Former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly was warned “to be careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in” just nine months before she was dropped from the programme by the BBC, a tribunal heard yesterday.
O’Reilly, 53, is suing the broadcaster for sex and age discrimination after losing her job when the show was moved to a prime-time slot.
In a witness statement handed to the tribunal, she said comments by Countryfile’s director Dean Jones “sent a shiver down my spine” when he warned her the high definition could be “crunch time” for her BBC TV career in February 2008.
In the statement, she said: “I do not believe that a man would be asked about his wrinkles nor offered hair dye.
“It was clear to me that this was a reflection of the BBC’s view that women on TV needed to look young.”
O’Reilly was told she would no longer be working on the rural affairs programme in November 2008.
She said she was “devastated” by the news that she and three other female presenters would lose their jobs when the show relaunched in April 2009 with Julia Bradbury, then 38, and Katie Knapman, then 36.
In her witness statement, she said she was not told why she would not have a role on the programme in its new prime-time slot, only that the show was being “refreshed”.
O’Reilly, of Gwynedd, Wales, said: “This news was a huge disappointment. I was of course happy for the programme and its success but felt that this success was linked to the presenters’ connection with the audience.
“By this time I had worked for the programme on a freelance basis for around eight years.
“I had won a number of awards for the programme and had demonstrated my commitment to it by refusing other work.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that I was devastated by this news.”
Three other female Countryfile presenters – Michaela Strachan, 42, Juliet Morris, 52, and Charlotte Smith, 44 – were also dropped from the show, O’Reilly said.
Meanwhile, the show’s main presenter John Craven, 68, and Adam Henson, who was in his 40s, were to be kept on with Ben Fogle, 35, who was given Country Tracks to present.
“The four women who were dropped were part of the Countryfile ‘family’,” O’Reilly’s statement said.
“Viewers trusted us because we had experience, knowledge and credibility. We brought a level of understanding to the programme that I don’t believe exists now.
“The subject matter of the prime-time show hasn’t changed, it’s still very much identifiable as Countryfile, it’s just that overall the presenter line-up is much younger – that’s the most identifiable difference.”
After being told she would not feature in the prime-time show on a Sunday evening by Andrew Thorman, then executive editor of factual learning, Ms O’Reilly said her departure was reported heavily in the national press.
She claimed her relationship with Mr Thorman, who she had known since she started at the BBC when she was 25, became “cool and off-hand, then gradually became very cold”.
O’Reilly claimed she was victimised because she was suspected of being the source of negative media reports about alleged ageism within the BBC.
After she was dropped from Countryfile, O’Reilly said she continued working on Costing The Earth on Radio 4.
When the radio programme was extended, producer Maggie Ayre told O’Reilly she had been allocated a show about old age pensioners.
She said: “I actually laughed, thinking she was joking because so much was being made of the negative newspaper coverage regarding the Countryfile changes and the many accusations from BBC viewers that the corporation was ageist.
“I asked why the programme on old age pensioners and the environment was thought suitable for me, and asked if it was the idea of the executive producer, Andrew Thorman. She didn’t say whose idea it was.”
Her witness statement continued: “I felt they gave me a programme about OAPs deliberately to embarrass me. I thought it was payback because it was believed I had leaked stories about the BBC and ageism.”
During the tribunal, O’Reilly gave evidence about the physical activities she had done as part of her presenting role on Countryfile, including horse-riding, abseiling and kite-surfing.
She said: “Being dropped from the programme, I believe because of my age and sex, really affected my confidence.
“I thought I was going to be labelled as not being sharp, or vital, or even physically fit enough to make the programmes I was primarily involved with, because they were made outdoors in all weathers.
“I knew this was not true but I didn’t want that image to stick, and it was best to distance myself from what others might perceive as failure.”
She added there was nothing in the new version of the show, which now airs at 7pm on Sunday nights, that she could not have done.
The programme is co-presented by Julia Bradbury and Matt Baker, who is currently starring in Strictly Come Dancing.
The BBC1 dancing competition also came under the spotlight over accusations of ageism when the broadcaster replaced judge Arlene Phillips with Alesha Dixon.
O’Reilly said because of the publicity around Strictly, her name was frequently used in articles on the subject.
She said: “Age UK commissioned an ICM poll on ageism – again my name and the other three women from Countryfile were mentioned in the ageism context.”
The tribunal is expected to hear from former BBC controller Jay Hunt, and will look at footage of Ms O’Reilly’s work along with current examples of the show..