Today is the latest slice in the death by a thousand cuts that the BBC is being subjected to. As part of the most recent Charter Renewal - the legal process by which the BBC is allowed by the government to continue to exist - it has been forced to reveal the names of people who have earned more than £150,000 from the corporation in the last financial year. Today, the figures were finally released.
So expect to see plenty of lurid headlines about how much various household names earn - as well as a newly ‘woke’ Daily Mail suddenly giving a shit about the gender wage gap. It’s inevitable that opponents of the BBC - both left and right - will seize upon the figures as another means of attacking the corporation, because someone they can easily vilify earns a competitive salary in the ludicrously paid industry that is show-business.
There’s just one problem: Though the purported salaries are high - Gary Lineker is top of the table earning between £1,750,000 and £1,799,999 - they’re also pretty much meaningless. Why? Because there is no context. And no blowhard pundit in their right mind would ever dare to want to think about what the figures actually mean.
But here’s why we shouldn’t take the numbers at face value, and we should apply our critical faculties before aiming our fury at Britain’s single greatest source of soft power.
Where Have These Numbers Come From?
If you take a look at the official release, you’ll see that all we’ve been given to go on is a single figure and a name. But where did this number come from? By the terms of the charter, the BBC says that it has to report people who have been paid more than £150,000 from the License Fee pot in the last financial year
In other words, talk of “salaries” is almost certainly wildly misleading, as this isn’t a pro-rata figure, adjusted for if the stars worked full 40 hours weeks, this is just if they have been paid over £150k.
Apples and Oranges
Of the 108 celebrities on the list, all work different and not entirely analogous roles.
For example, erstwhile Doctor Who Peter Capaldi was last year paid somewhere between £200,000 and £249,000, while radio presenter Eddie Mair earned somewhere between £300,000 and £349,000 (the figures have been given in £50,000-wide bands, rather than exact numbers). Does that mean that the BBC value Mair (who is excellent) more than Capaldi (who is also excellent)? No - in terms of hours worked Capaldi will almost certainly be a bigger earner than Mair, as the latter works every day of the week presenting Radio 4’s PM programme, whereas Capaldi will have spent something like 6 months filming Doctor Who, leaving him the rest of the year free to either earn money elsewhere or live in his golden, BBC-funded house.
In other words, comparing like-with-like is impossible without wider details and context. So we can’t read anything with any certainty into these numbers.
The Gender Pay Gap
More contentiously, this is why we should approach the gender wage gap criticisms with at least a little scepticism. There is certainly a wage gap given that two thirds of the list are men. And there are certainly a few clear examples where it looks a bit odd: Sue Barker earns less than Alan Shearer, even though she presents all of Wimbledon as well as a tonne of other sports coverage throughout the year, and all Shearer does a few minutes of football punditry every week.
But the lack of context also makes it harder to speak on other potential comparisons. The biggest disparity, for instance, appears to be that Chris Evans earns between £2.2m-£2.249m and Claudia Winkleman, the highest paid woman on the list, earns only £450k-£499k. Sounds bad, right?
But again, like Mair and Capaldi, a direct comparison is tricky. Evans presents his Radio 2 Breakfast Show every weekday morning, whereas Winkleman’s BBC work is more varied: She presents a weekly Radio 2 show, and works less consistently a number of TV shows throughout the year. So can we say for sure the disparity is there? Could it not be like comparing a full-time employee with someone who is part-time?
And to confuse things even further: Obviously as with all workplaces, people earn different amounts based on duties and experience. We should be unsurprised that the disclosures reveal that Radio 1 stars are paid less than other radio stations - because the presenters are kids in their 20s fresh out of wherever the hell it is they grow Radio 1 presenters. In the case of Graham Norton, though he is handsomely rewarded (earning £850k-£899k), it is unclear whether his figure also accounts for the fact that he owns the production company which makes his chat show. This conceivably means that he isn’t simply reading the autocue and cracking jokes on Friday evenings - he could also be involved in the minutiae of production too.
How Do The Figures Compare Across The Industry?
Perhaps the biggest blindspot caused by this lack of context though is comparing the salaries across the wider media industry. Because the BBC is publicly funded and under the cosh of the government, it has been forced to reveal its numbers. Yet we’ve got no idea how these numbers compare to, say, presenters on ITV or Sky. In fact, there’s pretty much a consensus that compared to commercial competitors, the BBC pay is rather meagre. As Greg Jenner points out, Ant & Dec are thought to earn £12m a year from ITV - well in excess of what the BBC pays anyone.
Oh and remember the gender pay gap? Does anyone really think that situation is going to be any better at any rival broadcasters, or anywhere else in the media?
Are The Figures Even Complete?
What makes the disclosures more maddening is that they’re not even full disclosures. This isn’t even a complete picture of what people earn for shows that are on the BBC. The salary publications only covers things that the BBC produces in-house (like the news) - whereas many of the BBC’s biggest shows are made by external companies, so the list might be misleading in any case.
For example, unless David Dimbleby earns less than we might expect, he’s probably missing from the list because Question Time is made by a company called Mentorn, so he gets paid through them. Though Mel Giedroyc makes an appearance on the list, her double-act partner Sue Perkins doesn’t - perhaps because they don’t always work together (see the Mair/Capaldi comparison), but perhaps because their fees for the last series of Bake-Off were paid through production company Love Productions (which, umm, is owned by Sky)?
This is perhaps most clear looking at the drama fees. Who do you think was the best paid BBC actor last year? Perhaps Benedict Cumberbatch for Sherlock? Or Tom Hiddleston for The Night Manager? Nope, it’s… Charlie from Casualty.
So in all likelihood, there are probably even more people on-screen who earn more than £150,000. But because of the lack of context, making any judgements on what the numbers mean is going to be hard.
Beating Itself Up
The BBC is one of our greatest institutions. Today, across BBC News output there will be the strange sight of seeing news presenters grilling their senior managers over why they and their colleagues are paid so much money. The BBC loves beating itself up, and no other broadcaster would ever do anything close to it.
Make no mistake, despite what you might read in the Telegraph or the Mail, these disclosures aren’t just about exposing gender pay gaps or about transparency, they’re the latest attack in a continued assault on the BBC’s ability to do the extraordinary things that it does. When The Canary inevitably uses Laura Kuenssberg’s salary (£200k-£249k) as an excuse to make baseless and undeserved attacks on her journalism, at least it’s political agenda will be obvious.
And as Rich Trenholm observes, it seems odd that the people who like to complain that the BBC is anti-competitive are now about to argue that it is bad that the BBC pays market rate salaries.
Ultimately though, my point is this: These numbers are not enough information. We simply don’t know enough, or have enough context to hold informed opinions on whether each person named is earning too much or too little. This means that any opinions you might have already formed about the salaries are almost certainly wrong.
James O'Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.
Full Disclosure: I have a side gig doing a weekly tech news slot on the BBC Asian Network. I can confirm that I get paid dramatically less than Nick Knowles, sadly. This piece is my own personal opinion and not that of the BBC, though I can’t help but wonder if they might secretly agree with me.