Voices: There was talk of me being wound down at the BBC because I ‘looked old’ – in my thirties

Ken Bruce and Caryn Franklin  (Getty)
Ken Bruce and Caryn Franklin (Getty)

Another day, another ageism accusation being levelled at the BBC. Beloved veteran broadcaster Ken Bruce, 72, who has hosted on BBC radio for 45 years, announced his departure from the network in January. At the time, fellow DJs such as Vanessa Feltz accused the BBC of “ageism”, although the BBC says Ken decided to leave. It has now been announced that Bruce is being replaced by Vernon Kay (who’s 48).

So, what’s going on? It’s certainly not the first time the BBC has found itself in the firing line over ageism – particularly when it comes to women. In June last year, 63-year-old Liz Kershaw was replaced on her Saturday afternoon Radio 6 show by Jamz Supernova, who is 31. Kershaw later tweeted: “I got sacked from @BBC6Music because they don’t want women over 60.”

I know how she feels. I, too, was threatened with dismissal from my presenter role at the BBC because I was deemed to look “too old”.

As presenter of the BBC’s primetime The Clothes Show from 1986 to 1998, with women coming up to me in the street to say how glad they were to have my industry insights and challenges to fashion’s oppressive body ideals, I was shocked to be told over the phone that I had been discussed in a meeting of senior execs and (despite being in my late-thirties) was going to be “wound down” – because I was looking old.*

We women know our professional experience is given lesser value than our male counterparts. Now 64, I am shocked that I was the apparent victim of ageism so much sooner than most.

In my role on the long-running show, which went out to around 10 million viewers most weeks, I interpreted fashion through a feminist lens. I interrogated image pressures facing girls and women, and was a rare pregnant presenter visibly adorned in my own inspirational maternity styling, whilst discussing the lack of an industry offer for working pregnant women.

I introduced sustainability and fair-trade conversations way before mainstream agendas took note. And I helped bring Ralph Lauren’s campaign Fashion Targets Breast Cancer to the UK to promote nationwide breast health awareness.

My passion, knowledge and skills were not in question and I was well-connected; bringing a diverse range of contributors to the show. Alexander McQueen, for instance, would only let me backstage to interview him.

But never mind all that, I had a noticeable grey streak at the front of my hair (which women also told me they loved). But this was seemingly not appreciated by some key BBC types, according to the call I received. In short, I was objectified in a way that few men in the workplace or male TV presenters ever experience.

Of course, I was gutted. My friend and co-presenter Jeff Banks was 15 years older than me, and not at that time in danger of being edged out (it was he who kindly warned me).  No one is saying ageism doesn’t affect men, but clearly women are on the frontline; evaluated for the ways our bodies and faces look at all times. A US study recently reported 77 per cent of female participants confirming a prevalence for ageist agendas in their workplace.

Aesthetic hiring, linked to perceptions of competency and relevance affects many women’s self-esteem and of course their promotion and earnings. And who are these senior leadership teams making the decisions? How many mature women make it to this table to challenge gendered ageism? We assume very few, implied by a variety of well-documented dismissals at the BBC over the years, in which the women have gone, while men of similar ages have stayed. Bias, what a bummer.

After my aforementioned phone call, I did not meekly cover up my stylish streak, but made it my trademark instead. Charles Worthington, my hairdressing mate, dyed the rest of my brunette hair to a much richer colour to make my light stripe stand out. Ginger Spice would soon be presenting a synthetic blonde streak in her red tresses and, as an unforeseen bonus, my hair is suddenly poptastic, with many assuming I am dying the light in.

I continued to focus on identity politics both on screen and off, and in my early fifties transitioned to the full (silver) fox. It’s long too, and young women in particular absolutely love it. Why? Here’s one reason: we have normalised wrinkly, grey-haired males in our media, especially reading the news. But as Kirsty Wark and I discussed on Newsnight a few years back, there are no grey-haired news women (and few actors, presenters and MPs too). Unlike young men, our young women don’t get to see where they are going as they age.

These women are prey to beauty prompts urging the cover-up of grey or wrinkles, the pernicious growth of body surveillance anxiety and self-objectification as a baseline metric of female existence. This needs to be challenged.

Bring back Moira Stuart and Selina Scott now. I’m not advising Emily Maitlis or my media friend Kirsty to redress the bias and grow out their chic highlights any time soon though. No way: there is too much at stake for them. Because despite the genius of both women, they still exist in a culture where gender bias forces working women to delay the optics of aging or face the threat of extinction.

Thank you, Liz Kershaw, and all the other experienced women ousted at the top of their game, for making some noise. It’s 2023 and no woman should go quietly.

SKEWED: Decoding Media Bias by Caryn Franklin and Professor Keon West is out now as an Audiobook Original.

*The BBC told The Independent they would not be commenting on Caryn Franklin’s claims