Salary transparency is the final taboo - not just at the BBC

EDITOR'S BLOG: Organisations fear a complete loss of control if what everyone is being paid were to be made public.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 15 Sep 2016

Some may have thought towards the end of the Cameron era that there had been a temporary cessation of the bitter hostilities between the government and the BBC. Events of this week show otherwise. Firstly, we’ve witnessed the pretty ruthless decapitation of Rona Fairhead as chair of the organisation. Theresa May is said to have been not ‘overly impressed’ by the method of her appointment i.e she was in the Cameron/Osborne circle and therefore is now consigned to the outer darkness.

The second line of assault has been on salary transparency. After a long period of resistance the BBC is to be forced to reveal what its star journalists and presenters such as Nick Robinson, Laura Kuenssberg and John Humphrys are on. The Department of Culture has told the BBC it must disclose the salaries of the 109 TV and radio presenters who are bringing home more than £150,00 a year, a figure way below that previously envisaged. The benchmark for revelation and the purging effect of sunlight appears to be what the PM is on. If I ruled the world, by the way, I’d increase our PM’s salary by five fold. Just how important a job is running UK plc supposed to be? Only deserving of a wage packet similar to more successful GPs?

This is going to cause a lot of anguish for the Beeb - as it is fully intended to do. John Humphrys might say ‘sod it’ and sling his hook. Have a few more lie-ins. All will be brought forth in some sort of shaming exercise and will have their pay made public as part of a plan imposed by the government while it grants the BBC’s new royal charter.

Initially this edict was only going to affect those mega stars such as Gary Lineker and Chris Evans, people who everyone knew - and maybe even accepted because they were Slebs - were up in the stratosphere and earning millions. But the individuals who will now be affected are the midranking stars. The likes of Kirsty Wark, Fiona Bruce and Jeremy Vine are likely to get taunts in the street beyond the customary ‘aren’t you the one on telly?’ Vine will have to watch his back while he is on his bicycle even more.

The central plank of the BBC’s resistance to disclose what its presenters earn is that it will make them vulnerable in the war for talent. The word they use is a ‘poachers’ charter’ because it would give rivals a clear idea of how to lure over some of their best-known names at a time when competition in television is growing ever more intense. Might Kirsty, like Clarkson, get poached by Netflix? The retort is that being funded by the licence fee and thus ‘owned and paid for by the people’ the BBC should be treated like the Department Of Transport or an NHS trust.

Salary transparency is one of the final taboos inside businesses and the BBC is no different. What people earn, especially as they rise through the ranks, is regarded as a deeply personal thing in this country. We are not like the Scandinavians or Japanese with their openness and flat salary structures. We often don’t discuss it even with close colleagues.

Right up at the top of big Plcs the annual report means that what is being handed over to the top players is fully transparent. Each year is a battle justifying it. Martin Sorrell brazens it out in public explaining why he’s worth every penny. Others go into temporary hiding behind their comms directors hoping shareholders won’t vote the packages down in sufficient numbers.

Inside small organizations and start-ups things can be even more tricky. Where do you start when you begin a business? You pay what you think the market rate is. You probably make a lot of it up as you go along and this can lead to anomalies quite quickly. Resentment leads to division very quickly if you aren’t careful. Pay is an extremely delicate topic.

An organization like Glassdoor is all about opening things up - revealing every business’s dirty secrets. It even held an Equal Pay Day earlier this year. A survey it conducted revealed that nearly 7 in 10 employees globally wished they had a better understanding of what fair pay is for their position and skill set at their company and in their local market.

Sharing salary information among employees at a company is pretty rare: only 36% of employees, say Glassdoor, say that their company does share information internally about how much employees earn. The Dutch knew the most and the Americans the least.

It’s true, of course, that many secret numbers get leaked anyway. Social media and the ways in which information is shared by younger people so freely have seen to this. It’s perfectly natural for millennials to discuss what they are earning in the Facebook age. But the bosses plus those in the HR department tend to be more guarded with the secrets they hold. And if those secrets got out, all hell would break loose. There would be a revolt in protest at the unfairness, hypocrisy and injustice.

What the PM has hit the BBC with looks vindictive and prurient. But it’s a crude crowd pleaser that will get The Daily Mail jumping up and down in excitement as Auntie is weakened still further. I wonder if they will be forced to reveal Jeremy Bowen’s pay packet. His report from Aleppo on the News at Ten the other night was one of the bravest pieces of public service broadcasting you could hope to see. It put the whole ‘Bake Off’ debacle and Mary Berry’s earnings in proper perspective.


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