Are you free, Mr Humphrys? Not free, it seems, to make light of pay differentials within the BBC, at least not without incurring the predictable wrath of the sisterhood.
It was at 4am on Monday 8 January, ahead of Carrie Gracie joining him as stand-in presenter of the Today show, that John Humphrys sinned: off-air, he teased a discomfited Jon Sopel over Gracie having just publicly resigned as China editor, her flouncing out being at least partly because Sopel, the North American counterpart, is paid substantially more for being the Beeb’s chief Trump-basher. Surreptitiously recorded and leaked several days later, Humphrys’s private comments, which he defends as ‘silly banter between old mates’, were consistent with his public persona as an irreverent grouch; the obscenity of his stratospheric pay – revealed in 2017 to exceed £600,000 – is just slightly mitigated by the cantankerous Humphrys being largely uncontaminated by the groupthink which infects so much of the BBC’s news and current affairs output.
If he did not already know it, John Humphrys quickly discovered that when a subject is occupying the minds of BBC women, only a solemn declaration of support, such as #IStandWithCarrie, is acceptable. Any attempt at levity is, of course, strictly prohibited.
In response to what Humphrys described as his ‘taking the mickey’ out of Sopel, BBC management was quoted as ‘deeply unimpressed’ – a response unnervingly redolent of the reaction by Theresa May after she had been shown the collected works of Toby Young. And having forced Toby to surrender, the Twitterati soon re-aimed at John Humphrys and sought his removal from Today, the argument being that he can no longer report impartially on the gender pay gap within the BBC – as though this navel-gazing item were to continue being the most pressing news story each and every day.
Leading the onslaught was former BBC broadcaster Miriam O’Reilly. One depressing consequence of the inordinate publicity given to the Carrie Gracie story is that it has provided a new springboard for the tiresome Ms O’Reilly, now much better known for the job the BBC did not award her rather than for any work she actually did.
Miriam O’Reilly was one of several Countryfile reporters jettisoned in favour of younger presenters when in 2009 the BBC moved an extended programme to Sunday evening prime time. Unlike the other cast-offs, O’Reilly sued and in January 2011 won her claim for age discrimination. Remarkably, she then returned to the BBC on a new three-year contract only to quit after just one year, blaming a lack of suitable opportunities on ‘seething resentment’ within the Corporation. Since then she has haunted the Beeb like a Lady Banquo.
The BBC even self-torments by summoning the ghost: incredibly, on the day that John Humphrys became the story, Today had booked Miriam O’Reilly for an interview regarding equal pay; belatedly dropping her from the show, citing a change to the scope of discussion, which simply added to O’Reilly’s litany of complaint.
Before the BBC pulled her appearance, O’Reilly had earlier described the exchange between Humphrys and Sopel – ‘back-slapping entitled males’ – as ‘base, smug and condescending’, and her numerous tweets on the matter were widely publicised. However, it is puzzling why Miriam O’Reilly remains such a go-to gal for matters of female victimisation. Although she still trumpets her victory at the employment tribunal, she skirts the fact that her action was only a partial success: the judgment found discrimination solely on the grounds of age, and concluded that Miriam O’Reilly did not suffer discrimination because of gender (Section 300: ‘We test [for sex discrimination] by asking ourselves whether the Claimant would have been retained had she been a man, of the same age, with the same skill set . . . we do not consider she would.’) In short, Miriam O’Reilly is a self-styled champion of victimised female workers – specialising in the suffering of privileged, middle-class metropolitans – who was ruled not to have suffered sex discrimination at the BBC.
It is also worth reflecting that, even seven years on, the legal judgment on O’Reilly’s claim for age discrimination remains astounding. Section 291: ‘The wish to appeal to a primetime audience is a legitimate aim. However, we do not accept that it has been established that choosing younger presenters is required to appeal to an audience. It is not a means of achieving that aim. Even if it was a means of achieving that aim, it would not be proportionate to do away with older presenters simply to pander to the assumed prejudice of some younger viewers.’ In other words, three employment judges decided they knew better than the programme’s creators – people whose careers depended upon the revamped show being a success – regarding the required profile of the presenting team.
Amongst those left incredulous was Rowan Atkinson, who soon afterwards observed that ‘creative industries are completely inappropriate environments for anti-discrimination legislation’, adding ‘if you want to replace . . . you should have as much creative freedom to do so as you have to change the colour of John Craven’s anorak’. TV presenter Nick Ross, who cheerfully acknowledged that producers were at the time examining his own Best Before date, was rather more earthy: ‘Like it or not, TV is a lookism medium . . . I have never worked with a minger.’ No doubt the ladies with whom Ross had shared a studio, such as Sue Cook and Fiona Bruce, preened themselves following such an endorsement.
Women who had been at the sharp end also bemoaned the legalistic ruling: former BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey bluntly stated that she too would not have hired Miriam O’Reilly for prime time. And in O’Reilly’s evidence to the tribunal, the female who was station controller at the time of the re-launch, Jay Hunt, was accused of ‘hating women’.
Nor was O’Reilly sisterly towards Countryfile’s new female presenter, Julia Bradbury. In an interview given in 2014, three years after the tribunal’s verdict, Bradbury reflected upon the earlier controversy: ‘I’ve been through millions of programme changes where they say, “Sorry, love, we’ve changed the slot”. With Miriam, the decision certainly wasn’t made because she was too old. The decision was because they were changing the programme.’ To that level-headed view, O’Reilly retaliated: ‘Before you make ill-informed statements I suggest you look at the legal case – one day you might need it. Until then, good luck with the a**e-licking.’
Charming. And by enlisting for battle in support of Carrie Gracie, Miriam O’Reilly confirms that she and her Twitter account remain on a hair-trigger, ever ready to pick a fight over some perceived slight and still waging war against the BBC for not having shared Miriam’s high opinion of her own ability. Such is the life of O’Reilly.