The BBC has had a grisly start to 2018. It began with the resignation of Carrie Gracie from her job as China editor, bringing the equal pay dispute roaring back to life, with insurrection among employees and uncomfortable parliamentary grillings for senior executives. It’s now hard to see how this ends easily or economically for the BBC, and there are more squalls to come. The corporation is always prone to internal grumbling, but this is currently on an epic scale.
What is peculiar is how a decent organisation such as the BBC got itself into a deep mess over fair pay for its male and female stars. Most obviously, by 2018 its gender remuneration policies should have been clear and defensible, whatever the errors of the past. What made this tricky was the belief that there should still be a “pecking order” – as the director-general Tony Hall put it – which in effect means subjective judgements of star quality alongside rewards for experience and marketability. Yet the corporation had more than a year’s notice that its top presenter salaries would be published. A regulator was among those baffled, asking, “Why did they not fix this ahead of going public?” The plain-speaking new director of BBC News, Fran Unsworth, agreed in an interview last week: “We should have been on to this earlier, yes.”
The most plausible explanation is that the BBC was too preoccupied about its overall levels of pay, rather than the gender split. It fought a long campaign against publication, and a press office comment from May 2016 has not stood the test of time: “Publishing the salaries of presenters and actors might satisfy public intrigue but does nothing to serve the genuine public interest.”
Senior insiders confirm that worrying about disclosures such as the Radio 2 presenter Chris Evans’s pay being an eye-watering £2.2m a year somehow distracted attention from the fact nine of the top ten best-paid stars were male. There might also have been an over-reliance on the boost given to some women’s careers in recent years, and on an official gender pay gap that was less than the UK norm.
The rows following publication last summer were nasty enough. In the aftermath, senior executives were keen to show they were on the case, and murmured that they were ready to lose a couple of highly-paid men if it showed they were being tough. In classic W1A fashion, various reviews were set up to try to re-establish bureaucratic order and restore calm among the staff. But at this point the BBC had the bad luck of finding a formidable opponent in Carrie Gracie, who pushed for what she deemed to be equal pay through the internal processes – and then decided to go public.
It is self-evident that Gracie is right on the principles. Yet some managers and colleagues (by no means all of them men) were unimpressed by her PR campaign against her own organisation, launched just as she was about to be a guest presenter on the Today programme; and many thought the BBC’s remedial offer to her was fair. It was revealed to be a raise to £180,000 and with £100,000 of back pay. Giving her the parity she wanted with the BBC’s North America editor, Jon Sopel, was problematic: he was getting a startling amount of money, which is now being renegotiated; and there would have been a new gap between Gracie’s pay and that of other on-air editors, male and female. The next set of published data would have shown even more of the licence fee being consumed by on-air talent.
The BBC tactics were to try to sort out gender pay as privately as possible: they didn’t want a public slanging match, which is why for most of January the corporation’s news programmes ended up with nobody from the BBC willing to put their case. That is, of course, not a position the BBC accepts from other national institutions. “And it didn’t work,” says one manager, glumly.
The lobbying group “BBC Women” has condemned the various reports and urged Gracie on, but many of the well-paid men who have been featuring in the papers are also unhappy. They and managers alike say the true position is that they simply accepted the pay offers the BBC made to them – I did the same when I worked there – and they have their contractual rights too.
There has been irritation at the negotiations being conducted in public; and it appears that, although a number of cuts have been agreed in principle, the level of all the reductions is not settled. Some key names have not been mentioned, suggesting there are pockets of resistance around the corridors of Broadcasting House. One presenter’s view is that “the BBC has handled this even more poorly than people had expected, and that really is saying something”.
Part of this may be because BBC News looks to have been singled out in a restructuring of the talent hierarchy. So Nick Robinson, John Humphrys and Huw Edwards face a hit – but the men occupying the Radio 2 prime schedule, with the exception of Jeremy Vine, don’t yet appear to have the same threat. Also left unscathed, apparently, are support staff – some of whom earn up to £200,000 a year for jobs in HR or finance.
“Everyone is bruised and, furthermore, damaged,” says a manager. A talent agent goes further. “It’s absolute chaos,” he says, accepting that the pressure on senior and middle management is “intolerable”. He is pessimistic about easy resolutions because everyone is trying to second-guess how their peers are being treated: “The opaqueness of the pay system is fuelling the anger.” The lawyers are already busy on both sides preparing for battle. This one will, unfortunately, run for quite a while – and there will be more fractured relationships and more bills for the licence payer.
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry