BBC pay for Talent, and fairness

I was called, but not chosen, as a potential contributor to a BBC Radio 4 current affairs show about the BBC pay disclosures.

Here, put simply, is what I would have said (with a bit of explanation below the fold):

The BBC ought to organise itself so that its senior current affairs presenters are better and cost less. Its entertainment presenters should matter less to it, and also should increasingly be more cheaply home-grown.

Also: is absurd for quite over-paid women presenters to complain that they are not paid as much as grossly over-paid males. No fairness principle worth the name is at stake in the women’s claims for parity.

The BBC and the market and value
The BBC is half-heartedly in the market place for Talent and it is half-heartedly in the business of delivering quality. I mean: it has to pretend that it is special in not paying silly money (ie, market rates) and it has to pretend that everything it does is about standards, say in journalism. It is also, of course, very prone to over-estimating the merit of its uniquely cosseted and corseted position, and – likewise – it inflates its contribution to the quality of our culture and to the gaiety of the nation, and thus of the Talent who front its work to audiences.

By the way, it does not quite do to bifurcate the BBC’s light-entertainment Talent from its journalistic Talent. TV and radio tend to drive the latter toward behaving like the former, which is why one is wisest to learn about current affairs from newsprint and longform sources.

Bearing those things in mind, it seems sensible to say that the Corporation has two pay criteria: replace-ability and value. (This isn’t far from what its super-smooth, ur-PR, James Parnell has said.)

So far as I can see, the BBC overpays its journalistic Talent. It could – if it were braver – probably buy or nurture its presenter-journalists more cheaply, especially where it matters, in its documentary and currents affairs roles. I say where it matters: in the mass market entertainment world in which the BBC seeks to be a success in order to justify the licence fee, it feels itself free to be more frankly market-orientated. But the BBC has even less claim to being indispensible in entertainment shows than in current affairs shows, so if the BBC were courageous it would refuse to over-fund its silly bits.

If we argue for replace-ability of journalistic Talent as an important yardstick, various brutalities arise. For instance, long-standing older presenters should each be paid progressively less since the odds are that natural wastage will force the corporation to know how to replace them in short order anyway.

Of course, the BBC does not overly bother to offer excellent journalism, which is a relatively easy, cheap and unpopular thing to achieve. It hasn’t the courage to dare to be dull. Rather, it likes to offer its audience familiarity and a lively ride. (Whenever you hear “much-loved” as a term of praise for a broadcast journalist, you should know you are having your tummy rubbed, which is not the point of the journalism you should be proud to enjoy.)

This is where the value criterion kicks in. There is a decent case that Andrew Neil is a more valuable journalist than several others who are paid far more. Thinking of replace-ability alone, if he is content to work for less money than others, then good. He is a bargain.

But it is instructive to unpick the Neil case a little more. In the degree to which he is actually irreplaceable, that is because the BBC has failed to nurture and promote similarly value-adding Talent. Anyway, and a little separately to the market realities of replace-ability, he would be worth paying more on the basis that he is at the very heart of the BBC’s core, value, role of delivering classy journalism. Many of his competitors are easier on the eye or ear, or more vulgarly combative. (Mind you, AN has a weakness for knockabout which lets him down sometimes, too.) But very few others are simply so informative as Neil because of what they know and understand.

Privatising the BBC’s bits
The current fuss usefully reminds us that the BBC is getting more and more divisible into commercially viable units. Firstly, the BBC is buying in expensive Talent from outside entities as shows get delivered lock-stock-and-barrel by firms whose role grows proportionately, and presumably at the expense of the BBC’s scale of operation, but also of its own irreplace-ability. Secondly, the BBC increasingly hives-off its offerings to various of its own pseudo- or proto-commercial operations. These may well be simulacra of models for sell-offs as the BBC de-nationalisies itself.

When the BBC is privatised, its pay rates will be a subset of wider issues. The payment of its Talent will play in the national debate as Talent take their place in a continuum of apparent unfairness from nurses through to footballers; with celebrity presenters and CEOs somewhere halfway.

The BBC and gender and “fairness”
I have left gender equality to last. It is an absurdity when it comes to the BBC’s Talent. Granted that the male Talent is over-valued and over-paid, how can it make sense for women to believe there is a case for females to seek parity? Slightly better that feminists should argue for female Talent’s current pay being the benchmark for what the BBC should in future offer men. On that basis the BBC could either get men to accept lower pay or simply replace the chaps with the equally-talented but cheaper girls. I take it that similar arguments apply in the case of every “minority” and equality.

A sound discussion about fairness cannot only take account of gender. If one is arguing for parity rather than replace-ability or value, and one is insisting on equality or fairness, then female broadcast Talent would have – in fairness – to consider whether their pay is “decent” or “ethical”, as compared with that of nurses, cleaners, CEOs, footballers, Russian oligarchs – in short with everyone of every sort. Female BBC Talent could not rationally or morally peg themselves with males whose pay is so “unfairly” high, or ignore the relationship of between the pay of BBC Talent and that of people outside who are paid “unfairly” less. This couldn’t just be about geese and ganders, but all the other farmyard animals too.

In short, fairness is a far wider argument than that of the replace-ability or value of BBC Talent, and it trumps any narrow business of gender parity.

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Publication date

24 July 2017