I was very pleased to hear that Miriam O’Reilly won her case for age discrimination yesterday. It is time that the BBC’s obsession with youth was ended, but I do feel it is important to point out that however bad it might be to be a female presenter/broadcaster of advancing years the discrimination that they might face is nothing compared to what disabled talent face whatever age they are. Sadly when Ms O’Reilly announced that she was going to sue the BBC a while back she claimed that no other groups would be treated like she had, and included disabled talent in her list of people who had it easier than she did. I was so upset I even e-mailed her and her legal team. But it does just show how little everyone else in the industry understands the truth about disability and the media.
However much the media talks the talk around disability, the total lack of disabled people actually on our screens working as presenters shows the truth. In fact in the last ten years the whole industry has gone back to the position it was in pre 1970’s. The only person working as a regular broadcasting presence on our screens is Gary O’Donahue, who is a journalist on BBC news. And he only got to this position by suing the BBC after they gave a story he had discovered to an able bodied journalist claiming that no one wanted to see a blind reporter on prime time news. Back when From The Edge was cancelled, the powers that be claimed that they wanted to mainstream disability. Yet what actually happened was that while the back room talent was moved to other roles in the BBC, all the on screen talent was dropped. Gary moved to news, and Kim Tserkezie got a role acting in kid’s show Balamory, but the rest of us were mainstreamed to invisibility.
But this was mainly due to the fact that whatever the grand plan was in the board rooms of the BBC, the people who made the programs still felt that disabled people as part of their presenting team was a total no no. I had a meeting in the late 90’s with the series editor of Watchdog, and with my track record working on FTE I would have been a superb addition to the show, but during the interview I was informed that “they’d be no f**king cripples on my show”. Lovely. In a way this level of blatant discrimination is easier to deal with. He was a bastard and was sacked shortly after. The major problem is the less obvious way disability is mistrusted by those who decide who gets to be the faces on our screens or voices on our airwaves.
Just after FTE was cancelled I landed a job as roving reporter on the BBC LDN’s breakfast show. During the interview I had asked that I was always accompanied by an assistant, to carry heavy equipment and help with any access needs. The BBC employed a team of access workers and so I knew this was possible. On my first day I arrived to do my first outside broadcast, only to discover that my “assistant” was a heavily pregnant radio producer who refused to carry anything at all. I fully understood why, but that was no help to me. As it was my first day, and this was a major break for me, I gave in and tried to hump around a heavy radio pack to carry out some interviews. As I jumped off a curb with the pack’s strap round my neck and the pack on my lap, I pulled a muscle in my back and did myself a major injury. The pain was so bad that for the rest of the morning I found myself fainting, yet I still managed to carry out the interview. My wife was listening and had no idea how ill I was until I wheeled through the door when I got home. Yet the next day when I rang to find out how the team felt it went I was told not to bother coming back. I took this to the BBC legal department and an agreement was reached ensuring me a post at BBC LDN once I had recovered from my back injury. During this time it was discovered I had broken my back again, after a car accident I had in 1999. The pulled muscle was actually my spine pulling apart, and the injury was now life threatening. Once the BBC found this out, the agreement was broken and I was back in the wilderness.
By now I was having to take morphine for the pain while surgeons tried to work out how to fix my now twice broken back. Morphine is way too strong of a drug to be able to work as a TV presenter, and with my image most people in the industry thought I was using heroin, so I decided to focus on getting well. So I stopped pushing and searching for jobs in the media. Shortly after I had my spine op, and spent the next few years being very ill. All the while I watched TV and listened to the radio, waiting for the new Mik Scarlet to come along. What happened? Well Ade Adepitan did come through as a major disabled media talent, but even he didn’t exactly become a major on screen presence.
No in the eleven years since FTE, the last of the special interest disability programs, was cancelled and mainstreaming was the buzz word for disability in the media we have not one disabled presenter on our screens. Instead we are still in the position of needing a forum on BBC Ouch to shout our joy at seeing a disabled person on our screens. We might get the occasional person being interviewed on show, or see a disabled contestant or contributor, and even get a short item fronted by someone disabled but there is not one member of what might be called key talent with a disability anywhere on any of our British TV output. So much for more choice in our digital age eh?
So however hard it might be for a women who is of increasing age to get onto our TV screens, the battle they face is nothing compared to the huge number of talented disabled broadcasters out there. Not by a long shot! So if the BBC is going to try to get more representative faces on our screens, let’s hope they focus on all the groups they ignore. I mean I am now an ageing disabled broadcaster, so I cover two of those groups. Gizza job!