One of the most senior female TV executives in Britain today launched an emotional rebuttal of “utterly offensive” claims that she “hates” women.
Jay Hunt, the former BBC One controller, insisted she had promoted a number of women in their 40s and older into prime time TV slots during her tenure at the channel.
She described claims that four women in their 40s and 50s had been dropped from the BBC Countryfile programme because she “hated women” as “entirely and categorically” untrue.
Asked about the claim, she said: “It is entirely and categorically untrue, also profoundly distressing and utterly offensive on every level.
“I am a 43-year-old woman, I have had my own difficulties surviving this industry.
“For that reason, the last thing I would ever do is ever discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender or age. Nothing could be further from my mind.
“The only small comfort I have taken from such a distressing thing as this is the number of women both behind the camera and in front of the camera who have got in touch with me, sympathetic and outraged that I have had to sit there and listen to such a hateful thing.”
Ms Hunt was speaking at the tribunal hearing brought by former BBC Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly, 53, who was dropped by the programme before it moved to a prime time Sunday evening slot in April 2009.
The BBC has denied a claim of sex and age discrimination by Ms O’Reilly, who was also a former Midlands Today presenter, and has said she was dropped from the flagship programme because she lacked the necessary prime time television experience.
Ms Hunt said she rejected Ms O’Reilly’s claim that the requirement for presenters of the revamped Countryfile to have prime time audience appeal was discriminatory on the grounds of age and sex as it placed women over the age of 45 at a disadvantage.
“I do not believe this is so,” she said.
She said when she joined as BBC One controller in May 2008, she had been committed to improving “diversity” on screen to ensure that it better reflected the audience it served.
The BBC One audience is predominantly over 55 and female, she said, and it was “important” and “entirely appropriate” that they use “older female authority figures” in peak time.
Notable examples, she said of her work to boost older women were those of Anne Robinson, brought back to Watchdog in its “peak” and actor Sheila Hancock to the Saturday night hit show Over the Rainbow, she said.
Women in their 40s and above given programmes under her tenure she said included Rosa Monckton, 57, Rosie Boycott, 59, and Angela Hartnett, 42.
She added that under her tenure she had not just given older women their first breaks but boosted those already established such as the newscaster Fiona Bruce.
Those women over 45 featuring on the BBC prime time schedules include Joanna Lumley, Sue Barker, Mariella Frostrup and Maureen Lipman, she told the tribunal.
“It is not true that women in their 40s (and above) do not have a role in the Channel, they have an extremely important role in the Channel.
“I have nurtured many of them in my time in the role,” she said.
“Prime time audience appeal is not, as Ms O’Reilly seems to think, based on age or sex,” Ms Hunt said.
She added that she believed Ms O’Reilly was an “extremely talented” news reporter but her strengths lay as a “straight news reporter” rather than the “immersive” demands envisaged in the new revamped Countryfile programme.
She later told the tribunal that since the changes brought in to the programme the audience had leaped to an average of 5.4 million compared to 1.8 million in its daytime slot. Last Sunday, there was an audience of 7.9 million, she said.
Three other female presenters Michaela Strachan, 42, Juliet Morris, 45, and Charlotte Smith, 46, were also dropped from the show along with Ms O’Reilly in advance of its move to a prime time slot.
Ms O’Reilly told the tribunal she was “devastated” when she was told the news that she would no longer be working on the flagship rural affairs programme in November 2008.
In her evidence to the tribunal, Ms O’Reilly has claimed she was warned to be “careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in” nine months before she was dropped.
Ms O’Reilly has also claimed Ms Morris had agreed it was ageist for the BBC to drop the four women.
Giving evidence, Ms O’Reilly claimed: “I had a conversation with Juliet Morris. She said the decision was ageist and it was made because Jay Hunt hated women.”
In a statement issued outside the tribunal, Ms Morris denied the charge.
“I would like to make it clear that I have no recollection of ever having said that Jay Hunt hates women or that I was dropped from Countryfile on account of my age. Furthermore, I do not believe this to be the case,” she said.
The hearing was adjourned until tomorrow when Ms Hunt, who is currently on gardening leave from the BBC before taking up a senior role at Channel 4 in January, will continue to give evidence.