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19 July 2017

When discussing the BBC’s gender pay gap, remember why the Tories wanted star salaries published

The BBC is a standing rebuke to the idea the state can't get anything right and everything should be left to the market. The publication of its pay data is designed to embarrass it.

By Jasper jackson

The release of salaries of BBC stars earning more than £150,000 has inevitably, and rightly, provoked a debate about the gender pay gap. Prior to the release it was revealed that only a third of the 96 people on the list are women and the full numbers show an even more unequal picture. There are just two women, Claudia Winkleman and Fiona Bruce, in the top 10. John Humphrys comes in at number five on between £600,000 – £650,000, but his Today co-presenter Sarah Montague doesn’t even make it over the £150,000 threshold.

The Beeb talks a good talk about diversity and equality, and is trying to walk the walk as well. It has stringent targets and monitoring programmes covering gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability, and has recently made renewed efforts to get women into senior roles. Yet the figures show there is still a long way to go, as least when it comes to what women are paid compared to their male counterparts. 

Yet as we pore over the earnings of household names, it’s worth remembering the real reasons why the BBC has been told to reveal what they earn. 

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David Cameron’s government initially told the BBC it would have to publish the salaries of all those stars earning more than £450,000 during negotiations over a new 11-year Royal Charter, the mechanism through which it is run at arm’s length from the state. When Theresa May took power, that figure was lowered to £150,000 – which Culture Secretary Karen Bradley insisted brings the corporation in line with the civil service. 

This argument would hold more weight if the BBC did not already publish the salaries (and expenses) of all managers who earn more than that figure (set, as it so often is, at the level of the Prime Minister’s salary). Those people – around 100 of them – are the real civil servants at the BBC. They are the people who make the key decision about how the corporation pursues its public service mandate. 

Star presenters and journalists are a different kettle of fish altogether. They are not deciding how the corporation is run, they are, an admittedly vital, ingredient in producing the BBC’s programmes. The suggestion that because they are working for an organisation funded by the license fee they should be subjected to a greater level of pay transparency than those working for the commercial sector stems from the same place as the argument by Tory MPs and others that the BBC should leave popular shows such as Strictly Come Dancing to ITV or Channel 4.

As BBC director-generals past and present, and many others across the broadcasting industry, have argued, revealing stars’ pay puts the BBC at a huge disadvantage to other broadcasters. It will inflate the cost of hiring the best people and biggest names as they compare themselves to others and angle for whatever they think they are worth. It will also allow rivals to know exactly what sort of pay offer is likely to enable them to lure away the BBC’s best talent. The BBC already has a policy of pay restraint, and while some like Gary Lineker – the second highest earner on over £1.75m – say they have turned down larger sums to stay with the corporation, others will be more easily poached. As the press gleefully lay into those they deem unworthy of their pay packets, it will let everyone else in the industry know that taking a lucrative job on a BBC programme will paint a target on your back that could be avoided by taking the same money elsewhere. 

The truth is it’s impossible to separate most attempts to change the way the BBC operates from the politics of those doing it. The BBC is seen as hideously biased by many of those on both the left and the right, but large chunks of the right also object to a popular state broadcaster in principle. Alongside the NHS, it is a visible and loved publicly-funded institution. A standing rebuke to the idea the state can’t get anything right and everything should be left to the market. 

As my colleague Stephen Bush has written, revealing pay packets is designed to weaken public affection for the broadcaster – to turn love for familiar faces on their favourite programmes into disgust with “fat-cat luvvies” ripping off the licence fee payer. That’ll certainly be the line pushed by much of the press, which also appears to have suddenly become very concerned about the comparative pay of the BBC’s women, just days after complaining bitterly about the 13th Doctor Who being played by one. 

Both the Telegraph and the Daily Mail have regularly employed journalists whose primary role was to find negative stories about the corporation. That these organisations have a commercial incentive to do down the BBC (none more so than the Times and Sun, who are ultimately owned by a man trying to take complete control of Sky, Rupert Murdoch) is a widely understood factor in their obsession, even if they rarely declare it.

The government may well have overestimated how much damage revealing big pay cheques will really do. The assumption people who appear on TV are raking it in is already pretty widespread. But the long-term damage of making it harder for the BBC to hire and hold on to stars who the public want to watch will undermine its programming, and, eventually, make it less popular. 

So while the debate about who makes what and why is an important one, let’s not forget that the people who started it are more interested in seeing a weaker, less loved and less enjoyable BBC.