The role of the media in safeguarding against ageism

A meeting of the Women and Equalities Committee last week addressed ageism in the media and what is being done to counter it.

the word "discrimination" behind a pair of glasses


Are advertising and the media perpetuating ageism and if so, what are their regulatory bodies doing about it? That was the question at the heart of a Women and Equalities Committee session last week.

Being grilled were Alice Gould, Head of Complaints at the press standards body IPSO, Kate Biggs, Director of Public Policy at Ofcom, and Malcolm Phillips, Regulatory Policy Manager for the Committee of Advertising Practice.

Phillips said his body has a public sector equality duty, but has to balance addressing discrimination with trying not to look like they are involved in ‘social engineering’. He said the body is actively considering what more it can do about ageism through research and targeted enforcement work. 

Biggs said tv and radio can perpetuate stereotypes, but also has the potential to confront them. It has a duty to hold public service broadcasters to account when it comes to how well they serve all their audiences. She spoke in particular about the need for a more intersectional approach and for broadcasters to understand their audiences better so no-one is ‘left behind’.  Gould spoke of the fact that work on discrimination is now a ‘two-way conversation’ and said IPSO has been working with the Centre for Ageing Better [CfAB] to monitor complaints about ageism and look for patterns, although only recently. It also promotes the CfAB on its site so journalists can access their resources.


All of the speakers said they receive very few complaints about ageism – just 0.5% of complaints received by Ofcom are about age discrimination. All have thresholds for taking complaints further and some complaints fail to meet these. Phillips said his body has a narrow remit as a regulator and can’t solve wider societal issues. 

In terms of the make-up of the media workforce, the speakers recognised that the sector tends to employ fewer older people on average than other sectors, with both Gould and Phillips saying age diversity in the industry is not part of their remit. Biggs said there have been some improvements in broadcasting and she added that in senior positions older people were more represented, although she admitted that this may be mainly older men. However, Ofcom’s priorities are disabled and ethnic minority representation as age is not ‘a prevalent concern’. Age diversity is not a mandatory characteristic when it comes to data gathering, Biggs stated. 

There have been some improvement in the representation of older people on screen since 2018, she said, with the BBC having initiatives which are now coming to an end. Biggs is not sure how they are measuring success.

Phillips said discrimination complaints are rarely about one characteristic alone. He admitted that he couldn’t define what ageism is and Biggs said people sometimes don’t identify as older. Also, any words used  – such as a grey tsunami – had to be seen in context, she stated, and taken on a case by case basis. Gould said IPSO is only a contributor to the editors’ Code of Practice, which omits to mention age on the grounds that it would prevent discussions, for instance, about whether a sportsman or politician was past his prime.

Phillips was also asked about targeted advertising online and said there could be a range of reasons particular individuals are being targeted with, for instance, adverts about life insurance. The industry is more concerned, he said, with protecting younger people. He said his body only has a soft power to nudge the industry away from harmful stereotypes and that it conducts an awareness campaign every year so that people know how to complain.

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