SENIOR BBC presenters can hardly expect huge waves of public sympathy at the news that their pay is to be capped at £320,000 a year — which is a good deal more than ten times what most of their viewers and listeners earn.
The Conservative politicians who insisted that the BBC should make public its senior salaries were probably mischief-making. They claimed that the requirement was intended to lower costs for the licence-fee payer, though I suspect that it was more to do with keeping the BBC in line before the General Election. Conservatives routinely claim that the BBC has a left-liberal bias, but then supporters of Jeremy Corbyn just as often complain that it is pro-Tory.
Whatever the politicians’ motives, this week’s BBC pay review has decided to cap the pay of the highest earners. It will also increase the pay of women, and some men, in the middle ranks, however, which may end up increasing rather than cutting the overall wage bill.
At the heart of the row about BBC pay lies a dichotomy that is hardly ever articulated. The BBC is a publicly funded body, cleverly structured by its founders to maintain arms-length independence from government. Its mandate is to inform, educate, and entertain. The result of all this is that it straddles two models: that of a structured public-service broadcaster, and that of a giant media company that must compete in a highly aggressive commercial world.
Politicians like to remind us of the public element with the oft-repeated trope that “No public servant should earn more than the Prime Minister.” Under that model, BBC pay should be structured like that of the civil service: the British ambassador to Washington may earn more than his counterpart in, say, Dublin, but a man and woman in comparable posts should earn the same. That rule should apply to BBC correspondents in such places.
There are complications, of course, in running a big organisation: if you want to move someone from one job to another, it may not be reasonable, or politic, to ask them to take a pay cut just to match the pay of their predecessor. Such leeway should be possible within a structured system.
But pay for talented entertainers, whom the BBC wants to keep safe from poaching by commercial rivals, will inevitably be fixed on a market basis. That, too, is understandable, and, had the BBC kept the two systems separate — with a structure in news, and the market taking priority in entertainment — trouble might have been avoided.
The problem is that BBC executives succumbed to inappropriate market logic in their treatment of news presenters. In news, it is the posting that creates the stature of the presenter. In entertainment, the stature of the presenter can enhance the broadcaster. That distinction needs to be kept in mind.
So it is wrong for Damian Collins MP, the chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, to suggest now that curbs should be put on pay in BBC entertainment. That would be a disservice to the viewing public. Clearer thinking is needed.