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Why doesn’t the diversity conversation ever include older women?

Sue Barker is one of the latest broadcasters to fall victim to the obsession with youth, but is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Sue Barker has left A Question of Sport following a shake-up at the BBC
Sue Barker has left A Question of Sport following a shake-up at the BBC

Sue Barker, the brisk and chirpy Miss Joan Hunter Dunn of broadcasting, has been caught in the net of the BBC’s ‘refresh’ obsession and dumped, at 64, after 24 years as presenter of A Question of Sport. Did she make a racket? 

No, sadly. She joins the list of the smart, experienced older women broadcasters whose microphones have been muted in recent years. 

Where are they now, the Disappeared? Sue Lawley, Moira Stuart, Anna Ford and the doyenne of BBC radio broadcasters, Sue MacGregor – presenter of Woman’s Hour and the Today programme who last year ‘stepped down’ from presenting The Reunion series. 

Those women we have loved and lost include Angela Rippon, Gloria Hunniford, Jennie Bond and Julia Somerville  who can’t be creatively satisfied with their joint venture Rip Off Britain. Yes, it’s a necessary programme – but let the youngsters cut their teeth on that.  These women deserve bigger broadcasting pies to sink their teeth into yet are being ‘disappeared’ in their droves.

Two weeks ago the new BBC director-general , Tim Davie, announced the corporation would give up its ‘obsession with youth’ – and was swiftly on the  Zoom to Andrew Neil (71) offering him a prime time show. At the same time, Barker was picking up her P45. One rule for boys and another for the girls, who have to contend with a double whammy of ageism and sexism, eh lads? 

Older men, like Sir David Attenborough (94), are almost always revered for their erudition and knowledge, while older women – like classicist Dame Mary Beard (65), with a lifetime of  knowledge and experience – have often been horrifically abused in the media for their looks.  

Since the dawn of TV news broadcasts, the anchors have traditionally included an older man and a younger woman. Has it really changed that much? Tune in to many regional news programmes and there they are – twinkly old geezers, with wrinkles and bad teeth, joshing with a gleaming, glossy co-presenter, young enough to be their granddaughter.

Why do we not see an older woman teamed with a younger man on air? Yes, Esther Rantzen has always been Mother Hen to her younger brood of acolytes but that’s rare. How about the still sparkling intellectual  Dame Joan Bakewell with Richard Osman?

Strangely, the youth-obsessed American media seems more respectful of the older woman. Oprah Winfrey (66) continues to shape the nation’s views and reading habits, and broadcast journalist Barbara Walters (90) worked until her late 80s. 

Diversity is the buzzword of the newly ‘woke’ BBC. Hurrah for multi-ethnic and multi-gender awareness and inclusion. But only, it seems, if you are the ‘right’ type of women. Older women never seem to make the cut when it comes to the diversity conversation. 

Dismissed and ignored, some fight back – like Miriam O’Reilly, culled from Countryfile, who successfully sued, citing age discrimination – and won.

Oh, Countryfile, what have you done with your grown-up women presenters?  Apart from the wonderful Anita Rani, we have helium-voiced child-women, squeaking: “Can I help you weave a willow hedge?”  “No, stop it!” I frequently shout at the screen.

Fiona Bruce has expressed her surprise at being on screen in her 50s Credit: BBC

Fiona Bruce revealed that she hadn’t expected still to be on screen at 56, as Jane Garvey (also 56) announced her departure from Woman’s Hour, saying  her “indignation bank was somewhat depleted” after discussing the same issues for  13 years. She is being given a high-profile Radio 4 interview series next year and Bruce appeared to have been given a pay rise in the recent BBC pay review, so let’s hope these are our two steps forward when it comes to progressing older women’s careers.  

And here is some more welcome news. I spent last week with Joanna Lumley (74) recording the second series of my Radio 4 comedy Conversations From a Long Marriage, in which she stars with Roger Allam as a couple growing older together. Joanna’s  busier than ever. She’s smart and kind and sends herself up: “Sorry darlings – I’m so old, I can’t help rustling the pages.”

Warm, empathetic broadcasters, with decades of experience – like so many of the Disappeared – should be celebrated as Lumley is and deluged with great jobs and gratitude, for their popularity and skill at making broadcasting look easy. 

But you need to be strong to survive and fight your corner, just like Kathy Bates, in the film Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, when she was beaten to a car parking space by two young women, in a convertible, who yelled  “We’re younger and faster!”

Kathy revved up her old jalopy, put her foot down and shunted their gleaming car out of the way. Stepping triumphantly out of the battered car, she growled: “But I’m older and I have more insurance.”

I’d love to see her try that in the BBC car park.

Conversations From a Long Marriage Series 2 begins on BBC Radio 4 on December 30 at 6.30pm