Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Why is it always men that win the media’s ‘talent’ contest?

The issue of gender pay equality comes down to fairness and fundamental social values

A bunch of highly paid women complaining about men being paid even more, innit. You might imagine the BBC gender gap row would be a tough sell in an industry where the groundlings are on a fraction of the stars’ earnings.

The groundlings are the ones with the responsibility to ensure there will be a show, decide the content, do the research, source the guests, cajole them into turning up, brief the presenter – aka the “talent” – right down to supplying the questions,

Long ago, during a brief period filling in for a highly paid radio star, I was taken aside by the latter and strongly advised to get out of the print game; presenting was where the real money was, plus it was easier. The money part, for one, had become screamingly obvious. The presenter's stratospheric pay meant the show itself was being run on a shoestring, with a tiny, harried, poorly paid production team working all hours to keep abreast of breaking news before hunting down relevant guests – unlike RTÉ, they had no specialist reporters to call on – then rising at dawn. Shows continue to be produced by teams like that, where the rewards often amount to relentless stress, low-grade bullying and chronic insecurity. The talent suffer the stress too of course; after all, they live and die by the ratings, as they are wont to say. Then again, they are amply compensated, with the bonus of lucrative appearances on the celebrity circuit.

Partly submerged in the debate over BBC pay is the notion of what constitutes “talent”. The advance of the spittle-flecked, faux-outraged, world-weary, cynical class of male “talent” is a phenomenon many women struggle to appreciate. It’s hard to think of any female equivalent who would be so indulged, protected and promoted by any media company. Without such cosseting, without the crutch of underpaid, hard-working production teams, how much of this male “talent” would survive? The convention that they must get big salaries because they might be poached in a tiny Irish market is ridiculous.



If the defence of the gender gap is rooted in the male’s innate superiority, or women’s “choices” – babies, shorter hours, having their cake and eating it – the marvel of the BBC pay gap report is that it clears this up, definitively. Fact: women doing exactly the same job as men are on massively different pay. Which merely confirms that regardless of in-company grading systems, opportunity or achievement, men will always manage to cut deals that reflect their fantastic self-belief.

Regular listeners to Today, BBC Radio 4's agenda-setting morning news show, will wonder why Justin Webb, a fine broadcaster, is deemed finer than his two female colleagues combined. The fourth Today presenter, John Humphrys, aged 73, when asked if he would do his job for less than his salary of about £650,000, replied, "Of course, I would!" So does that kind of salary just happen?

For instance, can anyone unravel the secret of how Nick Knowles pulls in £350,000 to present the BBC's DIY SOS? Or why Alan Shearer's banalities are worth up to £450,000 a year? Or why in the name of God John Inverdale is paid more than Clare Balding? Yes, everyone seems agreed that it's curious that news presenter Huw Edwards is deemed to be worth £200,000 more than his co-presenter Fiona Bruce – though the real question surely is what kind of system rewards Edwards or any newsreader with such vast sums when correspondents such as Orla Guerin or Lyse Doucet, who put their actual bodies on the line, don't even make the list?

Social mindset

What kind of social mindset leads to this type of value system?

Gary Lineker (a thoughtful, accomplished sports presenter, getting up to £1.8 million for his trouble) blithely blamed his agent for doing an agent's job. Find that agent, we say, and cleave to him/her. Andrew Marr (up to £500,000), argued that his pay reflected his broadcasting experience – but pointed out, in fairness, that women generally don't get the chance to get or keep jobs in the media at the same age as him. He is 57. Look around at older women's media representation if you doubt it.

This is not merely about bringing taxpayer-funded media outlets to account. It is about fairness and fundamental social values. Just like gender quotas in politics were once resisted, then accepted as a necessary evil, perhaps the solution is for all media companies to give a lead and publish their gender pay gap reports, followed swiftly by all large companies, as will happen soon in the UK. Failing that, why not go the way of Finland, Sweden and Norway where everyone posts their tax return online? Yes, that might work.