My daughter is outraged at the suggestion that I might earn more than the Prime Minister, who is paid £143,462. She has read my name on a list on the internet (do they not have bike sheds to smoke behind in modern schools?) and is quizzing me on the way home. “But you don’t do anything.”
“Er, well, actually, I get up very early in the morning for the Today programme and…”
She cuts me off with one of those withering putdowns that all dads of daughters will recognise. “But you just read things out. Literally, Daddy, you read for a living. And you pick me up every day.”
Hey-ho. And thanks a lot to whoever it was who put me on that list. If I had a few bob and the time to spare I might approach a top lawyer and make a claim that my human rights have been abused.
Oh wait: I have (allegedly) got a few bob and time to spare. Well, never mind. The fact is, being on the list – painful as it was during that journey home – is probably better than not being on it. But of course it’s all rubbish. People inflate their own salaries and deflate their rivals’. As the great Gore Vidal once said: “It’s not enough to succeed; friends must fail.” In this spirit I make an attempt, when a newspaper calls, to suggest that Jeremy Vine is probably not earning quite as much as reported. But my heart’s not in it.
Still, there is a good reason to suggest that the pay of news broadcasters should be a national concern. The inflation of salaries at the top end of US journalism has led to a genuine divide between the journalists and those Americans on whose behalf the journalists are meant to be working. David Gregory, an acquaintance when I worked in Washington DC, was reportedly paid $5 million a year to present a Sunday morning politics show and then $4 million when he was fired.
Exactly: even more than Robert Peston, and in a nation where 47 per cent of people in a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank in 2013 said they would be unable to find a spare $400 (£300) to cover a family emergency.
Of course, in the USA all network TV money is commercial – no licence payers are asked to fund the stars. So is it OK for them to be paid so much? I think not, and the evidence is to be found in the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who have transformed the US presidential race, propelled by a scream of distress and outrage – who knew that so many Americans were so unhappy? But why was this political earthquake on left and right unpredicted by all these highly paid folk in Washington and New York? Might it be that they lived (and still live) in a bubble?
For all the American obsession with classlessness, the big money at the top of journalism has cut off the commentariat from the rest of society.
Yes, I understand the special concern about the BBC, since the salaries come straight from licence payers. That is – literally and metaphorically – a matter to be decided above my pay grade. But perhaps it’s more important that all news broadcasters – on commercial stations as well – should be paid in a manner that keeps them on the side of the people.
Years ago, when I presented Breakfast News on BBC TV, I met the only person in the world who could genuinely have been called a “fan” of mine, on the top deck of a London bus. We had a lovely chat about the programme and she expressed total admiration for how I coped with such a difficult job. “Well,” I muttered with faux modesty, “it’s really nothing, though it does get a bit hairy when the weather forecast comes up on camera two and you have to turn to camera three to say ‘Good morning’ but…”
“No, no,” she interjected, “I mean getting to work on a bus. You must start work so early and the night buses are so unreliable…”
Yup. Those of us who are decently paid already live in another world from millions of people who struggle to get by. I see in the latest list of BBC folk earning as much as the PM I have been left off. My instinct is to be worried. But I suspect it’s for the greater good.
Justin Webb is a presenter on Today on Radio 4