John McCririck, the former Channel Four racing pundit – and now losing employment tribunal ‘age discrimination’ litigant – is an acquired taste for most of us. A deliberate eccentric in fashion sense, attitude and the social niceties, over the past three decades he had carved a middling media career, based upon his knowledge of the only thing in life that seem to get him up in the mornings – the sport of horse racing.
In recent times – step forward the likes of Miriam O’Reilly (former presenter on the BBC’s Countryfile) and former newscaster Selina Scott – there has been a sizeable campaign running complaining about the media’s age discrimination against on-screen females beyond a certain age. The kernel of it is anger at the myth/notion that television – or rather, the preference of its employers and viewers – requires young female flesh and that, when age begins to take its toll, even the most competent female presenters are side-lined or elbowed out in favour of younger and less-qualified counterparts.
The anachronism readily identified is that this does not happen to men. Somehow for them, the development of ‘salt & pepper’ hair and the odd bag or wrinkle seems not only to increase their apparent gravitas but prolong their career by fifteen to twenty years. The syndrome of programmes being fronted by a ‘middle-aged-uncle’ imaged male and a variation on the ‘young-auto-cutie Barbie doll’ female is so prevalent in the UK that it defies cliché and parody.
In McCririck’s case, so far so good. Nobody would ever suggest that he was given his first gig as a racing pundit because of his looks.
As to the issue of competence, there are potential fair grounds for complaint in all ‘on-screen’ age discrimination actions. Surely a presenter who has ten, or twenty, years of experience at their trade is going to be competent – they would not have got the job, or retained it that long, if they were not. Age and experience breed confidence and professionalism.
Scott and O’Reilly would argue, with a degree of logic, that women of forty-plus (with twenty years’ experience behind them) must be as, or more, competent that a twenty-year-old girl taking her first steps in front of the camera. But therein lies the key – and the flaw – to their argument.
The media world – of television, advertising and acting – is a jungle in which subjectivity is king. Like it or loathe it, there is no two ways about it. For good or ill, every day of the week, someone somewhere in power is making a career-changing decision for someone else – possibly on a whim, possibly after a long liquid lunch, possibly regretfully in the cold light of day. The decision in question could pluck them from obscurity and make then an overnight star, but it could equally consign them to history. It could gift a thirty-year high-profile and lucrative career and – just as easily – it could hand out a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
That’s the media business and that’s life.
Of course, if competence was the only yardstick, perhaps technically Selina Scott and/or Miriam O’Reilly could, if they so wished, have soldiered on without criticism until they were sixty, or seventy … or until senility at last robbed them of their ability to do their job properly.
This was the same argument that McCririck was deploying – “I’m still bloody good at my job, therefore you have no right to sack me”.
But hold on a minute. It isn’t up to a presenter to decide whether or they’re competent to continue, or whether they’re the right person for a particular job, or indeed whether they’re still the right person to continue filling a specific role.
If that was the case, our screens would remain chockful with the likes of Frank Bough, Michael Aspel, Bruce Forsyth, Anna Ford (to name but four) and innumerable comedians still peddling their 1970s shows thirty years on … all of them, naturally, having decided that they were too competent to be sacked.
Times change. So do fashions, styles of programming, musical tastes and the infrastructure of the businesses in which they are presented to the public.
One year The X-Factor is omni-present in the nation’s consciousness and top of the ratings – then, six or seven years later, it is sliding down the charts and on the way out. Most probably because the viewing audience has become fed up with the same old faces on the judging panel, trotting out the same old drivel. Nothing remains forever. Things evolve. Stuff happens. Get over it …
The bottom line, of course, is that the media thrives on youth, verve and good looks.
It’s probably the reason that ladies like Mirian O’Reilly, Selina Scott, Anneka Rice [ad nauseam] got their breaks in the first place. But they cannot then pull up the ladder behind them and demand a highly-lucrative forty-year career in the spotlight as a matter of right.
Sometimes, for factors that nobody can identify, the camera or audience takes to one person … and falls out of love with another. The media is brutal. You’re only as good as last week’s ratings. This is nothing to do with age discrimination, nor is it to do with looks per se (it couldn’t be – how else would McCririck have ever got a job?).
People who get to whatever-is-regarded-as-the-top in the media should just count their lucky stars and be grateful. It’s a heady existence while it lasts. The problem these older presenters complain of isn’t to do with discrimination at all – it’s to do with the human trait that we all get used to the standards of life that we acquire, whether through hard work and talent or sheer good fortune … and, when the time comes (as it always does), we find it hard to give them up.