Ever since the story – and for many people it is a scandal – broke over the discrepancy in the pay the BBC gives to its female and male on-air talent, a bitter battle has been under way between the Corporation and many leading women staffers.
The BBC Women lobby group has steadfastly fought attempts by the Corporation to pour oil on the troubled waters of the issue, which exploded into view last summer when the BBC was obliged to reveal the salaries of all presenting talent paid over £150,000.
The BBC fought in vain to combat a tide of negative stories in which the maths was unarguable. How could John Humphrys be paid between £600,000 and £649,999 in the year to April 2017, while his Today colleague Sarah Montague (who, it appears, is still in the process of quitting the show) didn’t even figure in the list?
Why were the likes of Fiona Bruce and Mishal Husain paid less than male stars like Chris Evans and Nick Robinson? It must have made for some awkward moments in the queue at the BBC canteen.
The BBC has promised to remedy the problem, with a thoroughgoing review which was unveiled on Tuesday.
But even before its publication, BBC Women insisted that they would not accept the recommendations, sending MPs a dossier of grievances ahead of a crunch hearing by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s select committee on Wednesday.
This includes the breathtaking claim by one arts radio presenter that when she asked that a glaring pay gap with a male colleague be corrected, her line manager told her “the BBC doesn’t do equal pay”.
It is hot stuff. The BBC tried to seize back the initiative last week with a slightly botched announcement about key stars such as John Humphrys and Jeremy Vine agreeing to take pay cuts. Only problem was that initial reports fed to the BBC website named one man, North America editor Jon Sopel, who had seemingly not yet agreed to the cut. It was textbook how not to do PR.
And this week the PR battle continues. The BBC is hoping to put the issue to bed with its latest proposals, including a “new framework” on pay, backed up by an independent audit by accountancy firm PwC which found “no evidence of gender bias in pay decision-making”.
But the BBC admits that there is much work to be done. The PwC report also found that there was an “absence of clear pay frameworks” and a “lack of clarity and openness about the basis for pay decisions because of the absence of pay ranges for on-air roles.”
The BBC may include a cap on the pay of its news presenters’ salaries but that will have to be agreed with those affected and staff will be allowed to respond.
It is also promising “substantial pay cuts for some men and increases for some male and female presenters”. It won’t just be the likes of Vine and Humphrys feeling the squeeze.
And there will be more pay transparency. “Where there are more than 20 people in a job, staff will also be able to see where everyone else is positioned,” says the BBC, which claims it is leading the way in combatting the issue and being open about it.
But the key suggestion from the PwC report, which analysed 800 BBC on air staff, that there is no systemic gender bias has further angered BBC Women who have already said they have “no confidence” in the review and that they have been “excluded from the process”.
One of the key conclusions in the BBC Women submission to MPs is that the BBC’s focus on top earners did not pay sufficient heed to lower and middle earning female workers.
So the issue is likely to rumble on.
On Wednesday, Carrie Gracie, who resigned as the BBC’s China editor over the issue, will take questions from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s select committee. This will be followed by a grilling by MPs of director general Tony Hall and other senior managers.
Gracie is likely to reiterate the frustration of BBC Women with the process and an issue that still has a long way to go before a resolution is found. The committee also has a lot to draw on from the lengthy dossier outlining bad experiences from women over the issue.
At the moment, the BBC has taken some steps – and made a lot of promises. It has also admitted that it needs to act quickly if Tony Hall is to come good on his pledge to solve the problem of gender pay disparity by 2020.
This means there will be more hard choices – and more painful pay cuts for men – to come. And one thing you can be sure of: the BBC Women will be watching closely.