Belfast Telegraph

Why landing a job in the BBC is like winning the lottery

By Philip Hensher

The other day, Nigel Page won £56m in the EuroMillions lottery. It could have been even more — the gigantic jackpot of £112m was halved between two winners, one in this country, one elsewhere.

Even so: 56 million quid! What you could buy with that — a great big house, a small island, a Giacometti? No, hang on, Giacomettis go for a bit more than that these days. Anyway, you could certainly sit around wondering how you would spend that sort of money, and probably the imaginative life of large parts of the country was spent in that very exercise in the days before the big draw.

Things have certainly changed. John Major's government introduced the National Lottery in 1994, brilliantly imposing a voluntary tax on idiots and spending the financial results on good causes. Before then, the most anyone could dream of winning was a million or two on the football pools.

Nowadays, there seems no plausible upper limit to the financial fantasies supplied by a lucky run of numbers. Choosing to dream of £112m rather than £2,924,622 — the highest recorded pools win — may seem entirely harmless. I mean, you're not going to win either. But when you look around, some kind of subtly corrupting influence of these fantastic numbers seems to be filtering into more important areas of life.

A Mr James Simons, an American financier, was last year paid $2.5bn (£1.6bn). His nearest rival, a Mr John Paulson, earned $2bn (£1.27bn). Absurd sums, and meaningless.

What would they do with it? Force up the prices of Giacomettis, no doubt. The total lack of relationship between need and reward; of merit, above all, and payment; this is what is most conspicuous in these sums.

And in turn, the imaginative power of these sums exerts a force on weaker imaginations. Last week, the BBC was forced to reveal, in general terms, what it pays its executives. A total of 382 of them earn more than £100,000-a-year, up to £664,000.

The ‘talent’, of course, can be paid very much more. There is a £54m pot, believed to be shared by fewer than 100 BBC stars.

Fantasy money. These figures are not fuelled by market demands. They are driven upwards by absurd fantasies of money given in exchange for very little, or nothing at all.

The dream of the big sum is perhaps the single change in desire in national life in the last decades. Once, if you were a BBC producer, or a chap playing the pools, or a civil servant, or even a banker, your dreams of money could float pleasantly upwards before hitting a fairly natural ceiling. But not any more.

And if you work for the BBC, you are, like a Lottery winner, allowed to tick the ‘no publicity’ box. The BBC is permitted to take public money to throw at Mr Chris Moyles and any number of BBC Vision Commissioners and Operations Group heads of department without further detail. Last week, they were still insisting they didn't have to tell anyone what they were doing with public money, and large parts of their obscene salary deals are deliberately swathed in obscurity (they say this is to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned).

Win the Lottery, and you can spend your millions in secret, in any number of reprehensible ways. The BBC can't be run like that. The ways in which it spends our money are ways we are entitled to be told about.

If the lucky winners don't like it, they can always go and work for a commercial organisation and answer to their shareholders.

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