FLAMBOYANT racing pundit John McCririck was dumped from his high-profile role on Channel 4 because he was “alienating” and “very offensive”, an employment tribunal has heard.
Jay Hunt, the channel’s chief creative officer, said a “talent tracker” study on how he went down with audiences was “one of the worst pieces of research I have ever seen”.
McCririck, 73, who was dropped from Channel 4’s revamped on-screen line-up, is accusing his former employers of age discrimination. Channel 4 and production company IMG Media deny the claims.
Ms Hunt told McCririck’s tribunal in London the audience research on him was “one of the most dispiriting” documents she had seen, particularly as the broadcaster wanted to freshen up its racing coverage and appeal to a wider audience.
The figures showed 58 per cent of the public “regarded Mr McCririck as Channel 4”, the tribunal heard. Ms Hunt said: “When you consider the views he had been shouting from the rooftops on everything from women to low-level misogyny, I found it slightly depressing.”
She said she was “gobsmacked” to hear McCririck insisted on calling a colleague “the female”, and that his headline-grabbing appearances on reality TV shows such as Celebrity Big Brother and Celebrity Wife Swap were potentially damaging his image as a sports presenter.
There were “reverberations” from his reality TV appearances, his desire to “continue to say more outrageous things” and the fact that he had become “unpalatable to a large number of viewers”, she said.
McCririck, known for his flamboyant clothes, tic-tac gestures and jewellery, believes that he was “sacked by anonymous suits and skirts” because of his age.
But Ms Hunt denied age had anything to do with his departure, saying younger audiences liked his outrageousness. “Larger-than-life characters do cut through better to 16 to 34 [year-olds],” she said.
McCririck spoke to fellow racing presenter Clare Balding after he discovered he no longer had a job at Channel 4.
Balding, who was headhunted as part of the new line-up, later contacted Ms Hunt and said she had “some sympathy” with McCririck. She told Ms Hunt “he made some pretty dodgy decisions” in going on reality shows, but he did it believing Channel 4 had wanted him to.
Ms Hunt claimed his appearances on the shows were not the problem – it was the way he behaved .
She worked for the BBC when presenter Miriam O’Reilly, who was in her 50s, was dropped from the Countryfile programme. O’Reilly went on to win an age discrimination case against the BBC. Ms Hunt said: “I am clear that age absolutely was not part of Mr McCririck’s future involvement. This was a merit-based set of decisions and it was Mr McCririck’s alienation and slightly obnoxious presenting style which were part of this decision.”
Jennifer Eady, QC, for McCririck, suggested that, in light of the O’Reilly case, Ms Hunt was showing “breathtaking arrogance” in not keeping her notes linked to the decision that brought a halt to McCririck’s Channel 4 career.
Ms Hunt said this was “categorically untrue”. She also hit back at “false allegations” by the presenter which suggested she had made decisions about on-screen talent based on age.
This included the decision of newscaster Moira Stuart to leave the BBC while Ms Hunt was the BBC’s daytime controller. Ms Hunt said she had no involvement in the Stuart decision.
She said: “John McCririck’s allegation that I am a ‘serial age discrimination offender’ is untrue.”
But she admitted there could have been “more compassion” in the way the career-changing information was handled with regard to McCririck. She said there was “a lot of anxiety” to try to ensure people were told in the right order of decisions regarding the revamped racing show.
The case continues on Monday.