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Amazing! Gracie and the gender pay gap myth


Author Stephen King brought us the terrifying character of Carrie, who after discovering her extra-sensory powers took vengeance on her tormentors. Namesake Carrie Gracie possesses no similar supernatural ability; nevertheless, by shrewd media manipulation she has managed to terrorise management at the BBC.

By quitting as the BBC’s China editor and publishing an open letter which complained that her male counterparts – international editors Jon Sopel for North America and Jeremy Bowen for the Middle East – earn ‘at least 50 per cent more’, Gracie has reignited the row over pay differentials at the Corporation. Naturally, the battalion of BBC women is once again on manoeuvres, this time mobilising around #PrayForCarrie – sorry, #IStandWithCarrie.

The list of top BBC earners (above £150,000) published in July 2017 revealed that Jon Sopel pocketed between £200,000 and £250,000, while Jeremy Bowen garnered a lesser amount in the range £150,000 to £200,000. Not appearing on that list, Carrie Gracie now reveals her pay to have been £135,000, which she at least has the honesty to admit makes her ‘very well paid already – especially for someone working for a publicly funded organisation’.

Furthermore, we learn that as a result of last July’s pay disclosures the BBC offered her a rise of £45,000 which, from the available information, was presumably intended to give parity with Bowen, if not with Sopel. It was an offer she refused: ‘I could not go back to China and collude knowingly in what I consider to be unlawful pay discrimination. Nor could I stay silent and watch the BBC perpetuate a failing pay structure by discriminating against women.’

All of which is ostensibly selfless and laudable, though her open letter and subsequent revelations were obviously timed for maximum impact, coming immediately before a scheduled spot guest-hosting the flagship Today programme – the presenter having become the story – and followed by a sympathetic platform on Woman’s Hour. Furthermore, those who make a living outside the cloistered BBC might understandably wonder how one of its employees can first resign from a senior position yet remain in the organisation; then for her employer, the national broadcaster, to provide this disgruntled employee with stages from which to publicly denounce a pay arrangement to which she had willingly agreed. Truly amazing, Gracie.

Once again the cry from BBC women is one of ‘equal pay for equal work’. But as I wrote in November 2017 at the time of so-called Equal Pay Day, broadcasters are not drudges or wage-slaves to be bound by bureaucratic pay scales. They operate in the world of showbiz, where norms do not apply and pay is determined by what the individual is prepared to accept and what the station believes them to be worth. The alternative would be a preposterous situation whereby whatever the most talented and valued individual can negotiate is automatically paid to the rest of a group. In broadcasting, as in other fields, this would be as nonsensical and unfair as a fringe player at Tottenham Hotspur having his pay kept in line with that of supreme goalscorer Harry Kane.

In the competitive medium of broadcasting, be it entertainment or news, careers can be ephemeral and everyone is dispensable. On-air television or radio journalists must be judged not only on their capacity to source stories, but also their skill at presenting the information in a distinctive way which engages the viewer or listener, all of which is entirely subjective. For visual and aural performers, any attempt to legislate different work as being of equal value is absurd.

None of which is intended to belittle the talent of Carrie Gracie, but unfortunately her ability is something on which I am unable to express an opinion. Because whereas Gracie’s international counterparts Jon Sopel and Jeremy Bowen are instantly familiar to my eyes and ears, and although I must have been exposed to her work, until she voluntarily became a cause célèbre I could not have identified Carrie Gracie in a police line-up; nor am I likely to be unique in having this blind spot. Indeed, her more limited imprint on the public consciousness is probably a major reason why the BBC had hitherto paid Gracie less than both Sopel and Bowen and why, when accepting the position in China, she or her agent had not been able to haggle for a greater amount.

In her open letter, Carrie Gracie urges the BBC to avoid ‘an exodus of female talent at every level’, but this is surely an empty threat. Apart from raising the question of where, within a limited market, an ‘exodus’ would all find alternative work at enhanced pay, in the unlikely event of a mass flight there would be no shortage of competent applicants, including numerous other women, eager to step into what are still regarded as prestigious roles presenting and producing at the BBC.

For all the protestations of institutional and unlawful discrimination at the BBC, last year’s pay list revealed that individual bargaining at the Corporation had allowed some women to do very nicely, thank you. And amidst accusations of there being a gender pay gap, it seems no less pertinent to question the substantial disparity that seemingly exists between fellow male international editors Jon Sopel and Jeremy Bowen.

There could of course be any number of reasons why US-based Sopel apparently is more handsomely rewarded, including the possibility of the BBC operating a bonus scheme for each contemptuous comment regarding Trump. Or it might be that Cardiff-born Bowen is the victim of cruel anti-Welsh prejudice at the Beeb. Will anyone join me in protest at #IStandWithJeremy?

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Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver is an accountant who lives in East Lothian.

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