On ageism in the British media

16 October 2007 – MediaWise has not been the only one to comment about ageism in the media in recent years. When the BBC looked set to dump newsreader Moira Stuart earlier this year, The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy wrote: ‘The public perception was that the BBC had – once again – looked at a woman aged 55, and decided she was fit only for the scrap heap.’ But she was equally critical of the Daily Mail’s Save Moira for Britain campaign for treating her like an ancient monument.

Meanwhile the NUJ, in part conscious that many of its older and more experienced members have been sidelined because younger talent costs less, produced its own guidelines against ageist copy.

When Anna Ford, born in 1943, the same year as John Humphrys, announced her resignation in April 2006, she commented “I might have been shovelled off into News 24, to the sort of graveyard shift, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do that because it wouldn’t have interested me.”

“When you reflect on the people who they’re bringing in … they’re all much younger. I think they are being brought in because they are younger.”

Her anger about ageism extended to politics. She described as “extraordinary” the derision faced by the newly elected Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell, then aged 64.

The unhealthy and wholly unethical bias against the Lib Dem leader’s age may now have forced him out of the top job. We have called for restraint and decency, yet even when Ming Campbell resigned, the Press continued its love affair with open ageism.

The Scotsman newspaper splashed with a photograph that was clearly placed to give the impression of an old man unable to carry his bags. It may well be he was simply bending forward to pick them up, but the pose looks awkward and by coincidence, perfectly married the copy.

Inside, its cartoon depicted a vacant Zimmer frame and a fleeting glimpse of an arm and a leg exiting the drawing.

But it is not the only member of the Fourth Estate to display such disdain and make an issue about age. It has been evident across the industry.

To constantly carp on about his age is, we believe, questionable; to depict him using a Zimmer frame to get to conference is unedifying.

Isn’t it clear that the industry would not dare make insulting references to any other person in public life because of their race, religion or sex? If that is so, then what qualifies journalists to be rude about Ming Campbell?

As journalists, we are free to slate his policies and his party in our comment pages if we want to. But this raft of blatant ageism bled through to general news stories and has subsequently demeaned what we generally consider to be a responsible Press.

Whatever the real reason that led Ming to decide to leave, the media needs to take a good, long look at itself and ask if its coverage of the man was fair. In a newsroom near you, that answer will simply be “no”.

Charles Fletcher
Chair, MediaWise

(Bulletin No 144)

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