BBC & Miriam O’Reilly
Miriam O’Reilly was perfectly prepared to take on her bosses at the BBC and sue them for age discrimination. But when it came to chewing on a witchetty grub in the jungle, that was a different
‘It’s true I was offered the chance to take part in I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here!’ says Miriam, 54.
‘But while it was fun to be asked and my daughter said, “Oh my God, Mum, that’s amazing”, I turned it down.
‘I love a challenge and I would certainly like to test my strength and survival instincts in another TV series if the opportunity came along.
‘It’s just that I’m A Celebrity . . . wasn’t quite up my street. I just didn’t want to put something in my mouth that was still moving. I didn’t want to swallow or crunch on a witchetty grub.’
Being given the chance to appear on I’m A Celebrity . . . was just one of the job offers made to mother-of-two Miriam after she achieved fame and notoriety for daring to take on the BBC in an industrial tribunal a year ago.
Angry at being dropped from the BBC1 rural affairs show Countryfile when it moved to prime time, she argued at the tribunal in London that she had suffered discrimination. Her sex discrimination claim was dismissed, but she won her case for age discrimination and a claim for victimisation.
As a result of her action, she has a three-year, non-exclusive contract with the BBC. As part of that deal, she is about to present a three-part series on the World Service called Heart & Soul: Doing The Right Thing in which she talks to people who — like her — have taken a stand against discrimination and injustice.
But then her tribunal victory in January, she says, was never about getting her own TV career back on track, after bosses on Countryfile decided they needed to freshen up the show by introducing younger presenters such as Julia Bradbury, 41, at the expense of older ones such as Miriam and reporter Juliet Morris, 46.
For the first time, she admits she was convinced a victory against the BBC would benefit future female TV presenters, rather than herself. ‘When I was taking action against the BBC, at times I sat and cried. I think I screamed — and cried — while sitting on a train when I heard I had won the case.
But what really got to me — and went to the nub of my action — was receiving a huge card from 30 women at the BBC.
‘Some well-known presenters, as well as producers and production staff, were thanking me for what I’d done.
‘They had written such things as, “Congratulations on your bravery, we applaud you,” and, “Thank you for changing the landscape for older women at the BBC.”
‘I’d felt so lonely when I was taking on the BBC, so to suddenly get all this support was overwhelming, moving and extremely gratifying because it showed I really had won my case for women, rather than just for myself.
‘When I decided to make my stand, I asked my solicitor and barrister if what I was trying to achieve would make a difference and they said: “Yes, it will, it will be historic.” That was good enough for me.
‘But I was never naive enough to think: “Yippee, my victory is going to make me really popular with TV executives at the BBC and they are going to offer me lots of work.”
‘I never imagined I was suddenly going to become a hugely popular figure there if I won my tribunal against them.
‘You can’t do what I did without upsetting some people. You just can’t. I’m sure there are people at the BBC who feel hurt about what happened.
‘Some of them were cross-examined by my QC, who is a formidable woman.
‘You can’t possibly go through an experience like that and feel magnanimous towards the person who was responsible for you being in that tribunal in the first place. It’s why that story about me being asked to appear on this year’s Strictly Come Dancing was so ridiculous. As if the BBC were going to offer a high-profile opportunity like that to a person like me!
‘I’m being 100 per cent honest when I say this, but I have not experienced any animosity from people at the BBC in the months since I won my case.
‘I remember accidentally bumping into one of those who had spoken out against me at the tribunal and had been cross-examined. Even that conversation was perfectly civil — if a little brief.
‘And even if that person, and others, too, had been nasty towards me it would still have been worth it.
‘I know my stand has made a massive difference to women in broadcasting. You are seeing more older women on prime time, which is fantastic.
‘I’d like to see more older women anchoring programmes, rather than just contributing to them, but hopefully that will happen.
‘The BBC is changing. A friend heard a conversation in the loos there the other day, during which one producer said to the other: “Oh, are you going to this Miriam O’Reilly thing?” It turned out the BBC are running workshops to inform people about treating older people fairly and understanding ageism. So the message is getting through.’
Miriam’s stand was not without its cost. The drop in income as she fell out of favour with the BBC meant she and her husband, PR executive Mark Foster, had to sell their flat in Birmingham and move to a cottage in Aberdovey on the Welsh coast.
There was a health scare, too, as Miriam developed an abnormal heart rhythm caused by the stress of the legal action.
Her tribunal victory, and the estimated £150,000 award that went with it, has improved her financial position — and simply winning the case has put her health back on an even keel.
‘Stress manifests itself in all sorts of ways and while I thought I would be fine and could battle on, the pressure of the case took its toll on me,’ she says.
‘But I saw a consultant a couple of times, I’ve had my heart checked since and I’m fine.’
Miriam — who is mother to journalist James, 25, her son from a previous relationship, and actress Alannah, 21, her daughter with Mark — says she would like to be remembered for the awards she has won making programmes, rather than for her court action.
‘But I accept I will be remembered for the legal action, rather than for anything else. Winning a case like that is a good thing to be remembered for and I’m proud of what I achieved.’
In the first of the Heart & Soul programmes tomorrow, she interviews the joint winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, Leymah Gbowee, who mobilised women across Liberia to help bring an end to the African country’s bitter, 14-year civil war.
Miriam describes Heart & Soul as one of her most fufilling jobs.
She is also presenting the Radio 4 series Pick Of The Week next year and has made her return to TV, co-presenting Crimewatch Roadshow with Rav Wilding on BBC1 Daytime this summer. Arriving as a presenter in the programme’s third series, Miriam helped Crimewatch Roadshow land its highest ratings, with 1.5 million people watching it every weekday. It beat ITV1’s Jeremy Kyle Show.
‘We beat him hands down every morning,’ she says.
‘The programme was consistently successful and I know the BBC were delighted. And so was I.
‘The pressure is on when you come back to the BBC after a case like mine, when people have questioned you. That made what happened with Crimewatch Roadshow gratifying.’
As a key part of a record-breaking show, you might have expected the BBC to immediately elevate Miriam to a role on prime-time television or — at the very least — to commission another series.
Neither has happened. Miriam won’t even know if there’s going to be a series of Crimewatch Roadshow next year, with her as a presenter, until she attends a meeting with TV bosses next month.