IN early 2008, when she was 56, presenter Selina Scott complained that television was failing to feature women of her age: ‘How many women are there on mainstream current affairs programmes who are over 50?’
Later that same year, Ms Scott claimed that Channel Five had reneged on a job offer; she sued the station for age discrimination and collected a reported settlement of £250,000.
Scott naturally received voluble support from other media matrons. In a gloriously un-PC article, the late Michael Winner witheringly characterised the senescent sisterhood as ‘a chorus of ageing hoofers . . . why should they feel they have a right to be thrust upon viewers regardless of their talent or their appearance?’
Surprisingly, mischievous Michael did not adapt his advertising catchphrase of the time and exhort displeased Selina to ‘calm down, dear’. But never one to understate his case, Winner waspishly went on: ‘I like these old TV birds, the ones I know. I just think it’s pathetic that they want to force themselves on the poor viewers solely on the grounds that they’re old and need a comeback.’
Twelve years on, no newspaper would dare publish such a provocative polemic. Which is unfortunate, because it means that this week there has been no mainstream mockery of Harriet Harman, whose current priority is that the 2010 Equalities Act should enable ageing female broadcasters to sue for ‘double discrimination’.
In an interview given to Radio Times, Harman complained: ‘It’s telling that while Ofcom publishes the data on the percentage of men and women at each level of broadcasting, and that of older broadcasters, they don’t publish the data on older men compared with older women. They should, as it would show that women are pushed out when they are over 50.’
Are they really? Highlighting the forthcoming change of guard at BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Harriet harrumphed that radio ‘is losing two of its all too few older women’. Yet Grande Dame Jenni Murray (70) has voluntarily decided that after 33 years ‘it’s time to move on’, while her sidekick for the past 13 years, Jane Garvey (56), is being gifted her own show on the station.
Two middle-class matriarchs calling time after a combined half-century preaching the feminist faith is hardly an example of how, according to Harriet Harman, ‘somehow the public needs to be protected from hearing, let alone seeing, an older woman’.
She also perpetuates the myth of mass male longevity: ‘As men grow older, their greater experience is acknowledged.’ But in an ultra-competitive industry, the vast majority of men who make it on to TV and radio do not enjoy jobs for life and most have a relatively short time in the sun. The few recent exceptions, such as Andrew Neil, David Dimbleby and John Humphrys, are unlikely to be emulated in an increasingly feminised field.
Despite which, halfwit Hattie makes the ludicrous claim that in broadcasting ‘once a woman’s childbearing and childrearing years are behind her . . . older women are as rare as hen’s teeth’.
One wonders whether the Harman household contains a television or radio. If she turns them on, Harriet will discover news, politics and current affairs programmes hosted throughout the day by prominent women of a certain age, including Kay Burley (59), Jo Coburn (52), Sarah Montague (54), Fiona Bruce (56), Emily Maitlis (50) and Kirsty Wark (65), to name just six.
Yet harebrained Harman’s unfounded assertion that ‘women in broadcasting . . . face a cull at 50’ is mindlessly parroted by others. For example, when featured by the Guardian earlier this year, Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby (44) provided the headline quote: ‘I’m going to have to get off telly soon, because I’ll be too old.’
We can but hope. But more than likely, Rigby will maintain her television career for many years to come, as will the phalanx of fifty-something political presenters identified throughout this item – all female, but distinctly lacking in social conservatism.
Don’t expect Harriet Harman to complain about that iniquitous imbalance.