Rose Neill’s abrupt and very mysterious departure from BBC NI last week raises more questions than answers. Once again, we struggle with the rationale as a face and voice beamed by the public service broadcaster into our homes daily for decades suddenly disappears as if kidnapped.
Did she lose grip on herself overnight and start to ramble about crochet on a late-night bulletin and have to be put down quickly like an old terrier before the kids woke in the morning? (“Don’t worry, dears. She’s gone to a better home ...”)
Or was she on a slow decline into withering old age, stricken by absent-mindedness and tiny errors, and she’s been removed from all those cables and wires for her own safety?
For years, her reassuring air of quiet authority epitomised the best in broadcasting — professional, friendly and gimmick-free.
She was adept at making something that’s actually very tricky, look very easy. No ‘cheeky-chappy’ guff, no girly giggling or smoochy gazes into the camera — just the news. That she looked flawless was weirdly neither here nor there.
Blessedly without that honking Common Room moose-call ‘voice’ of so many male presenters — and some female — her clear diction ensured she never intruded in the story and that’s something very few of them pull off.
So why let such an asset go after 24 years?
Though it’s understood Rose had reached the end of her current deal with the BBC, the Corporation never discusses individual contracts, er, unless it’s someone new, of course, in which case they’re dragged through every media outlet there is to ‘up their profile’.
Rose may have had an inkling what was on the way. Back in 2002, she was removed from Newsline (which she’d earlier been parachuted in to rescue, and did so) and moved to lower-profile bulletins.
Could it be that she is a local victim of the ‘yoof culture’ which seems to hold all TV execs in thrall? Could it be — even at 50 — she didn’t fit the identikit young, glossy image required?
Today, the ‘classic’ news template is the older man and the younger woman. Never older woman, younger man. Or, heaven forbid, two old battleaxes. Two blokes occasionally but only on the ahem understanding that there is absolutely no sexual chemistry between them whatsoever.
The Beeb, of course, will be indignant at the implication of being both sexist and ageist but women getting a raw deal at the BBC is not news.
Remember Moira Stuart? She got the shove at 58. Even the original news babe, Selina Scott, alleged earlier this year that the BBC has a habit of excluding older women, and is now suing Channel Five over ageism.
There is certainly a TV tradition of giving women newscasters the heave-ho once the ‘bloom’ has gone. Like Stuart, the careers of Anna Ford, Angela Rippon and Sue Lawley, to take three high-profile examples, were sidetracked or sidelined.
Not for them the opportunity to grow into broadcasting legends like Reggie and Sirs Robin, David, Alisdair and Trevor. The dictum still seems to be that men acquire ‘character’ and ‘gravitas’ as they grow older; women just acquire crow’s feet.
They end up on the Sunday morning shift — or Desert Island Discs, if they’re lucky.
And, of course, the irony is that Rose Neill is much closer to the actual demographic of BBC NI news viewers since those programmes are watched mainly by the middle-aged and older. Young people are too busy watching Hollyoaks and surfboarding or whatever to be bothered watching Peter Robinson being grilled about spending allocations.
Still, for the Beeb, axing a familiar face once every two years seems to be what passes for ‘change’ in the Corporation here. It’s always odd who goes, yet even odder who survives.
But most of us want familiarity and continuity. As revealed recently in government statistics, OAPs now outnumber under-16s. Isn’t it about time that TV began catching up with new realities and stopped wanting to ‘get down with the kids’? If that’s what it’s all about.
And if it isn’t what it’s all about, the Beeb really should stop pretending it’s the Vatican and stop mumbling ‘No Comment’ when it finds that it’s its own decisions that are making the news.
Ageism and sexism at the BBC? Can’t wait for that on the Nolan Show.