How the BBC fell asleep at the wheel of the great pay car crash

When journalist Carrie Gracie walked into parliament on Wednesday, ready to deliver some damning testimony about her treatment at the hands of the BBC – testimony that would be beamed around the world – she was accompanied by a representative from her union, and that was about it. The BBC director general Tony Hall, in contrast, had a dozen minders. “Tells you all you need to know really,” commented one seasoned BBC campaigner, eyeing the scene wearily.

That day Gracie, the former China editor who stepped down from her post over unequal pay in January, bore with her the hopes of women across the broadcasting industry. Her outraged words rang out from TV monitors around the BBC’s headquarters for more than two hours. The effect was immediate, and colleagues think it may last.

Lindsey Hilsum, international editor at Channel 4 News, believes Gracie has boosted the confidence of many: “Carrie has galvanised a whole generation of women journalists to ask ourselves whether we may have been discriminated against throughout their career. We don’t know yet, of course, until all the figures come out elsewhere.”

Yet Gracie’s evidence, ostensibly about fair pay, has also exposed BBC management’s failure to handle the impending crisis just as much as it has shone a light on any discrimination. For one former high-ranking BBC television executive, the “classic ineptness” of the organisation’s management leaped out. “It really is what we might call ‘too much, too late,’” she told the Observer.

Gracie’s recent Radio 4 series and hit podcast, Murder in the Lucky Holiday Hotel, was about the killing of businessman Neil Heywood in China. The events of the last five days seem to have played out with all the tension of the mystery she unravelled then. True, there are no dead bodies, but there are six high-profile BBC presenters, including John Humphrys and Huw Edwards, who have had their lofty emoluments lopped. And according to a BBC spokesman this weekend there is more financial damage to come, with decisions to further reduce some men’s pay about to be taken “on their merits”, not just on the size of pay packets. And, although there is no secretive national congress of the Chinese government at work here, there is a sinister phalanx of besuited executives inside what Gracie likened to a male “fortress”.

The BBC now promises a clearer range of pay grades for “on-air” talent as a result of the review published on Tuesday, which was carried out in response to the demands last summer of 45 of the corporation’s best-known women presenters, including Clare Balding, Victoria Derbyshire and Sue Barker.

Yet for some female journalists the BBC pay structure was already all too “clear”: women got less. And especially those women who had come, as Gracie had, from the World Service division of the BBC, where pay is traditionally lower.



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