BBC Radio 4 Today presenter John Humphrys and North American editor Jon Sopel exchanged “silly banter” about the gender pay gap while off-air.
The two discussed former China editor Carrie Gracie’s resignation and the chances that they would have their pay cut.
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The conversation was leaked to the press by former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly, who won an ageism case against the BBC after she was cut from the programme in 2009.
Humphrys is the BBC’s second-highest paid journalist, earning up to £650,000 a year. North American editor Sopel is paid up to £250,000 a year, higher than Gracie’s annual salary of £135,000.
According to transcripts printed by The Sun and The Times, who both claimed the story as an exclusive, Humphrys said: “Good, slight change of subject – the first question will be how much of your salary you are prepared to hand over to Carrie Gracie to keep her and then a few comments about your other colleagues, you know, like our Middle East Editor and the other men who are earning too much.”
Sopel replied: “Obviously if we are talking about the scope for the greatest redistribution, I’ll have to come back and say, “Well yes Mr Humphrys, but…”
Humphrys said: “And I could save you the trouble as I could volunteer that I’ve handed over already more than you f***ing earn. But I’m still left with more than anybody else, and that seems to me entirely just. Something like that.”
Humphrys went on to ask Sopel if he knew she was suggesting he should lose money in order to balance pay among foreign editors, to which Sopel replied: “Can we have this conversation somewhere else?”
Responding to the conversation, a BBC spokesperson said: “This was an ill-advised off-air conversation which the presenter regrets. The BBC is committed to getting its pay structures right and we are conducting a comprehensive analysis of presenter pay.”
Speaking to The Sun about the incident, Humphrys said the conversation was “silly banter between old mates”.
But, BBC Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey tweeted: “Sopel exchange reveals, very neatly, what we’re up against. And a useful reminder to be ever careful in a room with microphones.”
Labour MP Jess Phillips said: “Women who speak up are used to being laughed at. Let’s tip the power as well as the money so that it is Humphrys [who] is now the one who is one worried that he spoke up and how it affects his career.”
The BBC told the Daily Telegraph that Humphrys would still be allowed to present pieces on gender pay following the leak.
O’Reilly claims her scheduled appearance on the Today programme this morning was cut because of the leaked John Humphrys’ conversation with Jon Sopel on the gender pay gap.
She said she was due to discuss the issue of pay equality on the programme before she told a producer she had heard the off-air chat.
O’Reilly tweeted: “I believe the person who made the decision to stand me down this morning was concerned I would mention the leaked tape on air.
“If Mr Humphrys was interviewing me I quite possibly would have – but why not – he would have done the same – it’s called freedom of speech.”
Responding to O’Reilly, a BBC spokesperson said: “The Today programme often makes changes to schedules and contributors in the run up to broadcast.
“This item became a much broader discussion about social change and consequently Afua Hirsch was a more suitable guest to talk about the wider issues. It’s wrong to suggest anything else.”
Carrie Gracie resigned as China editor earlier this week, accusing the BBC of having a “secretive and illegal pay culture”. In her resignation letter, Gracie called for the broadcaster to “simply … abide by the law and value men and women equally”.
She has since agreed to give evidence to MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee about the BBC’s gender pay gap, at a hearing on 31 January at 2.30pm.
BBC director-general Tony Hall has also agreed to appear before the committee.
Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire