Government media policy means BBC pay inequality is likely to grow worse

Inequality is rife throughout the public broadcaster. Lauren Hurley/PA Wire/PA Images

The BBC has been almost universally savaged since its latest annual report exposed significant disparities in how it pays its male and female staff. The public broadcaster revealed that its highest paid male star, Chris Evans, took home more than £2m while its highest female earner, Claudia Winkleman, received between £450,000 and £499,999.

Newspapers duly labelled the BBC a “bloated blokes club” and the Sunday Telegraph published an open letter from more than 40 of its female personalities calling on the director-general, Tony Hall, to “act now”.

While the lack of gender parity generated the most outrage, the pay disclosure also revealed other inequalities within the BBC, notably an alarming absence of ethnic and class diversity among its highest earners.

The revelations have lent heavy ammunition to those who wish to weaken the BBC – and Auntie has been put firmly on the defensive. In particular many within the BBC have emphasised the impact of intensifying competition on what the BBC pay their top “talent” – including the threat of poaching by rival broadcasters.

But a vital part of the story has been overlooked: the role of ongoing transformations to the broadcasting industry, driven largely by successive governments’ media policies.

Rise of the ‘indies’

The role and status of the BBC has always been shaped by technological, political and social change. Since the 1980s, media deregulation, audience fragmentation and increasing competition from commercial channels and cuts to funding have transformed the structure, content and remit of the BBC. Against this backdrop, the BBC’s value as a publicly funded institution has been consistently under threat.

The rise of the independent television production sector is a pivotal part of this story. Since the creation of Channel 4 in 1982 and the emergence of the early “indies” – production companies such as Wall to Wall Media and Darlow Smithson Productions – the sector has grown ever larger and more powerful. Media policies establishing commissioning quotas and revised terms of trade, have enabled indies to flourish while the BBC’s in-house production capacity has steadily declined.

For the BBC, funding cuts over the past ten years have been continuous, leading to job cuts across all departments, exacerbated by developments such as the “window of creative competition” – which ensures more opportunities for indies to pitch for work – and the recent creation of BBC Studios.

This latter move involved a deal that at least 40% of its programmes go up for tender and will inevitably accelerate the erosion of the BBC’s internal production capacity. As the BBC steadily moves towards a publisher-broadcaster model, akin to Channel 4, the commercial growth of the independents is in turn accelerating.

Accountability vs commercialisation

All this has occurred at a time when the meaning of “independence” has been transformed within media policy. In 2014, the coalition government passed a statutory instrument redefining the definition of an “independent”, which now means that indies can be owned by a foreign broadcaster as long as this broadcaster is not “directly” trying to reach the British market. This has led to indies increasingly becoming subsidiaries of global media companies such as NBC Universal and Warner Bros. This new interpretation of “independence” by government is a significant shift away from the early values and ethos of the indies, which had been prized for being independent from controlling corporate structures.

No wonder he’s smiling: Chris Evans, the BBC’s highest-paid performer. Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

Given that the BBC revelations do not include pay for on-air talent from independent production companies, the growth of this sector as a result of media policy casts significant doubt on the Conservative government’s commitment to accountability in the public sector (including broadcasting). One might even argue that the diktat for the BBC to release its pay figures was a hypocritical trap sprung by the Conservatives to accelerate privatisation under the guise of “accountability”.

Over at least three decades, Conservative media policy has consistently deregulated and commercialised broadcasting, under the neoliberal language of competition, compelling the BBC to embrace the ideology of new public management and to “modernise”.

As the BBC becomes a hollowed-out public institution, outsourcing the majority of its production to commercial providers (many of them US-owned), the pay disparities are only likely to increase. These companies are less regulated by equality and diversity policies than the BBC - including requirements written into the BBC’s formal agreement with the secretary of state – and so decisions about who they recruit and how much they pay them is hidden from public scrutiny. The prospects for greater equality in creative labour markets look bleak to say the least.

Bloated blokes and the 1%

The revelation that the BBC unequally values its staff has been declared “shocking” – but it should not come as a surprise. Research, including our own, has long demonstrated the chronic and persistent inequalities of gender, ethnicity, class, disability and sexuality characterising media work.

These manifest in many ways, from unequal access to jobs, to career progression and pay. What has received less attention in the past week is the even greater pay gap between the BBC’s highest earners and the media industry’s army of unpaid interns and precariously employed freelancers.

This debacle speaks to a larger issue: that of the gross income inequality that is blighting Britain – and the BBC is far from the worst culprit, both within the media industry and beyond. If we want to get rid of “bloated blokes clubs” who pay themselves excessive salaries, then we must turn our attention to Rupert Murdoch, Mike Ashley, or university vice-chancellors.

The BBC pay revelations come at a time where the wealth of a tiny elite continues to grow. Only recently, it was revealed that while the top 1% of households in Britain have now recovered from the economic downturn, lower to middle income families face ever-deteriorating living standards.

So while the BBC rightly deserves scrutiny, there is a more pressing conversation to be had around fairness, redistribution – and why it is that some people are more valued than others.