The BBC, of course, never wanted to release details of how much it paid its most famous employees. The decision to make public what should have remained a private matter was forced on the Corporation by a spiteful government seeking to deflect attention from its own failings; and it was egged on by newspapers whose commercial rivalry with the BBC makes them entirely unreliable on the subject.
Now the figures have been published, however, we feel it’s our duty – as a public-service website – to point out how appallingly tedious and shallow the BBC’s coverage of the story has been. This month’s broadcasting was dominated by a level of navel-gazing self-scrutiny that was impressive even by the Corporation’s own solipsistic standards. It’s a cliché to say that this isn’t what we pay our licence fees for, but really: this isn’t what we pay our licence fees for.
Nor are we entirely happy for that money to be spent so readily on presenters whose talent is eclipsed by the rapacity of their agents.
There is an argument that the BBC has to compete for talent in the marketplace. We’re not convinced by this for several reasons. First, the sheer size of the BBC helps to shape that marketplace. Second, the licence fee brings with it social and ethical considerations that aren’t expected of a purely commercial enterprise. Third, part of the remit of the BBC should be to do things differently to how they’re done in the private sector, and not just in terms of what appears on the radio, television and internet.
In any case, if this is simply a case of market forces, we feel entitled to wonder which private broadcaster is desperately seeking Humphrys. Frankly, there’s not a lot of competition in speech radio beyond the BBC, and it seems unlikely that LBC are in a position to spend more than £600,000 in order to replace Nick Ferrari on their breakfast show. Nor is TalkSport, or its sister station TalkRadio, likely to stump up the thick end of a million quid each year to acquire the services of Nicky Campbell and Stephen Nolan from the downwardly mobile Radio 5 Live.
But even if the big names are poached, does it really matter that much? Ever since the advent of competition in broadcasting, with the launch of Radio Luxembourg in 1933, the BBC has seen people lured away by bigger wage-packets and yet has somehow managed to struggle on. When Des Lynam did a runner from Match of the Day in 1999, the Corporation responded by fast-tracking Gary Lineker; if he now flew the nest, no doubt we’d all find a way to survive. As they say in football, no player is bigger than the team.
There is a larger issue, however. A key part of the job of someone like John Humphrys is to hold politicians to account on issues like poverty, public sector pay, inflation, pensions, house prices and workers’ rights, to cite just a few of the matters currently exercising both the electorate and the political class. Does he do this better – does he articulate more effectively the concerns of the voter and the taxpayer – with that kind of wad in his back-pocket? Or does his pay-packet buy him into the system just as effectively as did the knighthood awarded to Robin Day in 1981, while he was still a working journalist?
Further, the fees paid to the top earners (and this applies more than equally to those in management) distort the output, starving other areas of funding. Drama (beyond Doctor Who), comedy (beyond panel games), investigative journalism – these things are more deserving of our money than celebrity newsreaders or middle-aged men playing gramophone records on the wireless.
Unlike the newspapers, who’ve spent several column miles berating the BBC for paying Uncle more than Auntie (while carefully not revealing the remuneration offered to their own columnists), we are genuine fans of the institution. Which is why we’re not happy with pay deals that disproportionately reward a small group of household names (plus Jason Mohammad and Greg James).
We instituted this award to recognize ‘a British public figure who’s proved to be both overexposed and surplus to requirements’. This month, although the face on the rosette belongs to the BBC’s first director general, Sir John Reith, it is awarded not to an individual but to the self-obsession of the entire corporation.