Belfast Telegraph

BBC can sulk but viewers need truth about presenters' pay

You've more chance of getting gold out of Fort Knox than wages for BBC NI 'talent'... but not for much longer, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Say what you like about the appointment of David Gordon to his new post as Stormont Press secretary - and plenty of people already have - but at least we know what the former Nolan Show editor will be earning. Now that he's a public servant, Gordon's £75,000 annual salary is published for all to see.

Finding out the salaries of those who work for the BBC as the so-called "on-air talent" isn't quite so straightforward. Their wages come out of the public purse, too, but the corporation doesn't seem to believe that it's any of licence fee payers' business how much of their money goes towards keeping those famous names in the manner to which they've become accustomed.

This stubbornness has prompted the Government to order the BBC, as of 2017, to publish details of anyone currently earning more than £150,000 a year.

Auntie Beeb is not happy. In fact, Auntie is stamping her privileged little foot and insisting that it's not fair, because that's what spoilt little madams always do when they're not getting their own way.

BBC Northern Ireland is even refusing to say how many of its big names will be affected by the new requirement for transparency when the Royal Charter is renewed, which, when you think about it, is quite remarkable.

There are few secrets left in a world of computer hackers and Wikileaks, but it's still easier to sneak a bar of gold out of Fort Knox than it is to find out how much this man, or that woman, is being paid to appear on air - even when it's our money that's paying their bills. All those Botox injections and super-injunctions don't come cheap, you know.

So far, the BBC's main excuse for treating the salaries of its best-known TV and radio personalities as if they were state secrets is that the information is "commercially sensitive" and would create a "poacher's charter", encouraging rival networks to sneak in and snatch the brightest and best from right under the Beeb's nose; but that really is nonsense on stilts.

If another broadcaster wants to make a bid for a certain household name, there are plenty of ways for them to find out what they're being paid.

It's only us, the mugs who foot the bill, who must be kept in the dark; and the real reason for it is probably because they know we'd be shocked to discover exactly who's getting (I won't say earning) more than the Prime Minister, who takes home a relatively miserly £143,462 a year.

Who knows, we might even be shocked enough to wonder why we keep stumping up for what amounts to a poll tax on every household simply in order to swell the bank balances of people who could disappear from our TV screens tomorrow without any of us really caring that much - or even noticing.

Of course, there are some people who receive large wages and are worth every penny, because there's no one else doing what they do, or certainly not doing it as well.

Stephen Nolan divides opinion like no other broadcaster, but he's a unique figure, who works extremely hard, not just in local TV and radio, but on the national airwaves as well. If he's earning more than £150,000 a year, then most of us would say good luck to him.

It's those other people whose names we can barely recall - you know, Thingummyjig and Wotsisname and all the rest - whose salaries we might resent after learning how well they're being rewarded.

And for what? Reading an autocue? Saying, "And now let's go over and find out what the weather will be like in your area"?

It's not exactly rocket science, is it? It's barely even domestic science - no offence intended to The Great British Bake Off.

That show, after all, draws in millions of viewers every week with its winning formula of gentle innuendo and cake-related disasters. When you're that successful, you can set your own price-tag.

Most TV and radio presenters aren't in that category. They're not even close. Do they really need to earn more than Theresa May? Especially when there are many others waiting in the wings who could do as good, or at least no worse, a job.

The BBC can't have it both ways. Either it accepts that taking all that lovely licence fee money brings with it certain obligations, or it doesn't and should go it alone, surviving on advertising revenue like its rivals.

Then it truly would be none of our business how much presenters trouser for their efforts.

Having its cake and eating it has always been the BBC's way, however. It wants the freedom to lecture other individuals and institutions on their lack of openness, while reserving the right to lock away its own secrets in a deep, dark vault under Broadcasting House, never to be seen.

Only an organisation with a bloated sense of entitlement would seriously believe that it shouldn't have to come clean about how it's using other people's money.

Thankfully, time is running out on such arrogance. This time next year, we'll know precisely who in Northern Ireland and elsewhere is being paid more than £150,000; and with any luck that will lead in due course to the disclosure of presenters' salaries below that limit, too.

Because there are still plenty of bog-standard broadcasters getting wages which would be regarded as excessive in any other workplace than the BBC.

They could have come clean willingly, rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but that's what happens when you're living in the past.

The corporation has spent so long being praised to the skies for its glorious history that the current generation in there don't even seem to realise that what we're doing when we celebrate the BBC is remembering the place as it used to be, not as it is now.

These days, it's no better than any other channel. The only difference between it and ITV, or Sky, is that those other networks don't act as if the viewers exist to serve them, rather than the other way round.

It really is quite simple. You can go to jail for not paying the licence fee. When the penalties are that severe, you should have the right to know where the money goes.

Only someone who's spent too long shut away from the real world in the British Blathering Corporation would consider that unreasonable.

Belfast Telegraph


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