A female BBC presenter was told she was not “young” or “pretty” enough to appear on the Countryfile programme when it moved to a prime-time slot, a tribunal heard today.
Charlotte Smith, 46, who worked for 10 years on the rural affairs programme, said she believed she was removed from the flagship BBC show along with three other female presenters “partly” because they were older women.
She said she had become aware of a shortage of presenters on the Countryfile programme towards the end of 2009, following the show’s move from a daytime to a Sunday teatime slot in April that year.
“I laughingly said that I might be available,” she told the central London employment tribunal.
“I was told by a member of the team that while I might be able to do the job I would not pass the prime-time test as I am not young and pretty.”
Under cross-examination, Ms Smith said she did not believe the remark was ironic.
“It was obviously discussed a lot by members of the team. I think it was a reflection of what they thought the BBC more corporately, if you like, wanted,” she said.
Now a freelance presenter working three days a week on programmes such as BBC Radio 4 Farming Today, Ms Smith was giving evidence at an employment tribunal brought by former Midlands Today presenter Miriam O’Reilly, 53, who claims she was a victim of sex and age discrimination by the BBC.
Ms Smith, along with Ms O’Reilly, Michaela Strachan, 42, and Juliet Morris, 45, were dropped from the flagship Countryfile show before it was moved to its prime-time slot, the tribunal has heard.
The BBC has denied claims of age or sex discrimination and has insisted that Ms O’Reilly was dropped because she lacked the necessary peak-time television experience.
Ms Smith told the tribunal she believed the four women had been dropped partly because they were “older women”.
“I do believe that the BBC decided to remove us from Countryfile partly because we are older women.”
She added: “I think they decided not to use us on the prime-time programme partly because some of us do not have a very high profile but also because they wanted that programme to feel and look younger and also because they felt they could not do that with us.”
Ms Smith added that she had been “very happy” working for Countryfile. “I think it is fantastic to be paid for walking around the best parts of Britain and meeting really nice people.”
The mother of two young children told the tribunal: “I do not feel the new presenters are doing anything that I am not capable of.”
Ms Smith’s evidence comes after Ms O’Reilly told the tribunal she had been “devastated” by the news that she was losing her job on the show.
The programme relaunched with Julia Bradbury and former Blue Peter presenter Matt Baker with veteran broadcaster John Craven, 68, kept on for a slot called John Craven investigates.
It was also announced that they would be supported by presenters Adam Henson, James Wong, Jules Hudson and Katie Knapman.
Andrew Thorman, BBC head of rural affairs, giving evidence after Ms Smith, denied sex discrimination or age discrimination by the BBC.
He said: “There was a view that Miriam’s profile was mainly in daytime television and in network radio and that, and that alone, was what influenced the decision.”
He added that in his conversations about changes to the show with BBC1 controller Jay Hunt, they “never once” talked about age or gender.
Cross-examined by Heather Williams QC, for Ms O’Reilly, Mr Thorman insisted Ms Knapman, then 36 and a former Tomorrow’s World presenter, had experience of working on prime time television.
Ms Williams said: “Do you suggest that some prime time presenting six or seven years previously would have rendered her familiar to a prime time audience?”
Mr Thorman responded: “I cannot speak for how people may remember somebody or not. She had prime time experience, yes, it was some time ago, but she had it.”
He said Ellie Harrison, appointed to co-present Country Tracks with Ben Fogle, had been “suggested as a possibility” to present on the Countryfile programme.
Asked by Ms Williams about why presenter Emma Massingale’s name was put forward at one stage, Mr Thorman said: “There were a lot of names flying around, various conversations, some that I passed on, some of which I didn’t. I have absolutely no recall of why I put forward Emma Massingale ... I have no recollection of anything about Emma at all.”
Ms Williams responded: “Perhaps because, like Ellie Harrison, she was youngish, long blonde hair, pretty?”
Mr Thorman: “If she was all of those things I still don’t remember her, I’m afraid.”
Challenged by Ms Williams on the importance of appearance for TV presenters, Mr Thorman said: “To some extent, the appearance of somebody - it is television, and whether we like it or not, that does play a role, but not a significant role, not a role that rules out all the other strengths or weaknesses.”
Ms Williams responded: “There are many men on television who are balding, a little bit overweight or more.
“That is right isn’t it, it is only in relation to women that appearance matters?”
Mr Thorman responded: “I really don’t feel qualified to comment.”
The hearing continues.