28 July 2011 by Michael Wilson

BBC news women: not so much old as old-hat

Sue Lawley has said that the BBC’s older female newscasters have had their “moment in the sun”. Her comments, says Michael Wilson, former business editor for Sky News, do a disservice to female broadcasters on other channels

Culture_BBC news womenOne of Britain’s best known broadcasters has told the Daily Telegraph that the BBC’s ‘golden oldies’ have had their moment in the sun. Veteran broadcaster Sue Lawley has said her female contemporaries should stop blaming ageism for the end of their careers, enjoy their memories and be “glad they had the opportunity in the first place”.

So that’s the latest take on the sexism and ageism debate in which Selena Scott (60), Miriam O’Reilly (53), Angela Rippon (66) and Moira Stewart (61) have all claimed that they have been sidelined by men, or overlooked because of their age. Since they have aired the issue, most of them have been given a second chance.

There is sexism and ageism in the industry, because television news is showbiz and it’s run by men. The crazy demographics suggest that most viewers would prefer to see a young tart and an old fart doing the news. It’s a tried and tested symbiosis – ludicrous, meretricious, but it’s what the focus groups want.

If they have a more sophisticated take on the news, it’s somehow not part of the debate. Don’t get me wrong,  the old farts are similarly used in the studio rather than than at the news frontline.

Now let’s get back to the old girls. News presenting used to be done from behind the desk in a cool studio with the luvvie team helping with coffee and make-up. Presenters could pop in mid-afternoon, ring a few chums and then start to ‘study’ the scripts for a news programme that aired a few hours later. Very nice work.

There might be an irritation of a live interview to do, but normally it would be no more than six or seven straight-off-the-autocue ‘reads’ of various reports, and a nice little ‘and finally’ item, comprising perhaps 30 words, which could have taken six or seven hours to hone. Then into the green room for the self-congratulations after another epic 30 minutes.

That is the Sue Lawley, Moira Stewart and Angela Rippon comfort zone. It is so out of date.

News has moved on. The beast that is Sky, where I worked from its inception, does do the young tart/old fart stuff, but the girls are forged by hard work into broadcast life well beyond the ageism cut-off.  I’d be ungallant to report on their true ages, but Sky’s Alex Crawford and Kay Burley are not in the lower median of TV’s supposed preferred age range. Maxine Mawhinney on the BBC, in her fifties, is not part of the star system but is totally impressive at the front of breaking news. She is a real star – but not in the luvvie galaxy of the younger ‘stars’.

These impressive women operate on the fly, without autocue and studio comforts, on the frontline wherever the news is. They are self contained, knowing the story, not high maintenance, no autocue, just giving it as it is. With sometimes considerable physical danger. Some of it will be wrong, but not for long, and the make-up is brushed aside for professionalism. Kudos is more difficult to achieve because there are so many more outlets than in the old days of the Lawleys and Rippons.

Broadcasting is now war and only the swift and sure survive. Sky sets the pace with its mature female presenters. The BBC has only clouded the debate by actively recruiting two ‘older’ female presenters, Julia Somerville and Fiona Armstrong. They belong to the old-school, high maintenance kind of presenter and look clearly unhappy and even frightened sometimes by all that nasty breaking news around them.

Luckily now it’s not about age, it’s about talent. An enduring asset. Over to you, ladies.

Michael is television’s longest serving business and economics editor. He has covered most of the big stories of the past two decades for Sky, has a long pedigree in news, business and current affairs, and writes for several national newspapers and periodicals. He was Broadcast Business Journalist of the Year (2006), is a Freeman of the City of London, and a visiting lecturer for City of London University’s Financial Journalism Masters course. In 2010 his book about Britain’s economic future, written with Lord Digby Jones, was published.

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