The BBC has described its own rolling news channel as “relatively niche” in defending an equal pay claim brought by journalist Samira Ahmed, which is being fought at an employment tribunal court this week.
Ahmed was paid nearly seven times less than BBC colleague Jeremy Vine over a number of years for what she claims was equivalent on-air work.
Ahmed earned £440 per episode of Newswatch between 2012 and 2015 while Vine was paid £3,000 per episode of Points of View from 2008 to 2018.
She is seeking nearly £700,000 in back-dated pay.
In defending the pay difference between the two journalists in papers supplied to the court, the BBC said Newswatch and Points of View operate in different markets which require different skills from their presenters.
As a “mainstream light entertainment programme”, as opposed to news, Points of View’s presenter needs to be the “audience’s friend” and deal with issues in a “light-hearted way”, the BBC said.
“Newswatch is a serious programme, which deals with matters seriously”.
Both shows are under 15 minutes long and cover audience feedback on BBC content. Newswatch focuses on opinions about BBC news coverage.
Ahmed continues to present Newswatch, as well as Radio 4’s Front Row, while Vine, who presents on Radio 2, left Points of View in July last year.
His pay had been cut to £1,300 per episode of Points of View six months earlier after publication of top-earning BBC on-air talent salaries revealed him to be its highest-paid journalist, on up to £750,000 a year.
The corporation said that when Vine began presenting Points of View in 2008, after taking over from Sir Terry Wogan, it was “extremely well-known” with viewing figures in excess of 2m.
Vine was paid £500 less per episode than Sir Terry.
Said the BBC: “Newswatch is commissioned for the relatively niche BBC News channel, and while it is repeated on BBC Breakfast, that is to fill out the [BBC One] programme at the weekend, and it has no discernible impact on viewing figures.”
The National Union of Journalists, which is supporting Ahmed’s claim, shared figures at the opening of the case which show the current BBC One audience for Newswatch peaks at 1.9m on average, with a further 100,000 on the BBC News channel, while Points of View reaches 800,000 viewers.
The BBC said Vine was and is a “well-known broadcaster who had successfully made the transition from News to mainstream entertainment programming” and was “greatly in demand and sought by the BBC’s commercial rivals” when offered Points of View.
It said Points of View needed a “high-profile mainstream entertainment presenter”.
These factors do not apply to the market for Newswatch, the BBC has argued. “Newswatch requires a trained, serious news journalist, not a presenter with broad audience appeal,” it said.
“The pay for Newswatch was set at a level sufficient to attract a person with the right skills and profile.”
Ahmed, who joined the BBC as a graduate trainee in 1990 and has worked at Channel 4 News, has never appeared on the list of BBC on-air talent earning more than £150,000 since it was first published in 2017.
Ahmed began on the same rate of pay as her predecessor Ray Snoddy. The BBC said she has since progressed to earn comparably more than him per programme and that her stand-ins on the show also earn less.
Snoddy told Press Gazette: “Samira was paid the same as I was as Newswatch presenter, but the disparity between that and Jeremy Vine’s Points of View, despite being ‘an entertainment’ programme, is surely unacceptably large.”
The BBC said pay rates for male and female presenters of Points of View over the last 23 years “show no general disparity in favour of male presenters”, but were “based to a significant extent” on the “state of the market at the time” and the “profile of the presenter concerned”.
It said Anne Robinson’s pay in 1997 was £1,250 per episode, more than male and female stand-in presenters in the subsequent year, and Carol Voderman was paid £1,400 per episode in 1998, higher than the subsequent pay for Des Lynam who earned £1,250 per episode.
The BBC said the pay for a presenter of Points of View has “always been considerably in excess of the pay for any presenter of Newswatch in the same period (whether male of female)”.
This reflects the fact that “the markets for news and entertainment programming operate differently”, it has said.
The BBC said there is a “telling remark” in Ahmed’s witness statement, where she says: “I couldn’t understand why the presenters of two such similar programmes should be paid so differently. It just does not seem fair.”
It said that at the core of Ahmed’s case is a “contention that pay for news presenters and entertainment presenters should not diverge so greatly.
“But the fairness of the fact that news, and non-news, markets operate very differently is not something that can be adjudicated upon, let alone corrected, in an equal pay claim.”