What should we make of the BBC gender pay gap?

I would like to believe (perhaps naïvely) that most people accept the principle that two individuals – one male, one female – doing exactly the same job ought to be paid the same wage. The Equal Pay Act 1970 enshrined that principle in law and I find it difficult to poke any holes in the idea. It is clearly fair, just and equitable.

When faced with the list of recently published BBC salaries, quite a few of us baulked at the figures. We first looked at the sheer number of zeroes in the salaries and immediately noted how out of step they were with average wages. Many then took stock and noted the obvious discrepancy between male and female presenters. Some then, with the Equal Pay Act firmly in their minds, wondered how this could be?

There are several problems with viewing things this way. First, the BBC salaries are not simply for two presenters doing the same job. There are some who are paid large salaries because they present many programmes over various platforms whereas others host far fewer. For example, my friend Dan Walker says he is paid the same as his co-host for BBC Breakfast. His higher overall salary relate to presenting other programmes. Second, there is the fact that salaries are not determined by set scales but are individually negotiated by agents working for the respective presenter. Third, there is the pull of the market. Some presenters could go to ITV or Channel 4 and command a salary that others couldn’t by virtue of their popularity and the viewing figures they might be able to attract. The truth is that two presenters on the same sofa are not paid only for that job nor are they necessarily of the same value to the organisation.

It is the same issue we see in the world of exorbitant football transfers. Nobody in their right mind genuinely believes Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) and Troy Deeney (Watford) add the same value to their respective teams despite both being forwards and ostensibly doing the same job. This is reflected in their considerably different transfer valuations. In the same way, two people sitting behind the same desk presenting the same news doesn’t necessarily mean they are adding the same amount of value to the BBC. The truth is, big stars and household names command bigger salaries.

The answer could be to simply bring all salaries under set scales. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it only takes ITV or Channel 4, Amazon or Netflix to offer vastly more money for the best presenters to jump ship. As long as there are other places for people to go, iniquitous salaries will exist for those who draw the biggest audiences. In the world of TV, ratings determine revenue. To lose your star attractions is to lose significant portions of revenue which, in turn, affects your ability to function as an organisation and/or make quality programmes.

Which leads me to the sad and highly uncomfortable truth. The gender pay gap at the BBC has less to do with the sexism of the Beeb and more to do with the inherent sexism of the everyday British public. The reason Emily Maitlis commands a smaller salary that John Humphries is because the British public have determined they are far more likely to turn off if Humpy is sacked but couldn’t really care less if Maitlis is given the flick. The fact that this pattern is repeated all down the line between men and women’s pay rather suggests the gender pay gap is a result of the British public’s relative valuation of female presenters compared to the blokes. Women can’t command the salaries of the men because they don’t have the audience pulling power of the men which means they can’t threaten to take their hordes to ITV or Channel 4 because we, the British public, would refuse to go with them. The BBC gender pay gap is merely a reflection of our own viewing habits and our disquiet over the disparity underlines our own hypocrisy.

Nonetheless, as Matthew Hosier has pointed out here, the BBC themselves have their own questions to answer. We are now finding competing parts of the LGBT+ agenda being pressing forward with the approval of the BBC are now butting heads. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, insisted recently that people should be allowed to ‘self-identify’ their gender whilst, at the same time, insisting that the BBC gender pay gap is a problem. There is an obvious contradiction here. Either gender is unimportant, in which case the gender pay gap is utterly insignificant as gender is no longer a legitimate binary distinction. Or, gender does indeed matter and the pay gap is a problem based solely on the disparity between the sexes. As Hosier puts it:

If gender really is irrelevant then whether broadcasters are male or female should not frame the debate about salaries: rather it should focus on whether individual broadcasters are worth what they are paid. But gender (or, more accurately, sex) does matter – which is why the BBC is so embarrassed that “only one third” of its highest paid slebs are women; and why the broadcaster is so relentlessly pushing the cause of female sport. Not that female sport will mean anything if enough trans women get involved.