Belfast Telegraph

Stephen Nolan is unique, but can same be said for average autocue-reader?

By Eilis O'Hanlon

It's easy to have a go at the BBC over the inflated salaries of some big name presenters. The phrase "shooting fish in a barrel" comes to mind. As austerity continues to bite, we all want to see the rich squirm a little.

But just because something is easy doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, especially when what makes the BBC different is that we all pay for it directly.

The money that goes into presenters' pockets is our money, and the punishments for not coughing up are severe. A mind-boggling 184,595 people were charged in the UK last year with dodging payment. Dozens were imprisoned.

The State is literally sending poor people to jail to pay Gary Lineker more than £1.75m to sit on a comfy chair and present Match Of The Day.

What's more infuriating about yesterday's publication of the list of 96 stars earning more than the Prime Minister, though, is the argument that the BBC is forced to pay these large wages because, in a competitive market, salaries must reflect the demand for particular broadcasters' services.

That's fair enough if we're talking about genuinely unique talents. Stephen Nolan, who's been revealed to earn between £400,000 and £449,000 a year, falls into that category. There's no one else who could do what Nolan does, across multiple platforms on both local and national TV and radio, and he'd be snapped up in a jiffy if he left the BBC.

But can the same really be said about John Humphreys, part-time presenter of Radio Four's Today programme? Some days he's on great form. Other days he's a dreadful bore. Most days he's just average, no better or worse than anyone else doing the same job on regional TV and radio up and down the country. Even taking into account that he fronts Mastermind too, £650,000 is a gigantically idiotic reward for asking a few questions of MPs in the morning.

The same goes for Huw Edwards and Fiona Bruce of the Six O'Clock News. Do we really care that much who intones the headlines to give one of them more than a half a million pounds a year and the other between £350,000 and £399,000 (no prizes for guessing which is which)? They're reading an autocue. It's not complicated heart bypass surgery.

As for the presenters of The One Show, I couldn't possibly say if they're worth small fortunes, never having managed to sit through a whole episode.

Come to think of it, I don't know anyone who has.

These personalities may be right to argue that they could earn significantly more if they jumped ship to a rival broadcaster, but there are plenty of popular, effective presenters who didn't make the list, and must therefore be taking home less than £150,000. There's no reason to believe viewers and listeners would switch off in droves if they took over from the pampered ranks of the loadsamoney brigade.

Earning so much that you no longer have anything in common with the captive chumps who pay your wages doesn't matter so much if you're working in pure entertainment such as Strictly Come Dancing or The Great British Bake Off. Showbiz has always been about glamour.

But in news and current affairs, there's something troubling about seeing some big names pocketing annual salaries that would be regarded by the vast majority of ordinary working people as life-changing lottery wins.

They can hardly be blamed for taking the cash. That's how the free market works. But the figures do provoke a certain disquiet, and that must mean something, if only that ignorance is bliss and we were better off not knowing the truth. At least when ITV chucks millions at chat show host Jonathan Ross for being an increasingly unfunny parody of his former self, it comes from advertising revenue, rather than being bought at the price of locking up scores of peasants for not giving their annual tithe to the lord of the manor.

Numerous other salaries are being funded the same iniquitous way too. The BBC has so-called 'talent contracts' with more than 43,000 individuals. They might be earning less than £150,000, but that isn't to say they're not overpaid too. Collectively, it all adds up. As for the other thousands of pen-pushers and administrators and consultants and backroom staff behind the scenes, what do they do to justify their wages? We haven't a clue because they're invisible. They're escaping attention whilst everyone has a pop at Chris Evans.

Ultimately, perhaps the real question is whether we'd be quibbling over the figures at all if we were satisfied with the service that the BBC provides. There are nuggets of gold in there, but there's plenty of dross too.

Auntie Beeb's problem is that she doesn't seem to know the difference in value between the two.

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