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30 July 2017

The BBC pay gap storm shows money, not sex, is now our biggest source of scandal

Employers know what you are worth with far more accuracy than you do.

By Helen Lewis

Sometimes, in my more idle moments, I wonder what Jeremy Clarkson is up to these days. Is he insulting the Bolivian finance minister, perhaps? Driving a tea clipper fitted with a turbo booster up the South China Sea? Blowing up 40,000 tulips to make a lazily jingoistic reference to some obscure war involving the Dutch?

Thankfully I have no idea, because he is no longer on the BBC. The days when Clarkson’s every stunt and utterance were scrutinised and excoriated are over, and he has been left to test-drive the new Koenigsegg in the peace and tranquillity of Amazon’s TV-on-demand service. If you want to watch him make jokes about Richard Hammond’s height, it will now cost you £7.99 a month.

I kept thinking about Clarkson when reading about the BBC’s top earners, revealed under duress from a government seeking to embarrass the publicly funded broadcaster. If there are people being underpaid at the BBC, it’s their PR officers: they handled the story very cannily, briefing on the gender pay gap the night before, then not releasing the figures until mid-morning. The director-general, Tony Hall, was thus able to emerge unscathed from a Today interview with a tight-lipped Mishal Husain, who knew how much more John Humphrys was getting than her but wasn’t allowed to say so because of the embargo.

The row about the unequal pay of high-earning men and women was the one that the BBC wanted to have: nearly every firm in the country shows a similar pattern. Among those under 40, the gender pay gap was nowhere near as bad; but there is a generation of men at the BBC who have survived and thrived as their female peers fell away, either because of caring responsibilities or outright ageist sexism of the kind suffered by the Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly. (Remember every time you’ve seen an older man presenting alongside a younger woman and thought: how often is it the other way round? Not very often. Mary Berry, we salute you as a lonely outrider.)

Eventually, though, the conversation moved on. Why were some of these presenters making so much anyway? On BBC Radio 2, Jeremy Vine vaingloriously asked his manager, James Purnell, how his own £750,000 salary could possibly be justified. “You’re fantastic,” Purnell replied.

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The real reason is – or should be – that the BBC has to compete in a market. But that didn’t get much airing, possibly because it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. If you want to cash out from the BBC as a presenter on Radio 2 or Radio 4, your options are relatively limited. Yes, you could join Nigel Farage and George Galloway in the sweet embrace of the commercial sector, but even if your new employer matched your salary, the soft power you would lose is immense. The prefix “BBC presenter” unlocks a world of speaking fees, book deals, award-hosting opportunities and live shows. “Him off the telly” is a bigger draw than “him off the drive-time show on Magic FM”. In recent years, the BBC has also become savvier at cross-promoting one show on another.

No one tells the stars this but the smart ones know it, deep down. When Adrian Chiles decided that he was too big for The One Show in 2010, he upped sticks to ITV. His co-host Christine Bleakley followed him a couple of months later. Neither of these departures dented The One Show’s appeal; with the arrival of Alex Jones, it felt as though the BBC had simply grown a replacement for Bleakley in a lab but installed a Welsh accent chip by mistake.

In most cases, the BBC doesn’t need to pay over the odds to employ stars. The mere act of being on the BBC makes you a star. Nothing else has its reach, mass appeal or cultural cachet. I don’t delude myself that hundreds of thousands of people tune into Week in Westminster because they are devoted fans of my broadcasting career; they just trust that there will be something they like on Radio 4 at 11am on a Saturday.

Still, the BBC row confirmed my belief that money, not sex, is now our greatest source of scandal. Since the expenses row, we have been far more intrigued by politicians wasting our money than by the male ones wearing a bra in private, or those of either gender kissing someone they shouldn’t.

We are more open than ever about sex but find money a source of acute embarrassment. (One of my favourite New Statesman pieces was by the porn actor Stoya, pointing out that her industry was terrible at having conversations about pay, even though discussing whether you were willing to be spanked on camera didn’t raise an eyebrow.)

Our cageyness benefits employers, because they have a huge informational advantage going into any pay negotiation. They know what you are worth with far more accuracy than you do. So it’s good that from April next year, companies will be required to publish general figures on their gender pay gaps: the mean and median figures, along with the percentage of each gender in each quarter of the pay structure and the gender breakdown of bonuses. This should make fascinating reading, and it will give useful ammunition to anyone trying to lobby for better pay for those in low-paid sectors such as care work or call centres.

Labour would go further, ordering public-sector employers to equalise salaries across the board; the highest earner can take home no more than 20 times the lowest earner. If implemented, such a measure would certainly bring the top salaries down at the BBC. One of the ripples from the initial story was the Bectu union’s announcement that 400 BBC staff earn less than £20,000, or 1 per cent of Chris Evans’s £2.2m.

So, yes, the BBC might have found its time in the spotlight uncomfortable. And next year, companies will um and ah and drag their feet on their gender pay gaps. But knowledge isn’t just power. It’s money. 

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue