It's the first time the news organization has released a list of its top earners as part of its annual report. It was compelled to do so by the government as part of its new 11-year royal charter; BBC leaders worry the release of the figures will create a “poacher's charter” and drive up salaries in the media industry.
It also made for some awkward on-air conversation.
BBC's “World at One” led its broadcast with a piece on the pay disparities, with reporters trying to get high-paid BBC staffers to talk to them. BBC Radio 2's Ken Bruce, who makes at least 250,000 pounds, was accosted on the street. When asked about the list, he replied, “I don't have anything to say about it, sorry. But thanks very much for asking.”
“As you’d expect, we’ve been trying to contact some of the others whose salaries have been revealed,” said anchor Edward Stourton (not on the list). “But none of them would talk to us … We’ve had all sorts of responses, including ‘I’m out today,’ ‘No, I’m out of the country’ [and] ‘No, I’m having absolutely nothing to do with it.’”
Jeremy Vine, who hosts a call-in show (and makes at least 700,000 pounds a year), was asked by a caller (a coal miner from Neath who has “seen men buckled up from working hard all their life through hard graft”) whether he's embarrassed to pick up his paycheck. “I just feel very lucky every day,” Vine said. Was he overpaid? “I don't even want to answer that.”
Lineker tweeted, in defense:
And news presenter Andrew Marr acknowledged that the list's publication was “uncomfortable for all of us.” For its part, BBC management has pledged to address the gender pay gap. “By 2020, we will have equality between men and women on air,” BBC Director General Tony Hall told a female BBC Radio 4 host in an interview. “And we will also have the pay gap sorted by then, too.” (The host then pressed the issue: How exactly would the organization be handling this? Would the salaries of the men be cut? Would the earnings of female employees be raised? Hall declined to offer specifics.)
He and others also defended the high salaries, saying that a world-class network demands world-class talent. They noted, too, that the BBC has reduced the total pay to top staff by 10 percent since last year.
That wasn't sitting well with everyone. As one columnist wrote in the Guardian: “It’s simply not fair that a small minority of people earn so much more than the rest of us. Arguments about preventing talent being poached by competitors don’t cut it. Nobody is worth these sorts of amounts. There should be less of a gap between the highest and lowest earners within an organisation — and between the rich and poor more generally.”
Prime Minister Theresa May also took a swipe, deflecting a question about low pay in the public sector by saying, “As we see today, there are some people in the public sector who are very well paid.”
But Tom Watson, deputy head of the Labour Party, defended the high price tags of some of the BBC's biggest talents.
“The BBC is one of the world’s greatest broadcasters and we shouldn’t be surprised that its top stars — who millions of people tune in to watch and listen to every week — are well paid,” he told the Guardian. “It's wrong that only a third of the BBC’s highest paid stars are women, and we welcome Lord Hall’s commitment to close the gender pay gap by 2020. It would be good to see a similar commitment, and similar levels of transparency, from other media organisations — especially those who are criticizing the BBC today.”