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Tell us what BBC execs, not stars, earn each year

When I see the BBC on the rack over what it pays its broadcasting talent, I think of a restaurant overlooking Lough Swilly at Fahan in Donegal.

It was an early summer in the late 1970s and Gloria Hunniford had just finished a successful Taste of Hunni programme on BBC Radio Ulster, broadcast live from the banks of the Foyle.

The programme team was on the lawn of the restaurant taking in the superb seascape.

There wasn't a cloud in the sky and there should not have been anything to darken my mood as the BBC's head of radio in Northern Ireland.

But there was. I knew Gloria - we had gone to the same school. She was the star of my line-up and the Taste of Hunni mid-morning programme was sweeping all before it. But that day I sensed that I and the BBC in Belfast would soon be losing her.

It wasn't anything she said or any diminution of the exuberance of her broadcasting. I just had a feeling.

I was right. Within weeks, UTV had poached my leading lady for a ground-breaking teatime programme called Good Evening Ulster. It was an hour of entertaining television with news encapsulated, just what the province needed during those morose days of relentless violence. As with Taste of Hunni, Good Evening Ulster snaffled a huge share of the available audience - beginning the same year Christine Bleakley was born, 1979.

UTV would have loved Gloria's programme to have run a decade but it was not to be, because it in turn fell victim to the same pressures. The BBC poached Gloria back with a slot on Radio Two and the rest is history.

I tell this tale because it expresses the inexorable out-working of the relationship between talent and the broadcasting organisations. I could not hold onto Gloria for Radio Ulster because I could not out-bid Ulster Television.

Within three years, Ulster Television was outbid by BBC Radio Two and the lady headed towards the bright lights of London, a path trodden by Terry Wogan from Dublin some 10 years before.

Of course, money is just part of the equation. Gloria was ambitious and when the opportunity to move from radio to television and then from local broadcasting to national, she was off in a puff of smoke. There is rarely sentimentality in this process. It is business, strictly business and the natural operation of a market.

That is why I have reservations about the BBC Trust pressurising the BBC to reveal its highest freelance earners. These broadcasters are not employees. They are operating as a business, often as sole traders or limited companies, with their talent and brand marketability as their assets.

As things stand, the BBC is not going to be required to reveal the individual amounts, but that is the way things are pointing. The money payable within any contract, whether for broadcasting talent or the supply of toilet rolls, has always been regarded in business as private, unless the parties agree otherwise.

It is commercially sensitive information and should be secret from everyone except the taxman. Anyway, unless commercial broadcasters publish the same information, there is little context for such information.

The broadcasters, BBC and commercial, do not shell out more money than they have to for broadcasters. They can buy in talent or develop it from within, which is a slower but cheaper process.

Christine Bleakley began broadcasting in Belfast's City Beat alongside Stephen Nolan. Both migrated to the BBC and both were nurtured within BBC Belfast.

Stephen Nolan remains within the BBC as a local and national radio broadcaster; Christine moved to London and BBC network television. But both show what can be done with excellent talent-spotting and well-directed management.

However, this process must renew itself constantly, because its success very often leads to talented broadcasters going from cheap to expensive, and possibly becoming too expensive to retain. That is what happened with UTV broadcasters Gordon Burns and Ivor Mills and is what is happening with Christine and the BBC right now. This is a sign of success for all involved and we in Northern Ireland should be proud of it.

The money paid to top BBC executives is a different matter. In big commercial companies, there are boards with non-executive directors who often make the decisions about what the top people are to be paid. This is a moderating device.

There is evidence that the equivalent system at the BBC has not been working well. The result is widespread unease at high pay at the top, which is bad for a BBC funded by public levy. Recently announced pay freezes for top table people and some reductions go some way to reducing disquiet, but expect more measures. The BBC is very sensitive to political atmospheres and it knows that there is a new Government and a new sentiment at large prompting expectations not to be frustrated.

Having said all that, it should be remembered that the BBC is a success story. It is providing an astounding range of services for under £3 a week. Compare that with what Sky charges. Politicians and others should resist the temptation to micro-manage the BBC.

Final thought.

If you think the talent is expensive, be aware that the star broadcasters consume less than 7% of the BBC's income.