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Rowan Atkinson joins the BBC ageism debate

Comedian and actor Rowan Atkinson has stepped in to the BBC ageism debate. According to the Mr Bean and Blackadder star, the BBC should have been able to drop Miriam O’Reilly from Countryfile without accusations of age discrimination.

Atkinson, 57, wrote a letter to Radio 4’s Media Show saying that O’Reilly’s successful age discrimination case against the BBC amounted to "attack on creative free expression". He added: “the creative industries are completely inappropriate environments for anti-discrimination legislation and that the legal tools she used should never have been available to her".

He claimed that O’Reilly’s complaint was no more sensible than "Pierce Brosnan complaining that he was sacked from the role of James Bond for being too old".

He also wrote:

"If either at the outset of a TV programme, or at any time during its screen life, you want to replace an old person with a young person, or a white person with a black person, or a disabled straight with an able-bodied gay, you should have as much creative freedom to do so as you have to change the colour of John Craven's anorak."

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Miriam O’Reilly was not invited to take part in the programme but responded by telling the newspaper, The Guardian:

"I think very few people will agree with Mr. Atkinson. At one time we didn't think black people should sit next to white people on a bus but fortunately we live in a fair and civilised society.

"Television has an enormous influence on shaping society and how we see each other and we have got to have fair representation of everyone on TV. We can't leave it up to the whims of the so-called creatives.

"It was very unfortunate that I had to take legal action against the BBC for them to fairly represent women and older women. I would have liked them to have done so without me having to take action but it has already made a difference already. Mark Thompson has said it was a turning point in the representation of older women on screen."

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It is true that Mark Thompson, director general at the BBC, acknowledged that the BBC does not have enough older female presenters or newsreaders. He said that O’Reilly’s case is a ‘wake-up call’ to the broadcaster.

In January 2011, Miriam O’Reilly won an age discrimination case against the BBC after she was one of four women over 40 who were dropped from Countryfile. She has since quit the BBC completely and set up the Women’s Equality Network. Mark Thompson is to meet up with Nadine Dorries and other MPs on Monday to discuss the representation of women on and off screen.

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