Feast or Famine: The BBC and Its Gender Pay Gap

The new decade has seen a renaissance for the British Broadcasting Corporation. As the media corporation responsible for the world’s most respected news channel it has seen its highest global viewership for some time, up 11% of last year’s figures, and its Prime Ministerial COVID Statement is the most viewed BBC broadcast in seven years. Yet, despite this success, 2020 remains a blot in the corporation’s history. This was the year in which its former Director-General, Tony Hall, hoped the BBC would completely close the gender pay gap. Its pay disparity was revealed in 2017 to be a 9.3% gap in pay between male and female workers, and it was also revealed that its top seven paid employees were all male. Now, late in the year when the BBC would allegedly close the gap, the writing is on the wall that Lord Hall’s hopes were merely that. Whilst the difference in pay between male and female salary has improved by nearly 33% to 6.3%, it certainly cannot be said that it has been eradicated. To make matters worse, a landmark tribunal case in gender pay disparity, Samira Ahmed v BBC [2020], has recently been found against the BBC, in which presenter Samira Ahmed claimed that the BBC valued her less than a male presenter who was presenting a similar show. The BBC, as part of one of the most visible equal pay controversies Britain has witnessed, serves as one of the best cautionary tales of equal pay to date, one of doing too much and yet too little.

Kingsmill 50/50

Media City, Manchester, United Kingdom

In 2001, the Kingsmill Review analysed a range of companies, the BBC included, in order to ascertain the structural cause of the gender pay gap. It concluded that in general the primary reason is “the clustering of women in lower paid and lower status roles”. To this end, The Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017, which mandates private, public and voluntary organisations with more than 250 employees to annually calculate and publish their gender pay gap, unquestionably helps remedy this problem. This is because it illuminates how organisations perform and encourages them to manage their gaps down, through evaluation and extrapolation of the causes of their gender pay gap. The BBC’s 2017 Gender Pay Gap Report, for example, prompted significant backlash and a subsequent dramatic attempt at closing the gap which, although not closed at present, has resulted in a 33% reduction to 6.3%, roughly a third of the national cross-industry gap average of 17.3%.

Pie in the Sky

With regards to this public perception and the BBC’s highest-paid employees, publishing and reviewing pay can similarly be argued to be a necessary good. Squires has stated that gender pay equality relies on “inclusion”, “reversal” and “displacement” (International Studies in Gender, State and Society, 2005), or as Whitehouse has contextualised, a recognition of “equal work for equal pay” and “equal pay for equal work” (Journal of Industrial Relations, 2020). As the BBC’s highest-earning employees were all male presenters in 2017, despite making up only 32% of the BBC’s “major presenters” population, the BBC’s biggest problem was certainly the latter of these two. Hence, when the BBC’s Royal Charter in 2017 mandated the BBC to reveal its employees who were paid more than £150,000, it caused the BBC to re-evaluate the value of its female and male employees. Subsequently, a significant number of male talent have taken drastic pay cuts, which the BBC was under no legal obligation to initiate. One of the most significant of these being Gary Lineker, the highest-paid BBC employee at present, taking a pay cut of £400,000 just a month ago.

However, this transparency goes against the positioning of the BBC as a public organisation working in a commercial environment. All companies have flagship products, and for broadcasting companies, this is the presenters on their prime broadcasts. Whilst it could be seen as a necessary good that this mandated transparency happened, with regards to rebalancing the salaries of these employees, it also ensured the BBC lost some of its competitive edge in its external and internal market. A pivotal example of this is Chris Evans, who was the highest-paid employee at the time of the initial 2017 published list. Many would argue that Chris Evans was the most valuable asset to the corporation at the time, as radio host of the primetime slot for BBC Radio 2 and a presenter for the mega-hit show Top Gear. However, he was clearly uncomfortable that his earnings had been revealed and it was therefore not surprising that within 18 months he was hired by Virgin Radio and sponsored by Sky. From a personal perspective, Chris Evans would prefer to be in a company that will not disclose its salary and one that likely pays him more in the process. This is a problem because the BBC, despite being publicly funded, is still a corporation that needs to justify its existence. Therefore, it was likely very alarming for the organisation when the September 2019 listenership figures revealed the lowest listening time for BBC Radio 2 since 1999. This conundrum consequently shows that transparency of pay levels is key in order to increase pay equality, but individual transparency opens the corporation to talent attrition with damaging results.

Cherry-picking salaries

Graham Norton (above) received £2 million from his production company, So Television, in 2016 (Image via Twitter)

One might argue that in the long term this talent attrition could be seen as a negligible issue as the BBC could promote female talent to replace the male talent leaving, thereby correcting its pay disparity. Indeed, this is what the BBC has endeavoured to do. Zoe Ball, who previously hosted BBC Radio 1, and is the presenter of Strictly Come Dancing It Takes Two, was granted Chris Evans’ BBC Radio 2 position after his departure. She now receives a salary of £1.4 million and is the second-highest-paid presenter in the BBC. This is certainly indicative of improvement on the BBC’s behalf, but there are signs that the BBC is not necessarily fully committed to abandoning its competitive edge. Graham Norton, perhaps the BBC and Britain’s most internationally famous talk show host, receives a salary of £750,000, but it was revealed by the Guardian in 2016 that he also receives a salary of £2 million from his production company, which is paid £11.5 million by the BBC. Therefore, it could be argued that the transparency requirements force the BBC to perform stopgap mitigation to abrogate negative publicity. When faced with the prospect of paying presenters less in a competitive market, it will paper over the cracks by paying its male talent more via other, less public, means. To this extent, the BBC is not necessarily tackling the more fundamental questions of equal pay, but the most surface level and visible concerns.

You are what you EAT

The difficulty of the entanglement between public perception and commercial concerns is discouraging, but perhaps the greatest tool in rebalancing equal pay lies in the fear of publicity that comes with the employment tribunals (ETs) and employment appeal tribunals (EATs). Certainly, Samira Ahmed vs BBC is a landmark ET settlement in remedying the precarious situation that broadcasting companies are in. As established by The Equality Act 2010 section 65, if work by two individuals in a company is the “same or broadly similar”, in that the differences are “not of practical importance in relation to the terms of their work”, then those comparative workers should be paid the same. This is referred to as “like work” and in the case of Samira Ahmed, it was held that the experience and skills presenting for the shows involved, compared to that of the male presenter Jeremy Vine, were negligible from a practical perspective. It was also held that the market value of Jeremy Vine was overvalued and his connection to the audience too vague to be ascertained, as they both presented very similar shows that were unique to the BBC. The ETs and EATs are therefore proving to be an essential arbiter of unequal pay. They objectively ascertain what is equal on a company by company basis, and indeed an employee by employee basis, in a way devoid of public backlash and commercial concerns.

Furthermore, with the abolishing of employment tribunal fees in R (UNISON) v Lord Chancellor [2017], tribunals have seen an explosion in claims. In 2018, law firm DLA Piper LLP saw an increase of 344% for group claims, with equal pay being at the top of the list of claims sought. The statutory requirement of publishing Gender Pay Gap Reports, therefore, further shines a light on broad inequalities within an organisation, which encourages employees to investigate how they individually stack up with male counterparts and subsequently pursue them. This is especially pertinent as ETs and EATs are costly, lengthy and public processes for a company. As the number of claims dramatically increases, the waiting time for access to an ET also increases, which raises the publicity of the claim to the media. This means that companies are more inclined to settle quickly, which in the case of the BBC forces money out of the TV licence fee payer’s pocket. As this is not a desirable outcome for any company, ETs and EATs are consequently an effective deterrent and force employers to take employee equal pay seriously.

In a nutshell

At the time of writing it is the UN’s World Food Day, which is almost a month after the UN’s very first International Equal Pay Day. As part of this momentous day, the UN warned of the crushing impact that COVID-19 will have on women and gendered wealth inequality. Indeed, as we move further into the new decade, one that has already started with such uncertainty, it is important for companies to bear in mind the lessons of the BBC and fully comprehend the difficulties in transparency, publicity, commerciality and legality in order to one day finally close the gender pay gap.

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