Countryfile presenter subjected to unlawful age (but not sex) discrimination by the BBC.
An Employment Tribunal has held that 51-year-old TV and radio presenter, Miriam O’Reilly, suffered unlawful age discrimination when the BBC removed her from its “Countryfile” programme.
In a case where the actual comparators relied upon by the Claimant included Ben Fogle (Animal Park), Matt Baker (former Blue Peter presenter) and John Craven (Newsround) the Tribunal held that the Claimant’s age had been a “significant factor” in the BBC's decision to replace her.
The Tribunal stated that although the BBC’s wish to appeal to younger viewers was a legitimate aim, choosing younger presenters in order to do so had not been shown to be an appropriate means of achieving that aim. Even if that had been established, the Tribunal concluded that to do away with older presenters simply to pander to the assumed prejudice of some younger viewers would not be a proportionate means of achieving the aim.
The Claimant had brought her claim on the basis that she had been discriminated against on the grounds of a combination of age and sex. The BBC ran an interesting argument in response that the “old law” that applies to pre-Equality Act 2010 cases does not afford any protection against discrimination on combined grounds. The Tribunal unsurprisingly rejected this argument and confirmed its view that protection from discrimination on the grounds of “combined characteristics” is available under the “old law” because it is not necessary for any one protected characteristic to be the sole, or even the principle reason, for dismissal.
Unlike the other protected characteristics, both direct and indirect age discrimination can be objectively justified under the Equality Act 2010. The wording of the justification test is the same for both. The treatment or provision, criterion or practice (PCP) should be "a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim".
It is notable that the Tribunal was so ready to reject the idea that the BBC could justify replacing older presenters with younger ones to help achieve the legitimate aim of attracting a wider audience. The case is a further example of the limited scope of the objective justification defence and in most cases employers should view it as a last resort in the defence of a tribunal claim as opposed to a useful basis on which to discriminate.
In 2008, the BBC decided to move Countryfile to a primetime slot on Sunday evenings in the hope that it would attract a larger audience. Some of the Countryfile presenters, including Ms O'Reilly (aged 51), Juliette Morris (43) and Charlotte Smith (44) were not retained on the primetime show. Tom Heap (43) was also informed that he was no longer required on the show, although he returned at a later date. John Craven (68), who had presented Countryfile since 1989, was retained. The new main presenters were Matt Baker (30) and Julia Bradbury (38).