Former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly credits her Irish upbringing for giving her the courage to take on the BBC in a lone battle over ageism. While her victory was an inspiration for women in television, there’s no fairytale ending, says Julia Molony.
Perhaps it's not quite appropriate that my first thought on meeting Miriam O'Reilly, the woman who recently defeated the BBC in a landmark ageism case, is that she looks so, well, young for her 54 years.
After all, it's precisely this kind of instant size-up judgment that O'Reilly, the Irish woman who has just seen down the might of Auntie, has become famous for fighting.
But as she stands in front of me, full of bubbly energy in skinny jeans and with a pixie crop, the idea that her age would be a handicap seems absurd.
Since her win, O'Reilly has become something of a media heroine. The ageism issue had been rumbling around for a long time before her, of course, as a receiving line of women over a certain age disappeared off our screens. Through Arlene Phillips to Moira Stuart, women who were professionally well into their stride became suddenly invisible, while their male counterparts (yes, Bruce Forsyth, that means you) sailed on long after they had been issued their bus pass.
When Miriam was dropped from Countryfile at age 51, she refused to keep quiet. Quite the opposite, in fact, she kicked up a fuss that ended in an employment tribunal, where the BBC was found guilty not just of ageism, but of victimisation.
This second part is important, because Miriam's account of how things played out with the BBC after the Countryfile affair might stretch credulity had her version not been upheld by three tribunal judges.
“I was told by a friend, a senior producer, to keep my head down, not to make a fuss because it won't help, it will only damage you,” she says. “Work started to be withdrawn, programmes that I had been commissioned to do were pulled ... I was no longer welcome. The work was withdrawn. I ended up, after 25 years, with no work at all to do.”
Her career it seems, was quietly sabotaged by the organisation as punishment for refusing to disappear quietly from Countryfile.
It's a good story. And as a journalist, she knows it. Now that the worst of the horror it wreaked upon her personal and professional life has safely dissipated, she seems to allow herself, even just a touch, to savour the drama of it in the telling.
The final straw, she explains, with a knowing sense of narrative, came when yet another programme she was just about to start work on about Wootton Bassett, was pulled at the last minute.
“It was at that point when I knew something was terribly wrong, that my career was over ... It only takes a couple of phone calls to end someone's career. And I had been warned to stop complaining about ageism.”
She's an arresting mix of chic and chipper today. Miriam's speaking voice is rounded into winning, caramel, tones. Her milky colouring and a slight rolling of her ‘Rs’ give away her Irishness as does her confiding manner — she's got that skill of establishing intimacy in an instant, which perhaps has played into her success as a broadcaster.
She doesn't seem, on first impressions, like the combative type. But standing up for herself she says, was part of her upbringing as the young daughter of Irish immigrants living in Birmingham during the days of the Birmingham Six.
“Oh, God, I think it's totally because I'm Irish that I did this,” she says. “You're a fighter. When you come to a country with nothing, and you want to make something of yourself, you want a good reason for why it's been taken away.”
O'Reilly's parents, in the fashion of many immigrants of their generation, arrived in the UK empty-handed and in pursuit of a better life. She has described her father, a butcher, as the hardest working man she's ever known and the inspiration behind her own firm belief in the virtue of grit. Certainly, he showed his kids how to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. From relatively humble beginnings, they've broken into the highest professional circles. Miriam as a BBC journalist and her sister Kaite as an award-winning playwright.
It was through her mother, she reckons, that she inherited her sense of justice. “When I was a kid, if something happened, there was a bully at school who was always picking on us, my mother would say ‘What are you going to do about it?' The message was, nobody else was going to come and do it for you, if you didn't stand up for yourself. I learnt that very early on.”
When she lost her job on Countryfile, her mother's response was the same. “She said, ‘What are you going to do about it?' and I said ‘I'm not sure yet'. When she passed away — she passed away two months after that, and that was in 2009 — her words kept ringing in my ears. That I had to do something about it.”
In a way, Miriam has been scrapping against the powers that be since the beginning. She worked her way up from the bottom in broadcasting, starting in newspapers and then becoming a news producer in local radio before becoming a producer and reporter in regional television.
“When I first joined the BBC, I remember somebody saying to me, ‘Oh you'll never
present because you are too obviously Irish.' And, of course, I did end up presenting. If those barriers are put in your way, you find a way to get over them. That was always my response to [being told] No. I'd think, I'm going to work even harder.” When she found herself a single mother in her 20s, having broken up with the father of her baby son, her response was the same. She put her head down and carried on again.
“It wasn't a situation that I was happy to be in, but it was a situation that I was in, so I was determined to make the best of it. My mother and sister were great looking after James. I bought a house and I felt really good about myself that I was able to look after my son well.”
She opted to take the early shifts, leaving home at 5am so that she could be home with James by lunchtime. In later years, she got married and had a second child, her now-grown-up daughter Alannah, with her husband Mark. But that domestic harmony was put under strain when she took her case against the BBC.
“I was very difficult to live with, I think,” she says, agreeing that the process tested her relationship. “I think he just always gave me a lot of space,” she says. “And because he's a PR executive, he gave me really great advice.”
Miriam and Mark first met in college in 1978. “We were just friends at first, he was too handsome, and I don't really go for handsome men. My mother said he looked like Tyrone Power,” she says, looking proud.
They drifted apart after college. “We saw each other over the years. By the time Mark came to work at the BBC in Birmingham, my relationship had broken up and I had James on my own. Things just grew from there,” she says.
“I knew I'd nabbed him the morning he asked me for change for the coffee machine, because he came running along the corridor towards me, and I thought, ‘yes, I've got him.'.”
“He likes my spirit,” she says of what keeps them together. “No relationship is great all of the time,” she says, with real-world frankness that seems to be part of her character. “And we've been through difficult times like everybody else. It doesn't mean you stop loving the person, it just means you are not gelling as you once did. But I just think it's understanding that actually it will pass and that you will grow together through it.”
It's hard to dispute the fact that Miriam's treatment was shockingly unfair. She still smarts about it, even now, still seems a little daunted by the risk she had to take to pursue her case. For one thing, her legal fees mounted sharply, coming in at just under £400,000.
She had been advised by her lawyers that she had a 55% chance of a win, but the stakes were still high. After all, this was an unprecedented case. There could be no predicting the outcome.
“Television is most people's window to the world,” she says now. “And if you don't have older women there it's as if we don't exist, as if we're not contributing. How can people respect older women, if they're not visible ... ? Many have brought up families, learned from that. Have tremendous wisdom with their years, as well as their intelligence, and all the things that older women are capable of contributing. If that's not visible on television, then honestly it has an impact on society.”
But for Miriam, of course, no matter how well preserved now at 54, this issue is personal too. One that is worth more than the three-year, non-exclusive contract with the BBC that was the outcome of her case.
“I don't want to be pushed to one side just because of my age,” she says, her voice rising. “I don't want to have to go under the knife to be acceptable. I don't want to have a facelift to go on television. Look at Anne Robinson — she's got no more skin left to stretch. Is that what women have to do to be acceptable? What kind of message is that sending out to younger women?”
Before she ended up in the tribunal, the BBC offered her “a large amount of money” to settle the case.
“But I'd have to sign a confidentiality clause,” she says, her voice rising at the memory. By that time, she'd got the bit between her teeth and decided, despite the huge personal risk, to carry on.
“I'm a journalist for God's sake. So I'd have to sign a gagging clause, and not speak about it, as though it didn't exist!? I've worked for 25 years at the BBC to uphold freedom of speech. I went home and I said to my husband — this is a large amount of money, I could take it. But I really can't ... when I think about it I just couldn't do it. I couldn't have lived with myself. I couldn't have lived with myself if I didn't fight it.”
Having the reassurance of leading a principled fight was some comfort, but did little to mitigate the feeling of isolation — the awareness that she was totally alone. At an event not long ago “a very well known, high-profile TV presenter, a woman, came over to me and gave me a really big hug and said, ‘I just want to thank you for helping me keep my job longer' — this woman is a household name — ‘but I can't let people see me talking to you. I feel really bad about that, but I can't ... ' That said it all. I was totally on my own fighting that. I was totally alone.”
It's true too, though the win was satisfying, that as yet she hasn't quite secured her happy ending.
“I was on a very high-profile daytime show, and I'm not doing half as much TV work now as I was then. I'm not doing work that was equal to what I was doing, before I was dropped,” she says.
Still, it seems unlikely opportunities will be scant. This year, she was named in The Guardian as one of the 100 most inspirational women in the world. With that sort of spirit, it's unlikely she'll be defeated. “I'm ever hopeful,” she says.