Friday, 16 September 2016

Paying the BBC's stars: too much information

Perhaps you never listen to The Archers. Perhaps you never watch Bake Off. It’s even possible, I suppose, that you don’t care a fig how much Fiona Bruce, Jeremy Vine and Graham Norton get paid.

But somehow, I doubt it. The BBC touches the lives of more than 95% of UK citizens every week – it is as much a part of the fabric of our national life as the royal family and the National Health Service. And, as I never tire of pointing out, it costs each of us who buys a TV licence the princely sum of 40p per day.

Even if you hated every moment of its Olympics coverage, and you can’t stand Dr Who, EastEnders, or Strictly Come Dancing, how about Wolf Hall, The Night Manager, The Proms, Test Match Special, Poldark or Last Tango in Halifax?

It is no surprise that the BBC is rarely out of the headlines. Just over the past week, we’ve had the trial and acquittal of Helen Titchener in The Archers, the loss of Bake Off to Channel 4, the behind-the-scenes assassination of Rona Fairhead, chair of the BBC Trust, and publication of a new draft BBC Charter under which the corporation will operate until 2027.

What a feast! And how lip-smackingly scrumptious that soon everyone will be entitled to know how much each of the BBC’s highest paid stars earns. Cue howls of outrage: ‘John Humphrys earns how much?’ ‘Laura Kuenssberg gets what?’ (Full disclosure: even if I were still employed by the BBC, my name would not be included on the list of those earning more than £150,000.)

The effect of the salary disclosures will be exactly the opposite of what the BBC’s critics want. So let me spell it out: the top presenters and journalists will now be even more poachable than they have been until now. Just look at some of the journalists who were enticed away from the corporation even before their salaries were publicly known (some of them were later enticed back, and I’m pretty confident they didn’t take a pay cut): John Sergeant, Nick Robinson, Laura Kuenssberg, Robert Peston, Paul Mason, Allegra Stratton … the list is a long one.

Journalism is a highly competitive business: editors and channel controllers want to hire the best people they can, and from now on it’s going to be easier than ever for them to poach the BBC’s brightest stars. It will also now be easier for senior BBC staff to demand parity with their peers: this will almost certainly be good for their bank balances, but it will do nothing for their bosses’ attempts to cut costs.

After all, if I had known exactly how much J Humphrys and J Naughtie were earning, I might well have been tempted to demand a hefty pay rise. But I didn’t know, so could only guess. Good for the BBC – and the licence fee payers – less good for poor old me.

The BBC’s director-general, Tony Hall, said on Thursday: ‘The BBC operates in a competitive market and this will not make it easier for the BBC to retain the talent the public love.’ I accept – grudgingly – that the BBC’s journalists may not all be as universally revered as Mary Berry, but even so, we saw the wailing that accompanied the BBC’s loss of Bake Off, so we must now expect more sad farewells as the corporation’s stars are lured to greener pastures. 

I focus on the BBC’s journalists, by the way, because highly-paid entertainers like Graham Norton and Gary Lineker will almost certainly not be covered by the new Charter requirement, which applies only to ‘staff of the BBC paid more than £150,000 from licence fee revenue’ (paragraph 37, sub-section 2 (j) (iii)). Note the word ‘staff’, because most of the highest paid entertainers are self-employed with contracts negotiated by their agents.

I am very much in favour of transparency. If all broadcasters had to declare how much they are paying their biggest stars, I would have no complaints. So by all means, let’s compare how much Jon Snow of Channel 4 News gets paid per hour on air with how much George Alagiah earns. Let’s contrast Tom Bradby of ITV’s News at Ten with his opposite number at the BBC, Huw Edwards.

(By way of a parallel, Channel 4’s chief executive, David Abraham, was paid £855,000 in 2014, compared to Tony Hall’s £450,000.)

But I should be clear about why I am in favour of transparency: it enables those who are paid less than their peers to demand an increase. It means wage bills go up, not down. As an ex-employee, I am a strong believer in equal pay for equal work – but I suspect that is not quite what the culture secretary Karen Bradley, who in her former life was a tax consultant, had in mind.

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