Belfast Telegraph

Wage disclosures could spell payback time for corporation's worst-off

As the dust settles on the BBC's controversial salary revelations, David Gordon gives his analysis of the fallout now facing Auntie

On the day the BBC published the salaries of its top earners, Gary Lineker joked about needing a "tin helmet". The Match Of The Day presenter seems to have survived okay. However, it seems likely that the Beeb itself will be in the firing line for some time yet.

The fallout from the disclosure of the pay packets is expected to pose long-term challenges for the corporation. The BBC probably feared an angry public backlash over the sheer size of the pay bill for what it terms "the talent". That doesn't appear to have materialised, although it's too early to say for certain.

There will be some people who think such sums are morally indefensible in an age of austerity and food banks. But against that there is a fairly widespread acceptance that big names, in fields like entertainment and sport, get big money.

Judging the value of TV and radio stars is a very subjective process - whether it's their monetary worth or their performances, a lot comes down to personal taste. Your view on their pay will probably be determined by whether or not you like them (for my part, I'm still in shock Alan Shearer is in the £400,000-£449,999 bracket. Seriously?).

There can also be interesting debates about how a market rate for BBC broadcasting talent can be calculated. And then there's the added complication that this is no ordinary market - BBC customers are legally obliged to pay up, and have even been jailed for not doing so.

The BBC's own media editor Amol Rajan made this interesting observation in his analysis of the salary disclosures: "The licence-fee payer might - and Britain's Press certainly will - ask: can these hugely well-paid stars really get equivalent money elsewhere? Probably not. And so if, say, this or that radio presenter would do the same job for £100,000 less, why the hell shouldn't he or she take a pay cut?"

Overall, though, a mass revolt against fat cats behind the microphones seems unlikely (however much some tabloid editors might wish it).

The BBC's problems are likely to come on other fronts - from equality battles and further outworkings of transparency. The gender gap has been hitting the headlines since pay disclosure day. Two-thirds of those receiving above £150,000 were men and some of the most high-profile female presenters have gone public to demand action.

BBC director-general Lord Hall has said that "by 2020 we will have equality between men and women on air and we will have the pay gap sorted out".

That's a major target and it may require a significant outlay of money in the form of increases for female stars. It's hard to see many of the big male beasts volunteering to help balance these figures through pay cuts or early retirement. Then there's another equality battle, or to be more precise, an inequality battle.

The BBC is now inevitably going to face demands for a better deal for the lowest-paid in its ranks. Unions have been handed a powerful negotiating and propaganda weapon for future pay talks.

One union representing BBC employees, BECTU, was quick to state that some people working on programmes "barely make a living wage". It also says that, according to the BBC's own figures, 400 of the broadcaster's employees are earning under £20,000.

"These people are earning anything between £15,000 and £18,000 to £19,000," BECTU's Gerry Morrissey said.

"We are talking about people who help make content who are in the same department that is commissioning the talent. The BBC is getting £4bn of licence-fee payers' money and it should at least commit to a liveable wage. We think £20,000 is not extortionate."

The Beeb's woes may not stop at low pay and gender gap controversies. It is likely to find that transparency can be hard to contain. To use a simple analogy, think of it as a snowball hurtling down a snowy mountain, growing all the time. No one can tell for sure how fast or big it will get, or who it will smash against. Politicians and civil servants have all been rolled over. Now it's the BBC's turn.

The corporation had to be forced by the Government to publish the salaries of its highest-earning stars. But why stop there?

We now know the salaries of the presenters and performers in the £150k-plus bracket. But what about those getting over £100k? Or £75k? And what about Channel Four, which is also publicly owned?

Should expenses paid to high-earning performers also be revealed? Or payments made to stars via programme-making production companies? Graham Norton, for example, is paid for his chat show through his production company and not his published BBC salary.

MPs, MLAs and senior public sector employees have had their salaries and expenses laid bare in detail. No less a person than Jeremy Corbyn has told us that the BBC is "very much public sector".

You can bet your house on the BBC fiercely opposing any further transparency on star salaries, expenses and other payments. But will it succeed? That might depend on whether a Freedom of Information (FoI) struggle won by the BBC in the past will now be reopened.

It took years to play out, but the Beeb argued successfully that talent pay was not disclosable under the terms of the FoI Act. Will that landmark decision now be revisited?

The principle of disclosure has been established. So will the Information Commissioner - the FoI Act's enforcer - be persuaded that the game has changed; that demands for greater openness cannot be denied? Or will arguments over matters like commercial confidence and privacy win through?

The BBC can argue that full transparency will damage its effectiveness, not least in competing with corporations who can keep their business totally secret.

Will it be hampered in attracting and keeping big names now that rivals know such secrets and will be much better informed when it comes to outbidding, or poaching?

Will the Beeb's overall pay bill rocket as agents for various stars demand new deals to bring them into line with others?

There will be plenty of politicians lining up to demand more BBC openness. But the scope for further Government intervention seems limited, given that the BBC Charter has now been renewed.

Senior figures from Conservative and Labour benches have been voicing strong opinions on the BBC gender pay gap. Cabinet minister Justine Greening said some of the figures were "very hard to justify", while Corbyn said discrepancies were "astronomical".

It can be pointed out that the issue was brought to such prominence by the pay disclosures.

So, if limited transparency has highlighted an issue of such public interest, has the case for even greater openness not been boosted significantly?

  • David Gordon is a former BBC editor. He also worked for Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness as Stormont Press secretary

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