Belfast Telegraph

BBC hierarchy still has some questions to answer over its stance on stars’ salaries

Could the cost of a  TV licence be reduced if excessive pay deals were curbed, asks Nelson McCausland.

Usually the BBC reports the news and its News Channel broadcasts news “all day, every day”, but this past week the BBC has been in the news itself after the publication of the salaries of its top earners.

Radio 2 presenter Chris Evans, whose career has had its ups and downs, topped the salary list on more than £2.2m, and he was followed by Match Of The Day presenter Gary Lineker, who earned between £1.75m and £1.8m. The highest-paid woman was Claudia Winkleman, whose salary was somewhere between £450,000 and £500,000. 

BBC programmes are very popular, but these salary figures have not gone down too well with most of the British public. 

A poll conducted across the United Kingdom on Monday of this week found that 83% of those surveyed thought salaries for the best-paid BBC employees are excessive and that the gender gap between men and women is unfair.

Over the years the BBC has been reluctant to reveal information about its high-earning employees. The publication of these figures is therefore to be welcomed, even though it has been an uncomfortable experience for the BBC and some of the people named. 

However, the BBC receives most of its income from our television licences and the British public have a right to know how that money is spent.

Moreover, we have all heard BBC journalists and presenters demand transparency from others. Indeed, the BBC relies heavily on the Freedom of Information Act for its investigative programmes. Surely then we are entitled to expect the same level of transparency from the BBC, with no hiding behind contracts and clauses?

These revelations about excessive salaries come in the wake of newspaper reports last year that HMRC was investigating top BBC staff who had been routinely paid through controversial personal service companies — a system that enables high earners to pay 20% corporation tax on some income instead of 45% top rate income tax.

This leaves us with questions about current BBC employees and which of them are being paid through personal service companies. 

The system of personal service companies was introduced to accommodate people such as plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen who provide a service to their customers. It was not designed to enable highly-paid BBC staff to reduce the tax they have to pay and that is why HMRC initiated its investigations.

BBC salaries will remain the subject of conversations and debates for some time, as will the use of public service companies, and there are certainly a lot of questions to be asked.

The current cost of a television licence is £147, which is just under £3 a week or 40 pence a day. However, many people will now be asking, could that not be reduced if the BBC stopped its current practice of paying grossly inflated salaries?

Then what about the credibility of the BBC when it comes to challenging excessive salaries in other organisations and businesses? That is certainly the case with hard-hitting presenters in the field of news and current affairs and who have salaries in excess of £500,000. 

Finally, what was the ethos within the BBC that led to this scenario of excessive salaries, tax avoidance and a long-term lack of transparency? 

Something is clearly wrong and needs to be addressed, but, sadly, the response so far has been more about self-justification than about self-examination. Indeed, the response from the BBC has exuded a sense of aloofness. 

Sadly, previous criticisms about it being a Biased Broadcasting Corporation and a Bloated Broadcasting Corporation have been met with the same aloofness.

As the beneficiary of the television licence, the BBC is in a privileged position, but there is a danger that an unhealthy ethos within the organisation will increase demands for the abolition of the licence.

The BBC is our national public service broadcaster and as such it has a significant role to play in our national life, but that requires it to be an organisation with credibility and integrity; an organisation that has public confidence.

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