x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

BBC pay row should make us all question what we're worth

Britain has been rocked by the revelations about rates of pay for the broadcaster's top talent

The ritual humiliation of the BBC is a public spectacle that smells of government vengeance, writes Gavin Esler.  Frank Augstein / AP
The ritual humiliation of the BBC is a public spectacle that smells of government vengeance, writes Gavin Esler. Frank Augstein / AP

What does a fair day’s pay really mean in the 21st century? In Britain, the BBC is undergoing one of its bouts of beating itself up over pay for its so-called “stars”. The broadcaster, where I worked until recently and which I continue to admire, is widely seen as one of Britain’s best cultural exports. But now, it has been forced to reveal the salaries of all those paid more than the British prime minister. Theresa May receives around £150,000 (Dh715,000) a year and 96 BBC presenters earned more than that, with one, the DJ Chris Evans, earning £2.2 million in a year. Women on the list are paid in general much less than men, including some doing similar jobs. This is clearly unfair, and the BBC needs to put it right. The politician Harriet Harman in an interview with BBC News, noted that the BBC is publicly funded, and that the “lid has been lifted on pay discrimination”, which is “unfair and outrageous".

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Read more:

Top BBC women demand pay equality sooner than 2020

Row over public spending as top earners at the BBC revealed

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Indeed. But behind all this lie two big questions. The first is whether any government anywhere should be able to force any employer anywhere, even in the public sector, to make public what for many of us has always been a private matter: how much we are paid. In China, during the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao, those who fell out of favour were subject to ritual humiliation involving the wearing of a dunce’s cap and standing in a corner. The ritual humiliation of the BBC is a public spectacle that smells of government vengeance. The second problem is much more important. When it comes to pay, what are we worth? A BBC broadcaster, a famous actor, a racing driver at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a footballer for Barcelona may be paid more in a week than a nurse, scientist, street cleaner, teacher, police officer, or a soldier, are paid in a year. What does “fair” mean when it comes to pay?

Recently, a friend told me the story of a London police officer who is part of a highly trained anti-terrorist armed response unit but who lives outside London because he cannot afford a home in the British capital. When a group of deluded ISIL-inspired thugs attacked diners at Borough Market in central London last month, armed police responded rapidly and killed the terrorists. Other units were mobilised in case further attacks were planned, but the armed officer who lived outside London was unable to do his job because he could not afford a car, lived far away, and late night public transport was not available. This officer is not paid enough to live in the city he protects. It’s obviously unfair. Those trusted to protect a society should be able to live within that society. But studies for the Financial Times newspaper showed that since the 1970s, Britain has rewarded most, some of the professions we trust least — those in banking and financial services — and rewarded least some of those we trust most, including engineers, academics, police officers firefighters and scientists. Nurses all around the world tend to be praised as “angels” and yet paid as skivvies. Fair?

Two events from my early twenties inform my scepticism about fair pay. In one case, I went to an employer and asked for a pay rise. He told me to get lost.

“But that’s unfair,” I complained, pointing to a colleague who did the same work but earned much more than me.

The boss snapped back: “Life’s unfair. Get used to it.”

A more significant encounter was with the first major politician I ever met, Enoch Powell MP, a former British government minister. Powell was the darling of some on the far right of British politics after he prophesied that immigration to Britain would result in “rivers of blood.” Disgraced for this remark, Powell sought refuge in Northern Ireland where I had my first job on a local newspaper. At a public meeting in Powell’s new constituency of South Down, he was challenged by a refuse collector about why wages were so low when collecting rubbish was clearly necessary for public health. Most politicians would have uttered a few sympathetic words, but Powell was brutally honest. What you are paid, Powell said, reflects what you are judged to be worth by the society in which you live. There is no other way to judge it. The refuse collector was appalled at Powell’s harshness, and we may sympathise. Nurses, teachers and police are far more important in this world than footballers or TV and radio stars, but that is not how they are valued in our societies. Respect isn’t money in the bank. And despite all the handwringing about BBC pay, in a year’s time the man scoring goals for Chelsea will still take home more than the woman who saves your life in the emergency room. But maybe Theresa May’s own salary might be increased. After all, the prime minister’s Brexit “strategy” suggests she has a talent for comedy within Europe’s entertainment industry.