This week we learned that a range of top male BBC stars, said to include Jeremy Vine, John Humphrys, Huw Edwards and Nick Robinson, are poised to take pay cuts.
Today and Mastermind presenter Humphrys, who is understood to have already had two reductions in his salary in the last two years, is expected to see it drop the most, a fall reported in some quarters from around £600,000 to £250,000 a year. Fellow Today presenter Robinson is also believed to be in line for a significant reduction on his earnings, which were revealed last summer to have been between £250,000 and £300,000.
Few people relish the idea of taking a pay cut. Very few volunteer for it. But it seems that these men have, with more names due to come. Why?
Clearly the BBC, and the presenters themselves, want to take charge of a story that has been flying out of a control for a number of weeks.
Ever since the salaries of top BBC talent were revealed last summer, the gender imbalance in the levels of pay has been an embarrassment for the Corporation and a source of easy headlines for newspapers.
And when BBC journalist Carrie Gracie resigned as China Editor in protest at the discrepancies – attracting huge levels of support from within and outside the BBC – the story reached new heights.
According to various sources within the BBC, it seems the Corporation is negotiating with a number of its top stars about reducing their salaries, and the names quoted above are correct. Many of the presenters themselves know that it is probably a sensible idea to agree a pay cut before it is imposed, say management sources. More names are likely to join the fray and, yes, these stars are almost exclusively male as far as RadioTimes.com understands.
What is significant, say top managers at the BBC, is the changing nature of the market, and the news-oriented names of Humphrys, Robinson et al are particularly vulnerable. News presenters simply aren’t cutting the big bucks deals any more, in the way they were ten, 15, even 20 years ago when some of these hefty pay packets were negotiated and signed.
And with commercial radio struggling to make profits, the BBC cannot argue that there is a market imperative to pay the likes of Humphrys and Robinson large sums. While they could no doubt go off and work for a commercial station, there is no way they could command anywhere near the salaries they currently enjoy.
In fact, all journalism is struggling in the digital age across all platforms and the large sums instead now slosh around entertainment and drama, with Netflix and Amazon and other big players showering that part of the TV industry with cash. News-oriented journalists are not the lucrative commodity they once were; and while the likes of commercial TV talents such as Robert Peston and Susannah Reid at ITV are still able to command large pay packets, these days they are the exception rather than the rule.
The BBC knows this, the journalists know this, and the public are beginning to realise it too. And what we are seeing now is a process of managing the situation and the inevitable change.
The talk flying around Broadcasting House now is of “co-operation” and “good sense”, as well as the continued anger felt by many women at the gender imbalance. The BBC wants something done as quickly and as painlessly as possible, and it needs to if BBC director-general Tony Hall is going to come good on his pledge to abolish the gender pay imbalance by 2020.
Action is also happening now because next week will herald a crucial chapter in this story.
On Monday or Tuesday the BBC is going to publish its own plans over pay, complete with a report from the accountancy firm PwC on pay levels within the BBC. This is expected to suggest that cuts, especially among male journalists, need to come in. What is happening at the moment is the start of that process.
The BBC also wants to show that it is doing something tangible ahead of Wednesday’s crucial showdown between the BBC and MPs.
This will be the day when Tony Hall and other managers will appear before the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, meetings where easy-going rides are not common. That will be prefaced by an appearance by Carrie Gracie who will also be setting out her stall. The BBC, which has almost certainly leaked this information about pay cuts, wants to get some advantage by showing what it is doing with headline-friendly names and hopefully avoiding any awkward surprises from Gracie or the MPs.
But they can’t control everything. The BBC Women campaign group of which Gracie is a key figurehead has already said it will reject the PwC report because it is unhappy with its methodology. So while the BBC knows something serious needs to be done about pay levels and the gender imbalance and has started that process, it also knows that this is not a story that ends any time soon.