Bell warns of creeping ageism in newsrooms

Bell: returned to newsroom after break, but not to stay

Former BBC foreign correspondent Martin Bell has warned the TV news industry against "culling" journalists who are over 40 because of a growing obsession with youth.

Bell, whose second series of special reports on the famine in Malawi were broadcast on 5 News this week, said that when he worked at the BBC in the Nineties, reporters in the over-50s bracket had been the target of a "cull".

"It appears the acceptable age is coming down and soon there will probably be a cull of the over-40s, " said Bell, who is currently a special ambassador for Unicef.

"TV news organisations are so careful about reflecting the country’s ethnic mix, but they seem more prejudiced than ever about age. TV reporters are only lasting until their 40s – what do they do for the rest of their careers?"

Bell, who was 56 when he left the BBC to stand as MP for Tatton, welcomed the "lively debate" prompted by Chris Shaw, Channel 5’s controller of news and current affairs, about the "untapped talents" of older journalists.

"It’s wasteful that journalists are discarded before their time," said Bell, who added that he was criticised as being "far too young to be on TV" when he started his BBC career 40 years ago.

"There are a lot of gifted reporters who have been pushed out because they are older, which is a shame because they have skills and abilities that can only be gained by experience, although they can also be more difficult to handle." Shaw signalled that he would be interested in signing up seasoned journalists such as Kate Adie and former ITV political editor Michael Brunson following Bell’s successful return to TV journalism after five years in June.

Bell said the follow-up reports he did last month to coincide with the Johannesburg World Summit, were a return to "old-fashioned" reporting: "I had time to work on the reports without being disturbed by having to make deadlines for the 24-hour news channel and having to do two-way live interviews in between. There was no glitz, no graphics – it was the way I started."

But the veteran reporter, who covered the war in Bosnia, said he was not planning to return to TV reporting on a more permanent basis.

"I wouldn’t want the full-time roadblock hassle of world reporting any more," said Bell. "I did 35 years of that and I think that’s enough – what that kind of job really needs is an old head on a young pair of shoulders."

By Julie Tomlin

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