An emotional but defiant Carrie Gracie told MPs today that the BBC’s unwillingness to acknowledge its “equal pay problem” has forced it to “belittle” contributions by women for decades.
Giving evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, the BBC’s former China editor – who resigned this month over equal pay – took aim at BBC management.
She said she had settled her pay grievance with the BBC last week and had been told that its failure to pay her in line with other male international editors since April 2017 had been “inadvertent”.
She said she was offered back pay of close to £100,000 covering her four years as China editor since 2013, but was also told she had been considered “in development” for her first three years as explanation for her low pay.
“It is an insult to add to the original injury,” Gracie told MPs.
“It is unacceptable to talk to your senior women like that. I would never [have gone] to China on those terms. I asked for equal terms from the very beginning.”
Gracie, who was paid £135,000 a year as China editor, added: “There are significant risks in our China coverage and I dealt with them, I did a good job.”
She said management notes from her grievance hearing with the BBC were an “absolutely disgraceful nine pages of error and spin” that made for her “worst day at the BBC” in her 30-year career.
At several moments during her evidence Gracie appeared visibly emotional and at times struggled to hold back tears.
Noting at one point that she was “getting emotional” she paused before adding: “The thing is, what I really want to say about this equal pay problem at the BBC is what it forces the BBC to do is to retro-fit defences – justifications of the indefensible.”
She said the BBC could not accept that it had an equal pay problem and would not admit it because it did not want to “confront fiscal liabilities” – namely back pay for those found to have been discriminated against – although Gracie said she did not herself want more money.
She said: “They are trying to throw money at me to resolve the problem, this will not resolve my problem. My problem will be resolved by an acknowledgement that my work was of equal value to the men that I have served alongside as an international editor.”
She added: “An apology would be nice.”
At one point, Gracie held up a stack of paper which she said contained 500 emails from members of the public in support of her work as China editor and her stance on equal pay as well as 300 emails from members of staff also supporting her.
She said: “Someday, it would be nice if the BBC could bring itself to say that women too are good broadcasters and journalists, but because it’s in this terrible position of not being willing to acknowledge an equal pay problem with women it’s effectively forced to belittle our contributions, not just this year, not just last year, but for decades.”
Gracie revealed that she had spent more than 200 days in China last year and refuted claims that she was “part-time” and had done only 100 days in the country.
Gracie, who is in her mid 50s, said she believed she had been underpaid at the BBC since 2000, when she started on the News Channel. Explaining why she never challenged the corporation on equal pay, she said: “We actually trusted the BBC, that’s the problem. And we had no information.”
She added: “Over several years on the News Channel I began to realise there was an issue with equal pay. I didn’t do anything about it – I was a single parent, my daughter had had leukaemia and I had had breast cancer twice.
“Frankly I had enough just getting on with life. I just never argued about money with them but I knew when I want to China I was not prepared for an unequal pay situation to go on.”
The BBC’s on-air talent pay report, which yesterday revealed a 6.3 per cent gender pay gap but found “no evidence of gender bias”, was rubbished by Gracie, who said: “None of this would stand as a piece of BBC journalism.”
National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet, also giving evidence to MPs, added: “The use of language is making the problem worse. Referring to ‘inadvertent’ errors of underpaying people or talking about there’s no evidence that decisions were taken to discriminate.
“They are weasel words… And actually instead of trying to somehow come up with excuses and make the situation look better, they should just hold their hands up and say yes there’s been a problem…”
Gracie, who is now working in the UK newsroom and has done stints on the Today programme, said that equal pay was set to be a big story this year as firms are forced to reveal their gender pay under new legislation.
But she raised concerns over the BBC’s ability to fairly report on this issue given its current stance in relation to its own staff.
She said: “We aren’t in the business of producing toothpaste or tyres at the BBC. Our business is truth. We can’t operate without the truth. If we aren’t prepares to look at ourselves honestly, how can we be trusted to look at anything else in our reporting honestly?
“It just won’t do. It can’t be a starting place to not deal with the facts. The facts are the facts.”
She added: “The profoundest sense I have of who I am as a BBC journalist is to report the truth as I find it. If they don’t report the truth, how can we?”
Following Gracie’s open resignation letter at the start of the year, some BBC journalists, mostly women, were taken off the air and stopped from presenting the issue if they had taken a public stance on equal pay.
The order was understood to have been made by director of news Fran Unsworth under the BBC’s strict impartiality guidelines and effectively resulted in gagging BBC women from talking about it.
John Humphrys was also caught joking about equal pay with North American editor Jon Sopel while the pair were mic’d up but off-air, which Humprhys dismissed as “banter”.
Gracie said: “It isn’t worthy, any of this, of the BBC. To me what it says is we aren’t secure in the foundations of what we are saying and therefore because our foundations are not securely in truth, accountability and transparency we aren’t living our real values.”
She added: “It makes me angry, it makes me disappointed, it makes me desperately anxious about the future of the BBC. If we aren’t truth-tellers who are we? We are no better than the next news source.
“The BBC lives or dies by its reputation for telling for telling the truth without fear or favour. That is what we do every day and that is what our bosses should do.”
Stanistreet said the BBC’s report on on-air talent salaries published yesterday “did not reflect reality”.
She added: “The reality is that many layers of management did know there was a problem. Many women have said there’s a problem and it hasn’t been sorted out, so this doesn’ t back up an assertion that there’s ‘no evidence of gender bias’.”
Gracie said the current BBC position on equal pay was “unsustainable”, adding: “It isn’t who we are. That can’t stand. That will go down to all kinds of defeats. The first defeat is that many women will leave. Many women have already left. Many women are leaving now.”
She warned that the BBC was “stumbling towards a Greek tragedy” in its handling of the growing crisis over equal pay. “They need to stop now, pull up and trust the staff to handle this responsibly,” she added.
Asked what should be done to rebuild the BBC while preserving its reputation, Gracie answered: “If we can just realign ourselves around the truth, I think – I’m guessing – the reason the BBC is finding it so hard to acknowledge the equality problem they have is because of the fiscal risk.
“But I think they will find that the more they commit to building a better future, the more people will be able to forgive some aspects of the past and the fiscal risk will diminish if they build that better future.
“What I would like to see is – I think it’s very important to acknowledge that trust is broken between a lot of the women involved and management. It’s just broken and I don’t think it’s very easy to repair that without outside help and we don’t want that outside help to be an employment tribunal…
“The damage to the BBC would be so intense if this ends up at tribunal. I would hope that they will work with us, work with women, work with Michelle [Stanistreet] through the NUJ to appoint an independent arbitration of some form that everyone can trust to deal with individual cases as swiftly as possible.”
She added: “Management can’t sort this out. I honestly think trust the staff, we are responsible people. We are incredibly loyal to the organisation. Some people will insist on enforcing their rights to back pay, but some like me won’t. People are in a different place on it.
“I think it’s important to trust staff to move to a better place as fast as possible so that the risk to the BBC is diminished. I think they are walking towards their worst outcome now by everything they do and they need to stop and they need to let us help them out.”
Taking aim at BBC director general Tony Hall, Gracie said she had spoken to him before to ask for “transparency and a proper response to equal pay” and said she had thought it “unacceptable” that he had complained about making the on-air talent salary disclosures last summer.
“Without them I and many women up and down the BBC would have gone to our graves ignorant of our personal pay gap,” she said.
“Many women still are ignorant of their personal pay gap unless he provides them with transparency. I want full transparency. I told him you have to show courage, you have to show leadership on this issue, you have to be brave.
“We are still waiting for courage and we must have it.”
Lord Hall, who followed Gracie in today’s hearing, praised her as an “absolutely first rate editor” who has “done first rate work for the BBC” while she sat with the public behind him.
He added: “I admire the stand she has taken on this. It takes courage to speak out against the corporation that she says she loves a great deal.”
Lord Hall said he felt “very strongly” about wanting to “fix” equality at the BBC, “particularly with women” and repeated the corporation’s aim to have 50/50 men and women on-air by 2020 “or earlier” across the board.
He said: “I profoundly believe the BBC needs to demonstrate – under the law – that we are paying equally.
“Where I think Carrie and I would disagree is that I think there is a hierarchy within a [pay] band which has been far too big… there needs to be a range in there.
“We will not discriminate on gender between anybody to do with whatever they are going to do, but there are differences in the work, the amount of work, the nature of the work between, say, North America and China.
“The range between those two has been too big, I agree completely and I’m sorry about that, but actually there is a difference in the scope and the scale of those two jobs.”
He said the BBC had been failed to be clear in the past about what on-air talent are paid and why, adding this “has to be absolutely transparent”.
“The bands are too big and we need to be upfront with people about why they sit where they do,” he said.
Along with the on-air pay review, published yesterday, the BBC announced a five-point plan “to help create a fairer and more equal BBC” which included salary cuts for some men and a new framework for on-air salaries.
He told MPs today: “The reforms we are bringing about… are about saying actually we have devolved too much to programme editors or other bosses around the BBC and we need to have an overall view of pay and equality of pay and fairness of pay right across the piece.”
Picture: Parliament TV