working with Miriam O’Reilly in the future.

This article was written by Emma Dickinson in our Employment Team.

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