BBC salaries, the market and moral agency

By Jill Segger
July 31, 2017

There is an instinctive sense among most of us that income is a private matter. This is not always logical as pay scales can be researched for many occupations and an individual's lifestyle usually provides a fair idea of their salary.

Nonetheless, the reticence is understandable and has diverse causes. While some will be happy to brag of the status revealed in zeros, some will be reluctant to open themselves to accusations of fat-cattery. Reluctance may be experienced by others who do not wish to own the stigma a materialist society attaches to a smaller number of these important digits, even though their salaries may be more than adequate. Certainly, the publication of salaries of BBC 'talent' who earn more than £150,000 has opened a substantial can of worms.

The inequity between the earnings of male and female presenters who would appear to have very similar roles is an obvious injustice and it is right that this has been exposed. But beyond this revelation, there are many other questions which must be asked.

Should Mishal Husain be paid more or Nick Robinson less? How are the skills of a football pundit and a political editor evaluated? Does a very large salary isolate from reality those whose job it is to question politicians and will the revelation of their privileged financial status hamper them in holding greed and inequality to account? How wide are we willing to permit the gap between the highest and lowest paid employees of an organisation to be? And, despite the fact that these salaries seem modest when compared to those of many footballers, just how much money does a person need in order to live a secure and fulfilled life? Where basic needs are the index, there can be no doubt that a great many people should be paid a good deal more. There are BBC employees who earn less than £15,000. And of course, grave and damaging inequalities exist far beyond the organisation which has been under a spotlight during the last fortnight.

But the most significant question for me was posed when the Radio 4 Today programme presenter John Humphrys defended his £600,000 pay cheque. Admitting that he was not 'worth' the same as a nurse who saves the life of a child or a firefighter running into Grenfell Tower, Mr Humphrys concluded: “but it's a market”. You could hear the unspoken 'end of' drop into the silence. Here apparently, was a power beyond questioning or resistance.

What is 'the market'? It is a human construct, not a force of nature. It exists because society made it, uses it and accepts it with little questioning, either personal or collective. It is enabled to continue its tyranny of containing wealth rather than being an instrument of justice because those who benefit the most from its inequities and therefore have a disproportionate influence, are those who are loudest in its defence.

I was reminded last week of an account of the late Kenneth Williams who once, when offered a film contract, indignantly expostulated “that's far too much!” The ability to refuse is of at least equal importance to the freedom of selling oneself to the highest bidder.

It may appear an idealistic pipe-dream to suggest that people might draw a line when they are offered excessively high levels of remuneration. But is it unrealistic to ask ourselves if we are moral agents capable of conscience-led discernment? Or shall we continue to be led by the forces of greed and status? Who, or what is leading us? If such a conversation may be stimulated by the political pressure which has forced the BBC into the revelation causing so much anger, we may be at the beginning of an examination of something far more radical than closing the gender pay gap.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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