The Media Today

The media today: At the BBC, gender pay gap concerns become a crisis

February 5, 2018

Anger over the BBC’s gender pay gap is nothing new, but has blown into the open with fresh force in recent weeks. Ever since Carrie Gracie stepped down as China editor in early January, citing the corporation’s “secretive and illegal” pay culture, BBC managers have faced an open revolt by senior female journalists at the broadcaster, and a public relations nightmare. Other staffers have since shared their own pay gap stories: A national radio presenter, for example, said she was told in 2014 that “the BBC doesn’t do equal pay” and to stop being “aggressive” when she asked managers why a male co-presenter was earning 50 percent more than she was.

The crisis escalated last week. On Tuesday, a campaign group of 170 BBC women ridiculed a report by auditors at PricewaterhouseCoopers—commissioned by the BBC in response to criticism—which found “no evidence” of a structural gender pay gap at the corporation (the evidence considered in the report was selective, at best). And on Wednesday, Gracie delivered caustic testimony to a committee of British lawmakers, accusing the BBC of treating underpaid women like “the enemy” and casting doubt on the broadcaster’s ability to reform its pay culture without external help.

ICYMI: Cover story controversy rattles magazine’s newsroom

The BBC has long struggled to get ahead of internal crises, and true to form, its response to the pay gap scandal has done little to inspire confidence. Six high-profile men at the broadcaster—two of whom (veteran radio presenter John Humphrys and North America editor Jon Sopel) were caught on a hot mic joking about Gracie’s demands—agreed to take “voluntary” pay cuts, though many have argued that was the wrong focus. Elsewhere, news directors barred female presenters who have campaigned for equal pay from reporting the story on air; a tone-deaf sop to impartiality guidelines.

The BBC is in a unique and difficult situation: It must compete for talent with private commercial broadcasters in the UK while satisfying public standards of wage fairness, all on a tight budget contingent on the whim of government ministers. The corporation’s pay problem, however, isn’t confined to the fantastically inflated earnings of a few famous men at the top of its talent tree. It is, rather, a systemic problem that is crushing the morale of staff at all levels of the organization, and reducing public trust in BBC journalism.

ICYMI: “One of the most elaborate undercover stings in American journalism history”

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The outcry over BBC pay practices is still gathering momentum—on Saturday, former foreign correspondent Jane Standley said her low pay was the reason she quit her job. Standley was inspired to speak out by Gracie, who has emerged as a forceful and charismatic champion for women at the BBC. It’s clear she won’t rest until the broadcaster substantively addresses its pay problem. Management would be wise to stop the reactive scuttling and get on with serious reform.

Below, more on the BBC gender pay gap:

  • An overlooked problem: In the Financial Times, former BBC producer Marcus Ryder says pay disparities emerged on his watch because the broadcaster’s stagnant pool of public funding led to pressure from senior managers to minimize costs.
  • “Asleep at the wheel”: Some critics blame former BBC chief—and current New York Times CEO—Mark Thompson for sanctioning inflated contract offers to top on-air staff, writes Vanessa Thorpe in The Observer.
  • Potential boycott: After the Humphrys–Sopel hot mic exchange was made public, government minister Tracey Crouch refused to be interviewed on Humphrys’s flagship BBC radio program, Today. The Guardian reported other lawmakers were considering a similar boycott.
  • A warning from the past?: Several BBC women affected by the gender pay gap are considering legal action against their employer, claiming they’re owed back pay under UK equalities laws. In 2011, presenter Miriam O’Reilly successfully took the BBC to an employment tribunal, which ruled she’d been dropped from rural affairs show Countryfile due to her age. She was 51 years old at the time.


Other notable stories

  • Also in the UK, a press regulator upheld former asylum seeker Mohammed Ahmed’s privacy complaint against The Sunday Times after a high-profile reporter who invited him to stay in her home wrote a story about her experience. The paper argued Ahmed didn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy as he was living rent-free with a journalist. The regulator disagreed.
  • Another Sunday, another cable news smackdown in the US, as talk shows went head to head over the House GOP memo alleging partisan pressures led law enforcement to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in 2016. On CNN’s Reliable Sources, Atlantic staff writer Julia Ioffe had a smart take on America’s increasingly “bifurcated” media sphere: “One side is very politically motivated, and the other side….is trying to stick to the facts. And the facts get more and more complicated every day.”
  • Bill Kristol’s “fellow Republican elites—and the readers of his own magazine—have reconciled themselves to Trump. Can he?” asks Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker. (ICYMI, T.A. Frank took a broader look at conservative magazines, including Kristol’s Weekly Standard, in The Washington Post last weekend.)
  • In January, Katie Roiphe courted controversy when a Twitter rumor exploded that she was planning to out the creator of the “Shitty Media Men” list in an essay for Harper’s (the list’s creator, Moira Donegan, quickly outed herself instead). Roiphe’s essay, “The Other Whisper Network: How Twitter feminism is bad for women,” came out over the weekend, and one senses the controversy isn’t going away anytime soon.
  • For CJR, Mya Frazier has this great—and troubling—story about the shady practices of Facebook and Amazon when it comes to freedom of information requests. Both companies have used pseudonyms to make deals with state authorities, and demanded the right to review journalists’ FOIAs.
  • And it was a good night for wings on and off the field, as the Eagles stunned the Pats 41–33 in the Super Bowl in Minneapolis. Congrats to Pete Vernon, who was too busy scaling greased lampposts in Philly to fulfill his regular CJR newsletter duties.

ICYMI: Sexual harassment in the newsroom: an oral history.


Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.