The publication of salary details for the public broadcaster’s top talent has caused moral consternation in the print media and beyond. But is the outrage justified?
It had to happen. The BBC has finally reached peak contrition. They are, again, the penitent apologists. They are Cersei out of Game of Thrones, limping along a gauntlet of hate, naked and bleeding while a vitriolic nation snarls “For shame!”
I confess to a feeling of dumb admiration as, compelled to publish a list of their highest earners, they dutifully grimaced, lowered a honey-drenched hand into the hornets’ nest and wiggled it about a bit.
First Savile, now sexism. They are actually very useful if ever you need a scapegoat for decades of moral lethargy.
As usual, they are caught comically between two stools: Their conscience (along with all their mates) is on the liberal left, but they are, of course, equally beholden to the general population. That huge cross-section of licence-fee contributors who generally favour meat and two veg over foreign muck. Unfortunately for the Beeb, this group are also weirdly reassured by white men over fifty with suspiciously lush haircuts and golf-club memberships. They are the type of audience that collectively spluttered into its Horlicks whenever Jeremy Paxman was substituted by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight.
The fact is, this is a legacy issue. The BBC is not a sexist old boys’ club. It merely WAS a sexist old boys’ club.
Now it is a veritable bastion of equality compared to many commercial media outlets. The good news is, this is set to continue. Recent figures suggest female journalism students continue to significantly outnumber their male counterparts. Panel shows and news programmes have committed to increasing the presence of women - there is even a female Doctor Who! - but that doesn’t solve the more immediate problem of popular, powerful and utterly entrenched veterans sitting at the top of the earnings pile.
John Humphreys is a case in point. It is difficult to be absolutely certain he doesn’t predate the wireless itself, he’s been ruffling politicians’ early morning feathers for so long - and in all that time he will have built a bullet-proof salary and pension plan. It’s all very well demanding pay parity for his co-presenters, but any employer will tell you that’s not how it works.
It’s no different in business: Young tech-savvy graduates, male and female, come in and do twice the work on half the pay of the old duffer in the corner who has only just worked out how to use the fax machine. The Today programme is a divisive example, and Humphreys is a high-profile, influential duffer, but the principle is the same.
Of course, Humphreys, like most of the outliers on the BBC list, gives critics a nice easy target.
But on closer inspection, they speak more to the dubious concept of “celebrity” rather than any sinister gender divide. You will probably have noticed that the entire top 4 and much of the top 10 peddle their wares in either football punditry or Radio 2 - divisions that (not coincidentally at all) provide the BBC with their biggest audience shares and also, I would suggest, the most significant chunks of their traditional “middle England” demographic.
That is not to say there is no case to answer on the sexism accusations.
The gender disparity in the pay packets of the corporation’s heaviest hitters is as depressing as it is predictable, but for the newspaper industry to go into meltdown the way it did, without even a cursory glance at its own backyard was particularly depressing. More, it was typical of the calculated hypocrisy of organisations who are safe in the knowledge they will never have to lay bare their own dirty secrets so explicitly in the court of public opinion.
The hacks tutting and wringing their hands are conveniently ignoring the divide in their own newsrooms. As recently as 2012, an exhaustive study of gender bias in the mainstream British print media found that 78% of newspaper articles were written by men. Viva women’s lib.
But it is the laziness of the journalism that really gets me. This is a tap-in of a story, and it is being laughably and unnecessarily overblown. The Sun had Dan Walker on their front page - and insinuated he earned more than his co-presenters on BBC Breakfast, which would be outrageous if it were actually... you know... true. Walker is on the list because of the other work he does around the corporation. He was quick to point out he earns exactly the same as Louise Minchin for the breakfast gig.
The Guardian did a similar comparison between Gary Lineker and Clare Balding, which is like comparing apples and, I don’t know, herring. THEY DO DIFFERENT JOBS! Lineker is overpaid because he has stumbled upon a perfect storm of boyish charm, undoubted eloquence and broadcasting presence in a world of drab soundbite merchants. That he also happens to be one of England’s most successful footballers has propelled him into to the zenith of his incredibly niche profession - rightly or wrongly. The fact he is a man is, in this case, utterly irrelevant.
Balding is a force of nature. As Caitlin Moran once put it: “If Britain had another four Clare Baldings we’d still have an empire.” She is undoubtedly one of the most professional and capable sports broadcasters we have. But only a fraction of the work she does is for the BBC, and none of it is on its flagship audience share-snaffler Match of the Day. I don’t doubt she earns less than Lineker in total, but to dress them up as direct counterparts is wilful subterfuge. For the record, I do not lose any sleep over her financial situation, and I doubt she does either.
Indeed, if we are going to do ludicrous comparisons, they should at least be genuinely outrageous. If one is to believe the BBC list, the inimitable Laura Kuenssberg, who seems to have worked every day of the last six months as the corporation’s wry, witty and unflappable political editor, earns EXACTLY HALF the salary of Alan Shearer - whose entire weekly output appears to be 90 minutes of sitting in a beige cardigan passing asinine comment on the parlous state of Sunderland’s defending.
Now THAT is something to get your knickers in a twist over...
"Alan Shearer's entire weekly output appears to be 90 minutes of sitting in a beige cardigan passing asinine comment on the parlous state of Sunderland’s defending."