Sunday, 17 January 2010

Wisdom of the ages.

Most people think the big media story of the past week was Chris Evans taking over the Radio 2 breakfast show formerly presented by national treasure Terry Wogan; most people are wrong. The big story is the return to the airwaves of Moira Stewart.

Its big news because three years ago the BBC decided that Ms Stewart, a much respected journalist well on the way to achieving national treasure status herself, was too old to read the news and dropped her in favour of a monstrous regiment of ‘auto cuties.’

As always happens when a national treasure is trashed in the name of modernity there was a public outcry, the BBC was accused of being ageist and taking another shambling step in the direction of dumbing down. Similar accusations were fired off last year when Arlene Phillips, the acid tongued judge on Strictly Come Dancing, was dropped in favour of Aleysha Dixon.

Never one to let a band wagon pass her by Women’s Minister Harriet Harman told the BBC’s The World this Weekend programme last week that the BBC’s axing of any female news reader over the age of forty was a result of the media’ finding it possible to value the older man’ but not the older woman. Ms Harman, who also coined the cringe worthy term ‘wellderly’ for anyone in possession of a free bus pass who is sprightly enough to get out and use it, is a mostly irrelevant presence in that national debate, but just this once she has hit the age related nail squarely on its greying head.

The BBC, and all the other news channels in the UK, are groaning at the seems with middle aged men but have a policy towards women of the same vintage that seems to have been inspired by seventies sci-fi flick Logan’s Run. Never shy about jumping on bandwagons itself the BBC has stepped up to the plate and brought Moira Stewart back to read the news on Radio 2 and is hiring four ‘older’ women to read the news on television. Arlene Phillips has been given her own dance programme and all is right with the world; at least so they think.

You and just about everybody else might think different and with good reason. Tagging older women as another minority group to be placated in the name of ticking the right boxes is a compliment with a backhand like Boris Becker’s. Deciding that someone’s age, or their colour, gender or sexual preference for that matter, is the most interesting thing about them is little more than prejudice with good manners.

The fact that the BBC and other broadcasters think we the viewers are more concerned with who reads the news than the details of the stories they are covering says everything about their attitude to current affairs.

The equation is ugly in its simplicity and follows these lines; age equals gravitas and serious ideas while youth stands for unthreateningly photogenic triviality. Needless to say in a television culture where the most serious thought crime of them all is thinking itself triviality is always going to win the day.

Age, of course, brings with it a sense of perspective and it might be no bad idea to have a moratorium on hiring newsreaders under the age of forty. Older journalists might have had the wit to treat the two biggest news stories of the past month, the cold snap and the Hewitt/Hoon coup against Gordon Brown as minor distractions rather than major catastrophes

I don’t advocate a return to the days when newsreaders, on the BBC at least, all wore evening dress and stood to attention before the microphone, the twenty four hour news cycle has changed our relationship with the news, increasingly people want to be participants in the process rather than passive consumers. That the viewing public also wants to be treated like adults and to see people on screen that reflect the whole spectrum of ages and races in society shouldn’t really be news to anyone.


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