BBC director general Mark Thompson defended the six-figure pay packets of some of the corporation’s managers, after the broadcaster’s former governor PD James said that the “extraordinarily large salaries” were “very difficult indeed to justify”.
Official figures released last month showed that 37 BBC staff – not including on-screen talent – earn more than the Prime Minister’s salary of £198,000, while more than 300 are paid over £100,000.
But Thompson yesterday insisted that the salaries were necessary to prevent key managers from defecting to the private sector, where he said they could earn substantially larger sums even in these constrained economic circumstances for broadcasting.
Baroness James grilled the director general on BBC pay as she took the helm as guest editor of Radio 4’s Today programme.
She told him it appeared that “somehow, the people doing the creative work don’t receive this largesse, it seems to be a pay grade used for middle management and bureaucracy which it is very difficult indeed to justify”.
She added: “It is really quite extraordinary that 375 earn over £100,000 and 37-plus more than the Prime Minister. An organisation that has 37 of its managers earning more than the Prime Minister surely ought to ask itself ‘Is this justified?'”
Thompson said that most of the BBC’s top earners could attract higher salaries in the commercial sector, citing BBC1 controller Jay Hunt who he said took a pay cut when she returned to the corporation from independent channel Five.
“I think most people would accept that if we want to have the best people working for the BBC, delivering the best programmes and best services, and if we also accept that that means that – at a moment in broadcasting history where people can move very freely from the BBC to commercial broadcasters and back – the BBC has to bear to some extent in mind the external market,” he said.
“The controller of BBC1 is going to be spending about £1 billion a year on television programmes for that channel. We really want to make sure we have got the best person doing that job.
“The current controller of BBC1 was working for a commercial broadcaster and we got her to come back. She will – like most of the people on that list – get less from the BBC than they were earning or could earn otherwise. They have to take a pay cut.
“I think it is a false economy to say we are not going to have anyone as controller of BBC1 who earns more than £100,000, because in my view we wouldn’t get the right candidates for the job.”
He rejected suggestions that commercial broadcasters such as ITV and Channel 4 can no longer afford the kind of salaries that would tempt senior staff away from the BBC.
“It may well be that there are individual adjustments, with quite a few commercial broadcasters for example not paying bonuses, but actually we are still absolutely losing key staff to commercial broadcasters who are still paying top dollar,” he said.
Thompson acknowledged that top staff pay was “a real issue” and said the BBC had tried over the past five years to get its spending on overheads down and was now considering producing an auditable commitment to spend a certain proportion of the licence fee on programming.
But he insisted that the 17-fold ratio between his own £834,000 package and average BBC pay was far smaller than in most FTSE-listed private companies, where top bosses could earn 100 or more times as much as average staff members.
“It really is a privilege (to work at the BBC) and everyone here in the senior echelons should accept that there will be a very big discount, they will get paid much less than they could earn outside the BBC,” he said.
Baroness James also criticised BBC programming for falling standards and said that the organisation as a whole seemed to be “very unwieldy and very bureaucratic”.
While accepting it was easy to pick out individual programmes of very high quality, it was difficult to see how others qualified as public service broadcasting, she said, naming Britain’s Most Embarrassing Pets, Dog Borstal and Help Me Anthea, I’m Infested as examples.
Thompson said that there was a public demand for the BBC to provide entertainment on Saturday evenings, which led the corporation to go head-to-head with ITV with populist programming at that point in the week. But he insisted that at other times their schedules were “more different than at any time in the history of the BBC”.
“I believe that if John Reith and his colleagues who founded the BBC came to today’s BBC they would be surprised and heartened by the fact that people inside the BBC still have a passionate enthusiasm for what they do,” he said.
Thompson accepted that the BBC had to do more to combat ageism by ensuring its cast of on-screen presenters and more accurately reflect the age make-up of the population. But he denied that the removal of 66-year-old Arlene Phillips as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing was motivated by her age.