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It’s unlikely that the BBC’s gender pay gap row will be resolved anytime soon

 The lawyers on both sides are already busy preparing for battle. 

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. 

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.