BBC’s shameful pay gap and the need for quality

Jordan Bernstein argues that the BBC should solve its gender pay gap, but cutting the salaries of its highest earners would compromise quality

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One of Aaron Sorkin’s most underrated screenplay triumphs has been his three-season drama The Newsroom. Set behind the scenes of an American cable news show, it catalogues the workings, politics, and pitfalls of putting such a show together. In the way that it makes us think about the news we receive and how we receive it, it as every inch as hard-hitting as its better known older brother The West Wing.

One of the programme’s most fascinating exchanges comes when the lead anchor, the indefatigable Will McAvoy, is interviewing a leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement about the group’s various demands, before the pair eventually settle on discussing income inequality. McAvoy is accused of being overpaid. His response is that he, a leader in his field, is not overpaid. He is paid exactly what the market will bear, and what the marked demands.

You haven’t stumbled into an article in the Film & TV section, don’t worry. What the above episode illustrates, albeit perhaps clumsily, is that when we talk of professionals – bankers, musicians, politicians, newsreaders – being overpaid, there must be more nuance than the amount of working hours put into a job. That’s why I was surprised by the recently released BBC figures, and not for the reason I sense most people were.

In an effort to renew its royal charter, the BBC this week published a list of all of its ‘on-screen talent’ who earn more that £150,000, and two issues arose. The first is in the amount that household names such as Huw Edwards and Chris Evans are paid, and the second was in what appeared to be quite a large – indeed, an outrageous – gender pay gap.

On the gender gap, the headline is shameful: each of the BBC’s top 7 earners is a man, and just a third of the top 96 earners were women. And when we look at the names that were excluded from the list, for example Emily Maitliss, whose Newsnight co-anchor did feature with a salary of £299,000, a real problem begins to emerge. The BBC has a duty as both an industry leader and a public institution in all senses of the word to be at the forefront of solving the celebrity gender pay disparity.

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And the easiest thing about this is that there is not a question of meritocracy – the BBC does not need to positively discriminate in favour of women (whether or not we think it should is a different matter). The salient point is that women like Maitliss already have the positions that could command vast sums of money, and yet are being denied full compensation.

The connected point, however, is this. Many have claimed that in order to fund these fairer salaries for women in the industry, male stars should be asked to take a pay cut. First of all, I think that sweeps the issue under the carpet. If a male star is being paid the ‘correct amount’ to begin with, an assumption I know, then any effort to equalise by bringing his salary down will be purely symbolic. It will lead to a BBC that is uncompetitive and where meritocracy is pushed aside in the interest of empty gestures. Anyone who is underpaid might want those around them to be paid less, and they might even be happier earning a negligibly higher amount, but most likely they will want to be paid exactly what those being paid the correct amount for years have been earning. Why? Because a decision was obviously made that John Humphrys’ presence on the Today programme was worth about £600,000. Now anyone doing the same job for less money than this, man or woman, is within our context underpaid.

On the amounts themselves, many will say that for those who work at the BBC, and are perhaps, being paid through the license fee, to be considered civil servants, the salaries are inflated. Yet when we look at reports of what ITV and Sky pay their talent, this is simply not the case – the salaries are, broadly speaking, similar (though exact figures in the private sector are unconfirmed). Why should Huw Edwards, probably the most-watched anchor in the country, be expected to take a pay-hit for working in the public sector. Is there any other field where we would expect someone at the top of their game to make such a compromise?

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Oh, but if he wants the money he should move across to the private sector.

And so the BBC, paid for by license fee money, ceases to be a hub of excellence and begins to be a training ground for those moving on when it becomes viable. It becomes second rate because anyone who is good knows they can make a bigger buck elsewhere.

The BBC should solve its gender pay gap with deliberate speed. But it should not forget that, as well as being a publicly-funded organisation, it is also a national and international institution that has the duty to be an industry leader in quality as well.