The BBC Is Supposed To Educate People – It Should Start With Teaching John Humphrys About Equality

The leaked recording of John Humphrys talking to Jon Sopel tells you everything you need to know about how an organisation’s response to discrimination and inequality affects culture and behaviour. He is reported to have said, among other things, “Oh dear God. She’s actually suggested that you should lose money – you know that don’t you? You’ve read the thing properly have you?”

When Carrie Gracie brought her claim for equal pay, the BBC could have accepted responsibility, apologised to all the women on less money for equivalent work and committed to revising its pay structures and to future pay transparency.

Instead it denied her claim and censored other BBC women who spoke out by invoking impartiality rules. In other words: protect the boys’ club and hunker down until the storm blows over. In that kind of culture it is not at all surprising to hear Humphrys so at home with joking about both her and his own considerably bigger paycheck.

Of course, the BBC is not unusual in having a pay gap problem, nor a pay discrimination problem. The former measures the difference in average pay between men and women, and highlights both the tendency to have men in more senior roles on higher salaries and the need to recruit and promote more women to senior positions to achieve equal representation. The latter arises when companies pay men and women differently for doing the same – or equivalent – jobs, and breach the Equality Act.

The great sadness here is that the BBC is also not unusual in refusing to own up to discriminatory practices. This should have been a moment to put in place policies to ensure equality – putting women at the helm of news programmes as often as men, for example. There was an opportunity, as a supposed leader in equality and diversity, and as a public service broadcaster, to set the tone for achieving gender equality as other firms publish their pay gaps by April this year.

And because so many companies are refusing to own up to discrimination – even, like retailer Phase Eight, claiming the pay gap is the result of women choosing to do lower-paid jobs – the Women’s Equality Party is calling for the redesign of gender pay gap legislation in 2018 so that organisations like the BBC can no longer hide discriminatory practices.

We believe that firms reporting a pay gap above 5% should be required to release details of their hiring, promotion and parental leave policies and the salary bands of their male and female workers, both full and part-time. This transparency would flag where their work practices had implicit discrimination or bias, and encourage employees to take action. They should also break data down by metrics including race and disability, and retention rates after parental leave. And they must face fines if they release inaccurate or incomplete data – or refuse to do it altogether. 

Shame on the BBC for trying to pull the wool over our eyes. When it published the salaries of people earning over £150,000 in line with its charter, it exposed the huge disparity between its male and female, and its white and BAME talent. To then cynically conduct a pay audit minus all of those top earners and pat itself on the back for having a below-average pay gap of 9% is nothing less than a cover up.

Pay discrimination and pay gaps may be different measures of inequality but they both expose discrimination. By its own account, there is a lack of equality at every level of the BBC, from writers to producers to editors to presenters.  

The BBC can start to deal with this by revising its current understanding – as demonstrated by the imposition of its impartiality rule – that equal pay and women’s equality is some kind of opinion that some people might believe and others not. It’s hard to see it applying this rule to any other human rights issue, like freedom of expression, thought or assembly.

Censoring its own staff from speaking out about equality runs counter to the very service the BBC is supposed to provide – broadcasting accurate and impartial news and education for people of all ages. Humphrys is 75. Perhaps the BBC could start with him and demonstrate that it’s never too late to learn.