Miriam O’Reilly v the BBC: Round Two

A little over a year and a half ago, an employment tribunal ruled that Miriam O’Reilly, a former presenter on the BBC’s Countryfile programme who had been replaced by a younger woman, had been the victim of age discrimination. The BBC disputed the claim (even though their attempt to settle out of court made it pretty obvious they knew all along they were bang to rights), but did eventually concede that they had been in the wrong. They issued a public and personal apology to Ms O’Reilly, and offered her a further employment contract, although only one actual job – a stint co-presenting the weekday daytime show Crimewatch Roadshow – resulted. Earlier this year, Ms O’Reilly announced that she was leaving the BBC to ‘pursue other projects’ in an apparently amicable split, although subsequent comments suggested her decision to depart may not have been as amicable as it first appeared:

from certain individuals there was a seething resentment that I had won the case, executives who were really angry that I had challenged them and won resoundingly. They didn’t like it that a woman had stood up to them. There was a huge amount of resentment there.

That suggestion has now been confirmed by a formal letter of complaint Ms O’Reilly sent to a senior executive at the BBC, excerpts of which are reprinted in a Guardian article. The most shocking part of the letter is the revelation of the way she was treated by a member of the production team while she was working on Crimewatch Roadshow.

On one occasion he was cueing me as ‘Hayley’ during a live broadcast and laughing. When we came off air and I asked him why, he said it was because I reminded him of Hayley Cropper, a transsexual character in Coronation Street. I objected but the following day a picture of Hayley Cropper had been stuck to my sound pack for all to see. He derisively said he did not want me to eat with the team in the evening as I had to be ‘fresh’ to remember my lines in the morning.

So far as I can see (and based purely on the extracts in The Guardian, which of course represent only part of one account of events), the comments and behaviour described seem to have been:

  • personally insulting to Ms O’Reilly;

  • sexist, in the way they imply a woman’s physical appearance is an acceptable subject for discussion/ ridicule amongst her professional colleagues;

  • transphobic, in the way they imply it is acceptable to mock someone on the basis of their perceived ability to ‘pass‘ for a particular gender;

  • potentially ageist, if the suggestion that O’Reilly had to be ‘fresh’ implies that she is less able to cope with the rigours of working and socialising than younger colleagues;

  • unprofessional (sticking an insulting photo to someone’s equipment is only marginally less juvenile than sticking a note to their back reading ‘Kick Me’); and, as O’Reilly herself notes,

  • seemingly calculated to undermine her confidence.

If the behaviour and comments had ceased when Ms O’Reilly objected, it might be possible to dismiss this as an attempted joke – an inappropriate, insulting and offensive ‘joke’, but an attempt at humour nonetheless. The fact that the behaviour continued even after the perpetrator knew that Ms O’Reilly objected makes this seem more like bullying: a concerted effort to undermine her position by mocking her directly, weakening her confidence, and seeking to ostracise her from her colleagues.

I don’t really know anything about employment law, but if Ms O’Reilly was a friend of mine and I had heard about this from her directly I would be encouraging her to take advice from someone who does. The behaviour she reports, together with her account of the way it made her feel and the actions she took as a result, seems to me precisely to describe a situation in which she ‘felt forced to leave because of […] bullying, harassment or violence […] by work colleagues’: the quotation is taken from a government website outlining the concept of constructive dismissal. It may be that the behaviour was not serious enough to meet the criteria for constructive dismissal, and it may be that she wouldn’t be able to prove her account of events, or to demonstrate that she had made efforts to overcome the problem by liaising with her employer. It may also be, of course, that I’ve completely misunderstood the concept – but this still seems, to my layman’s eye, a lot like constructive dismissal.

I am not one of those people who bleat interminably about how awful the BBC are, and seize on every negative story with ill-disguised glee. I don’t accuse them of massive, systematic bias every time they broadcast something I happen to disagree with. I’m not so simple-minded as to think that, because I pay the licence fee, this means the BBC should only broadcast programmes I personally enjoy. I’m smart enough to work out that if everyone funds the BBC then everyone has to find something they want, and self-aware enough to realise that a good proportion of that is not going to be to my taste. Let other people have their ‘Thought for the day’ and their One Show so long as I keep getting my News Quiz and my Only Connect.

As I say, I do not lightly criticise the BBC, or opportunistically raise the manner of its funding. But:

  • I object to their apparently concerted efforts to keep clever, informative and entertaining people off my TV screen because of their mistaken assumption that I’ll be overwhelmed with disgust if I happen to catch a glimpse of an older female face;

  • I am appalled that they’ve apparently been using my money to foster a climate in which someone can speak and behave in the way Miriam O’Reilly has alleged, but it’s the victim of the juvenile, offensive and insulting conduct who feels compelled to resign; and

  • I am deeply disappointed that they’ve apparently failed to prevent a proven victim of discrimination from being victimised for a second time.

Whenever a story like this breaks, there are always those who point out that there are a lot of women employed at the BBC in backstage and management roles, many at senior levels. It seems this is supposed to reassure us, to make us think that the stories we get to hear about are exceptional, and that things in general aren’t as bad the reported cases make it seem. I’ll be honest, though, it’s actually starting to have the opposite effect on me. I’m starting to wonder how poisonous the climate must be if even senior women at the BBC aren’t able or willing to stop this kind of thing from happening to their on-screen colleagues.

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