- Even the BBC’s friends have slammed how much it pays its biggest stars. But agents tell BI that household names are paid 20% less than market rates. It’s even worse for the women, who may now consider lawsuits. The net effect of transparency, however, is that star salaries could go up.
“Bloated Blokes Club” is the headline that stands out from a truly hideous set of front pages about BBC star pay on Thursday. That was The Daily Mirror, a paper that does not share The Daily Mail’s ideological hostility towards Britain’s public broadcaster.
The Mirror isn’t alone. Politicians, who are also usually friendly faces for the BBC, leapt on the pay disclosures. Green Party leader Caroline Lucas called star salaries “eye-watering,” while Jeremy Corbyn pledged to cap the earnings of high rollers, like Gary Lineker.
Even the BBC’s own presenters got in on the act. Jeremy Vine questioned his own £700,000 ($911,000) salary when interviewing his boss on Radio 2. “How do you justify that?” he asked BBC Radio chief, James Purnell. Only at the BBC could this kind of self-flagellation play out live on air.
So all-in-all, a pretty chastening 24 hours for the broadcaster, fondly referred to as “Auntie” in the UK. And it’s all the more painful when you consider that, the reality is, the BBC chronically underpays its biggest stars.
Just after the disclosure, I spoke to two prominent TV agents to do a sense check on the salaries. They are at the coalface of talent contracts, cutting deals for their clients with all of the UK’s biggest broadcasters on a daily basis. Their verdict was clear: You work for the BBC, you take a pay cut.
- Steve Paston/EMPICS Sport
Jonathan Shalit represents names including “The Apprentice” star Karren Brady for his agency Roar Group. He estimates that the BBC pays about 20% less than commercial rivals, like Sky, ITV or Channel 4. “If Graham Norton left tomorrow, there’s no doubt he’d get a higher salary,” Shalit told me of the entertainer’s £900,000 pay packet. Kevin Brady, co-chair of the Personal Managers Association, which represents 170 British talent agents, added: “Anecdotally our members are of the opinion that BBC pay is generally less than its commercial rivals.”
He said publishing the figures out of context from the rest of the business is particularly unhelpful. “If a national discussion is to be had about pay levels at the BBC then one must be able to form a baseline for comparison,” Brady explained.
But don’t just take it from the agents. Presenter Andrew Marr said he has been offered an improvement on his £400,475 pay cheque elsewhere, while Lineker tweeted that people should blame his £1.8 million salary on “the other TV channels that pay more.”
ITV political editor Robert Peston also knows the score. He moved to ITV from the BBC last year, admitting the commercial broadcaster was paying him “more than a third more” than his old employer.
The BBC desperately wanted to keep him, but insiders tell me they had to walk away from a deal because it got too pricey. Peston’s counterpart at the BBC, Laura Kuenssberg, earns up to £250,000, so you could probably come to a rough conclusion about what he is on at ITV.
And if the boys are underpaid, then it’s even worse for the women. Here lies a genuine scandal in the BBC salary disclosures. How is it right that the BBC’s top male news anchor Huw Edwards takes home more than £550,000 a year, but his female equivalent Fiona Bruce only makes up to £400,000?
Female staff are rightly angry. Respected “Newsnight” presenter Emily Maitlis didn’t even make the list, because she is not paid more than £150,000, which her agent tweeted was “beyond madness and being dealt with.” One senior insider suggested to me that star pay is just the tip of the iceberg, with women across the BBC being underpaid.
Female stars may even have grounds to hit the BBC with lawsuits. “The BBC may be in breach of equal pay laws if it cannot show that men and women are being paid equally,” said Suzanne Horne, head of the international employment practice at law firm Paul Hastings.
If transparency bridges the gender pay gap then it will be a major victory. But it could also have drawbacks. The BBC believes publishing pay every year will force wages up by making it easier for rivals to poach household names. TV agent Shalit agrees, admitting that stars will have a “stronger” negotiating hand in contract talks.
It will be an ugly irony if the “bloated” BBC ends up having to shell out more on star salaries just to keep its biggest names.