BBC transparency isn’t HD

A nervous BBC struck a hurried deal with then Culture Secretary John Whitingdale (remember him?), because it would rather get a frozen licence fee than risk trying to justify legally obliging the public to handover their money in the teeth of austerity.

Alongside the freeze, Whittingdale also made them sign up to publishing all the on air talent’s wages that were over £150,000; currently €170,000 – it was €196,500 at the time, but that’s another story…

Now the first list has been published. Surprise, surprise there are some on it who appear to make amazing money for being able to read an autocue while not falling off a chair or – even – walking around a bit while not bumping into the furniture. There are also some who get paid the same, or less, who are actually rather good at being on live television, which I can say from incredibly limited experience, isn’t quite as easy as it looks. There is nothing worse, or more wearing, then a show you want to watch being presented by someone who seems constantly on the brink of losing control. A safe pair of hands is a minimum requirement and it is genuinely weird how many (on all channels) get away for years without them.

Generally speaking, I am in favour of transparency and pretty much always when public money is involved. And publishing this list is worth it just to reveal that within this often overly politically-correct national institution, just one-third of its best paid talent are women and even the women on the list lagged 10 per cent behind for similar roles. The highest paid man made over £2 million, the highest paid woman made under £0.5 million.

The BBC says it has some way to go in closing the gender gap. You think? If you don’t make institutions keep score, and make the score public, they don’t change. The same has been true of ethnic and regional representation. Positive discrimination is not an unalloyed benefit; wherever it is applied it is inevitable some variable talent will rise higher than it might otherwise. But that is a small price to pay for a national broadcaster (or Parliament, or judicial system, or public service, etc, etc) that is a better representation of the nation. No one needs publicly funded (or any other) institutions run by white men who have all known each other since their nannies dropped them off at their Public Schools. The only time it goes too far – surely – is when on-air talent has a regional or ethnic accent so dense almost no one in the nation can understand what they are saying….. just a thought.

The BBC says it has cut the real term cost of its talent and that it operates in a market for talent. That’s true and begs some questions about what it should be doing in today’s fragmented and over-served market; how much should it pay for light entertainment stars or music radio DJs that others might want? And how much does it really have to pay for talent on services that only the BBC provides?

The BBC says publishing the list – which it resisted – will cause inflation in fees. And that is right, unless it culls a load of the overpaid men at the top, in order to compensate others – particularly women – further down the list. Many agents will be getting calls from clients asking why X is making double what they do for the same job. I use the word ‘job’ advisedly. But publishing the list is still the right thing to do, and when all that talent does phone up demanding more money I have one simple piece of advice; call their bluff and just wait for the next contract negotiation with X.

Unfortunately, this exercise in transparency also highlighted the BBC’s preference for secrecy where possible. Not to personalise, but you couldn’t invent a more ‘traditional’ BBC figure than David Dimbleby; oldish, white, establishment, part of a broadcasting dynasty, no less. And he presents an iconic ‘BBC at its best’ programme; Question Time, and he has anchored more election specials than, well, his father did. But because Question Time is technically produced by an indie, the amount paid to Dimbleby isn’t revealed, even though the fee paid to the indie is, of course, licence money.

And, get this, a BBC executive brags that its policy is to shift many more programmes to being produced by BBC Studios, a technically separate company that has to make ‘a profit’. And BBC Studios won’t have to reveal what it pays its talent. There was only one BBC man for the job of peddling this particular piece of dissembling as he denied to a BBC presenter (who hadn’t made the list) that this was just a way to hide the information; step forward James Purnell, a former predecessor of John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary. Once a politician…..

At least with the talent list you know who they are and you can make your own judgment about how good they are and how much value they offer. For several years the BBC has been publishing lists of its best paid managers. And, to be fair, they have made good progress in cutting the outrageously bloated numbers and cutting the pay of those that remain. They used to make the argument when defending executive pay that it was a competitive market and they would suffer if they lost all that management talent. It wasn’t true and they don’t make that argument any more.

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