Sarah Montague has been presenting Radio 4’s Today programme for almost two decades. Before that, she fronted numerous television news shows for the BBC, including News 24, Newsnight, Breakfast with Frost and Hardtalk. When it comes to the row over gender pay that is rocking the Corporation today, she says it is a problem she has “wrestled with” for most of her career.
Speaking at the Radio Times Covers Party on Tuesday night, Montague refuted PwC’s report that there is “no evidence of systemic gender discrimination” and “no gender bias in decision-making” at the BBC. “There is a problem,” she said. “I was gobsmacked when I saw the suggestion from PwC that in the on-air presenting group [the gender pay gap] was only 6.8%.
“I find that very hard to believe. I’d love to know who was in the group, who they were looking at, who was excluded and how they did the metrics of it. I’d just love to know that.”
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Montague is part of the BBC Women lobby group – alongside 170 others including Jane Garvey, Mishal Husain and Victoria Derbyshire – who have called for an apology and back pay over claims that the Corporation broke equality laws by failing to pay them fairly.
BBC Women rebuked the report ahead of its publication on Tuesday for not consulting those affected. They also outlined their stories of unequal pay at the Corporation to MPs ahead of the Department of Culture Media and Sport’s [DCMS] select committee on Wednesday.
The row, which has been raging since the broadcaster published the salaries of its top earners in summer 2017, has marked a very strange time for BBC reporting. Its presenters are not simply reporting the news, they have become the news. This has led to bizarre situations for journalists such as Carrie Gracie, who quit her job as the BBC’s China Editor over pay inequality. She found herself presenting the Today programme while her open letter challenging the BBC was at the top of the news agenda, but was unable to discuss the issue on air.
Listeners were similarly baffled when John Humphrys’ leaked off-air conversation about Gracie was included as an item on the 9am news, but he did not address the story. Humphrys is among a group of male presenters who have agreed to take a pay cut to bridge the disparity.
Montague said that being one of the reporters at the centre of the scandal is “very difficult” and that sometimes she wishes she could “disappear” out of the spotlight. “It’s horrible being on the wrong side of the news barrier,” she admitted. “I absolutely hate it, it’s a very uncomfortable place to be. I long to get back and disappear.”
She added: “It’s weird, it’s clearly weird. I long for it to be over.”
However, Montague believes that the short-term discomfort of the attention is worth it for the cause. “We’ve got a spotlight on it and it would be very nice to properly fix it,” she said. “If we can do it, then we can have a ripple effect through society. That’s got to be worth momentarily being on the wrong side of the news barrier.
“Also, I’ve got daughters. When I was 20 I wouldn’t have in a million years thought I could be in the situation I was in last July, when I discovered what I discovered about my pay.”
Published figures revealed Montague was paid only a quarter of the salary of her Today colleague John Humphrys, who also presents Mastermind for the BBC. “It was a massive shock. I’m 51 now, 30 years ago I never thought I could be in this situation. If I want to nail this for my daughters, then some awkwardness now is worth it.”
Montague, who is soon expected to job swap with Radio 4 World at One’s Martha Kearney, also spoke about the recent changes at Today, which celebrated its 60th birthday last October. Sarah Sands became the programme’s new editor in January 2017, and has been accused by some of making the show too “lightweight and magazine-ish” by prioritising fashion and arts stories. But Montague said her editorship has been “so interesting”.
“I’ve seen a few editors in and out now and when they arrive it’s always an adjustment. You think, ‘Really? No, we can’t do this, we can’t do that.’ But then you find a way to make it work. We’ve noticed this even with Christmas guest editors coming in.”
One of those guest editors was Prince Harry who took control of the airwaves last December and whose technique Montague admits she was pleasantly surprised by, particularly his understanding of the importance of a source, of a story’s provenance. “He took it really seriously,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Hats off to you, you really get this in a way that some of our other guest editors don’t.’”
Reflecting on her 18 years at Today, Montague said she has noticed a huge shift in the style and tone of the show’s broadcasting. “It’s changed enormously. We are much more human. We’re less uptight and fusty.”
Until 2013, Montague was the only female presenter on Today. “For many years I felt that absurdity,” she admits. “I thought, ‘This is crazy, I don’t represent half the population.’ It was fabulous when Mishal joined, it felt like a weight off.”