Former Radio 4 host Libby Purves: “vain and greedy” men are to blame for BBC gender pay gap

"It’s men who drive pay to insane levels," says Purves

BBC

The Carrie Gracie affair is awful. The BBC loses a top China expert, gets barracked by the equality watchdog and is exposed for “Byzantine” grievance procedures – and trying to buy Gracie’s principles for £45k. Even within the general row about equal pay it is a low point.

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None of it had to happen. Some complain that the pay gap exists because women don’t negotiate. I would say that it’s more about men being vain and greedy. With few exceptions (mainly in the shiny-floor-and-spangles world, inhabited by, for example, Claudia Winkleman) it’s men who drive pay to insane levels. It’s men, not women, who flick their carefully tended hair and purr, like a L’Oréal ad, “Because I’m worth it!”

I told one 400k colleague that he was overpaid. He said, “It’s because I came from newspapers when they paid a lot, so the BBC had to match it.” “Why?” I asked, and he sidled away to talk to someone richer. But really, why? He can’t act, sing or dance, isn’t pretty and – until briefed – knows no more than hundreds of other journalists.

The BBC has a problem with inherited contracts. I accept that. One would like the director-general of the BBC to spend a week reading the BBC’s payroll and noting the gender inequality. The DG could then weigh the importance of the top earners and tell their agents that their next contract will shrink, because the BBC must budget carefully and equably.

If they threatened to go, the DG could gently say, “If you must. But remember how much of your ratings depends on our Rolls-Royce production values and international reach. We’ll build another you.” To news stars the DG could add that BBC News itself is the real star, respected for the rigorous work of hundreds of others who are less well paid.

That this never happens is because of two things. One is that managers like to talk of “handling multi-million-pound budgets”, because that makes their own inflated pay seem good value.

The other is a craven fear of losing “talent”, and a failure to hunt widely for more. They get fixed on the idea that there can only ever be one Norton or Winkleman or Feltz or Lineker. They cling on, like frightened toddlers to their teddies.

In fluffy showbiz it’s a bit understandable. But news and good documentaries aren’t showbiz. Evan Davis tweeted over Gracie, “I don’t think the idea that there should be equal pay for the same work makes sense in showbiz. No junior actor working alongside Tom Cruise should expect to get the same pay.”

Mate, you’re not in showbiz! It may be harsh to say, but nobody wants you on a red carpet! You’re an economist who did a bit of Today! Davis says he wouldn’t expect to earn as much as John Humphrys, but let me share a little secret: having known the Humph for decades I bet he would do it for half the rate. Or less. He loves arguing into BBC microphones at dawn. There’s nowhere else he’d be as happy.

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That applies to more presenters than you’d think. It certainly applied to me as a Today presenter, and for 34 years hosting Midweek. I never negotiated, or used an agent. As a Reithian I consider Radio 4 to be a service: a unique network of intelligent programmes. It was an honour. I earned enough. There are others who think that way – even some men, even in telly. The BBC’s current wounds, caused by prodigality and glaring inequalities, are pure self-harm.