Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Media's fifty shades of grey old men is massive turn-off

Oldies but goodies: we need more of the likes of Rip Off Britain presenters and Mary Beard rather than pompous old men
Oldies but goodies: we need more of the likes of Rip Off Britain presenters and Mary Beard rather than pompous old men

The media is no country for old women. We know this. The real snaggle-toothed old hags have virtually no chance of a look-in and even the ones who pluck the hairs out of their warts and zap their wrinkles with Botox face eventual extermination.

The odd older woman, like the classicist Mary Beard, makes it on to our screens, but they tend to be the exception that proves the rule.

Beard is a one-off that actually reinforces the status quo: the wacky old pantomime dame who knows about ancient Rome. You won't ever see her like presenting the news, or Dancing on Ice, will you?

Now deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman has written to leading broadcasters, asking how many women over 60 they employ.

She says there needs to be more effort in addressing the combination of ageism and sexism that older women face and she's right, of course. It isn't fair that so many become either invisible, or the targets of hatred and vicious mockery.

But it will take a lot more than Harriet Harperson writing earnest, schoolmarmish, tut-tut letters to media bosses to change that.

The systemic erasure of older women from the screen has its roots in a society that continues to define and fundamentally evaluate girls and women by how hot they are, regardless of their other attributes and abilities. So we shouldn't be surprised that post-menopausal women get the boot in this way. It's sexist logic and it will take a revolution to reverse it. They get the boot because they ain't got the booty.

The flipside of all this, of course, is the treatment of old men in the media and public life. Especially in Northern Ireland, where the Pompous Old Fogey reigns supreme, often followed by a coterie of pompous young fogeys in training.

Far from being an endangered species, the place is overrun with them. Boring old men in suits indulging the sound of their boring old voices.

It's like being stifled by a colourless gas: a feeling of numbness and disorientation creeps over you, before deadly tedium sets in and finishes you off.

Now, before I'm accused of an inverted form of the very sexism and ageism I've taken a stand against, and a hit-squad of gun-totin' male geriatrics is dispatched to see to my knee-caps, let me say that I am not including all older male public figures, presenters and commentators in this critique.

There are some older male voices that I listen out for because they speak with authority, warmth, elegance, or insight. And then there are some – the embittered old armchair generals, the mouthy haters, the irascible buffoons – that make me want to crawl under the nearest table, cover my ears and pray for (selective) armageddon.

It's not that women in public life can't be equally painful and often at a higher pitch. But we hear an awful lot less from them.

Northern Ireland is dominated by what I think of as the grey male commentariat: an amorphous mass of older men with opinions, many of whom have the boundless arrogance and complacency that only comes with years of droning on.

The amazing thing is that they never seem to be afflicted by self-doubt. These guys come armoured with an overweening sense of their own importance and often their critical faculties have become blunted because no one has ever told them when they're talking rubbish.

I remember one old trade unionist whose jaw literally dropped when I interrupted him live on air; he just could not believe that this young chit (they always think you're about 15, even when you're twice that, or more) had dared to break the flow of his lengthy diatribe.

On another occasion, a senior journalist asked me to type up the script of his newspaper review for him. Why? Presumably because I was female and naturally more attuned to the secretarial arts than him.

I refused and forever after this old gentleman regarded me with a mixture of fear and loathing, like a fierce bitch who might bite his leg off.

The supremacy of this jowly junta means that public discourse is dominated by the voices of privileged old men. And that comes at a price not only for women, but for younger men, too, whose views and opinions routinely go unheard.

The Pompous Old Fogeys have more than had their day. Isn't it time for them to collect their pipes and slippers and shuffle off into the sunset?

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