Yesterday the CPS got a call asking if there was anyone who could speak to BBC Radio Lancashire about the future of the licence fee given today’s announcements, the implication being there would be calls for it to be scrapped in the face of such large pay packets being revealed. I think there are many reasons to scrap the licence fee, but stars wages aren’t the big issue.
When I spoke to BBC Radio Lancashire this morning I highlighted the fact that we will be looking at these salaries in isolation. People will always want to know how much other people earn – humans are a nosey species! – and to the man on the street the salaries will seem massive but since Sky, ITV, and Channel 4, even Netflix and Amazon, will have no obligation to release figures for their top talent, we have no equivalent figures to compare this pay to. It’s possible – as some have claimed – that this will cause inflationary pressures for the BBC as other providers try to poach the top stars or it may well be that other channels discover the BBC pays much less than them and seek to cut their own wage bill. Either way, looking at these figures in insolation – without also looking at the reasons behind them and without knowing where those salaries are on the scale for the industry – won’t tell us much.
Well what about the gender gap? Of the 96 people who have had their salaries of over £150,000 released today, 62 are men. People will be very keen to compare the salaries of stars they think have similar roles; does John Humphreys get paid more than Mishal Husain for presenting BBC Radio 4’s Today programme? Does Fiona Bruce get anywhere near what Huw Edwards gets for fronting the news? But as the BBC’s Director General Lord Hall points out, not all stars will have the same commitments or experience. Fiona Bruce’s contract will include presenting Antiques Roadshow, Huw Edwards covers important events like the budget and election reaction, Graham Norton doesn’t just have his chat show, he’s Mr Saturday Night Light Entertainment and that little old show, Eurovision. I very much doubt there’s some secret plan for the BBC to save money but paying women less, it’s just the BBC exists in the same society as everyone else. One where women are more likely to take long periods out of work and as a result fall behind male peers in terms of experience. This doesn’t excuse the BBC, they should be leading the field and promoting more women like Laura Kuenssberg to top positions, but I don’t think they should be unfairly singled out.
Arguments against the licence fee should focus on the size and scope of the BBC. It is an enormous bureaucratic organisation, slow moving yet ever expanding, and it has over-extended itself in recent years, trying to compete with other broadcasters like HBO and Sky as well as online competitors like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
The most recent BBC Charter sets out 5 key aims:
Combined, these aims give the BBC free reign to continue expanding into more and more areas. In fact, in “A Licence to Kill?: Funding the BBC” published by the Centre for Policy Studies in 2016, Martin le Jeune suggests that the BBC has no choice but to continue expanding in order to try and justify the licence fee in an era where competition from commercial broadcasters is growing. If the public wants a cheaper BBC, it should look at streamlining services, not cutting salaries.
The BBC should focus on one core aim, le Jeune even suggests alternative wording “The task of the BBC is to produce audio-visual (including digital) news and other content which is distinctively different from that which the market provides, but which is important to the UK’s social, political and cultural wellbeing” (A Licence to Kill?: Funding the BBC, CPS, 2016). By seeking to only provide what others cannot, the BBC could do away with services that exist mainly to compete with commercial rivals; the most obvious cuts coming from the BBC’s radio services which cost – in total - £642m (2015/16) or 17% of the licence fee.
The decision of the government to force the BBC to disclose stars salaries’ is controversial and I can see many downsides but now the decision has been taken it will be hard to put the genie back in the bottle. If people want the BBC is to continue to provide essential services and thrive in the 21st century, they should look to reigning in the organisation’s expansion, not docking a few quid off Chris Evans’ pay cheque.
DISCLAIMER: The views set out in CPS blog posts are those of the individual authors only and should not be taken to represent a corporate view of the Centre for Policy Studies.