Only Fools and Horses

The BBC was cloaked in controversy this week after the salaries of its presenters paid £150,000 or more were made public. Not only were the sums a shock for their amount (they reach up to £2.2 million), but also because they revealed the disparity between the rates at which female and male presenters were paid.

Here’s the thing.

Firstly, we are deluded as a society if we think that our salaries reflect the amount of or the quality of work that we do. The reason why some of these figures at the BBC are earning money in a single year that most could never dream of in a lifetime is because they are brands which draw huge audiences to the BBC. The BBC is like a sports team and these figures are the superstars which fans pay to watch. Indeed, what professional athletes and TV presenters have in common (apart from their pay-packets) is that they are, above all, entertainers.

And entertainment has always been a costly business: in Ancient Rome it cost human lives; today it costs £2.2 million.

The question then is not why are they paid so much, but whether they should be paid for by the British taxpayer. The similar amounts of money which a Premier League footballer may earn are paid for by the market: ticket sales, advertising revenues, sponsorship deals and so on. This question is made even more important by the fact that the BBC is persistently failing to uphold its necessary function of impartiality. Some even allege that this is why the current Conservative government forced the BBC to disclose this information in the first place.

The second issue which this fiasco has raised concerns the gender pay gap. Why is that two thirds of the BBC’s top earners are men? There isn’t actually an answer to this and yet it is taken to be an indicator of entrenched sexism. But this doesn’t really add up when considering the commitment of the BBC to equal opportunity, and the number of women working in senior positions at the BBC. It is simply wrong to hold that Sue Barker for instance is being discriminated against and still earning £300,000 a year. In comparison to Gary Lineker or Chris Evans (the top two earners), how many weeks a year does Barker work for the BBC?

So, the real conclusions to be drawn from this fiasco are:

  1. The BBC is a business – not a public service – and should be treated as such
  2. This is because reputation, not merit, determines pay-packets in entertainment.
  3. And therefore equal pay is a chimera.

Let’s end on a final thought. The dream is that men and women are paid the same amount for the same role in any organisation – but there will still be a poorer man for every senior woman. Is that equal pay – or is that just another case of some being more equal than others?

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