Bias and lies: the BBC’s ‘Greek tragedy’

Not a quitter: Gracie says she will continue to work at the BBC and fight for fair pay. © Getty

Is the BBC destroying itself? Carrie Gracie, its former China editor, believes it is. By failing to pay its men and women equally, she told MPs, the corporation is ruining its reputation.

Committee hearings in Parliament tend to be quite dull. Not Wednesday’s, though.

Over two hours, Carrie Gracie treated the culture select committee to a brutal account of life as a female BBC employee. She recounted how, as its China editor, she learned that male colleagues were being paid more for similar jobs. When she asked for equal pay, her seniors did not take her seriously. So, three weeks ago, she resigned.

Fighting back tears, Gracie spoke of the “toxic” atmosphere at the corporation. She claimed that she had been misled about men’s salaries and briefed against by her seniors. The BBC, she said, had been “damaged” by its approach to the issue. "They are stumbling towards a Greek tragedy where they make happen their own worst fears.”

The disclosure of top BBC presenters’ salaries last July revealed a gender imbalance; Gracie’s resignation turned it into front-page news. Around 230 people, most of them women, have made official complaints about salaries. Female staff have formed a group, BBC Women, to push for fair and transparent pay.

In response, the BBC published an independent report on its presenters’ salaries this week. The report found “no gender bias” in pay decisions: the gap came down to differences in male and female employees’ experience and duties. Still, the BBC responded by announcing raises for female (and male) staff, and large cuts for highly paid men.

That was not enough to placate BBC Women, which said that it had not been consulted for the report, and so had no faith in it. Several of Gracie’s female colleagues showed their support by waiting for her outside the committee hearing.

Polls show that the BBC remains the nation’s most trusted news source. It is funded by a licence fee — “a tax on households” — which allows it (at least in theory) to remain independent of political and commercial pressure.

Gracie argued that it was surrendering this advantage. “If we’re not prepared to look at ourselves honestly,” she said, “how can we be trusted?”

Tragedies end badly. What will be the BBC’s fate?

Payback time

This is the end, say some. The BBC may be more trusted than other media, but it is constantly accused of bias and mismanagement. Its clumsy response to the gender pay scandal confirms this view. It has lost its only selling point: a reputation for fairness and transparency. It will not survive for long.

How dramatic, reply others. The BBC has been around for almost a century, and it has survived scandals and relentless criticism. That is because the public recognises the value of a national, independently funded media organisation. Bosses will be forced to apologise, there will be reforms, and the BBC will continue.

You Decide

  1. Was Gracie right to resign from her China job?
  2. Is the BBC worth the licence fee?

Activities

  1. As a class, rank the following professions according to how much you think each should be paid: journalist, footballer, MP, policeman, postman, novelist, banker, nurse.
  2. You are on the culture select committee. Come up with five question for Gracie, and five for BBC Director-General Tony Hall.

Some People Say...

“Fairness is what justice really is.”

Potter Stewart

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Gracie took the job of China editor on the understanding that she would be paid roughly the same as other regional editors. But when the BBC disclosed its top stars’ salaries last July, she saw that that was not the case. She issued a complaint, and waited three months for the response: that she had accidentally been underpaid by £100,000. They offered her the money, but she turned it down and resigned.
What do we not know?
How this scandal will unfold. On the one hand, the BBC’s Director-General Tony Hall says he wants “to close the gender pay gap and have women in half of our on-air roles by 2020”. On the other, female employees have described the complaints procedure as inefficient, and lamented that they face “veiled threats” when they raise the issue of equal pay.

Word Watch

Select committee
These parliamentary committees consist of a dozen or so MPs or lords all parties. Each is tasked with investigating a specific area of policy, on which basis they make recommendations to the government.
Similar jobs
Gracie was comparing herself to North America editor Jon Sopel and Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen.
Briefed against
Gracie accuses Fran Unsworth, head of BBC News, of telling the media that she (Gracie) only worked part-time in China — which is untrue. Unsworth denies this.
Greek tragedy
The Ancient Greeks loved theatre. They staged both comedies (which were funny and often satirical) and tragedies, dark stories that offered serious moral lessons.
Gap
The report found that women are paid 6.8% less than men among the BBC’s on-air staff. The figure for the BBC as a whole is 9.3%. The UK average is 18%.
Licence fee
The licence fee is currently £147. By law, all households where TV or BBC shows online are watched have to pay it.
Scandals
The BBC’s last big scandal came in 2012, when deceased BBC presenter Jimmy Savile was revealed to have molested hundreds of children.