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Tom Sutcliffe: Secrecy on pay can keep salaries down

Here’s a simple question: is the public disclosure of top salaries more likely to drive prices up or down? I assume that senior staff at the Information Commissioner’s Office (salaries on application) must have asked themselves the same thing before issuing new guidelines about transparency on the amount of public money that goes into private pockets ... and presumably their broad assumption was that this measure would be most likely to save public money in the long run.

That’s the general tenor of most other coverage of this matter too, particularly when it comes to the salaries of senior executives and – most inflammatory of all it seems – BBC presenters. The sense is that the traditional discretion about income has allowed for some jaw-dropping excesses when it comes to remuneration, and that having the beady eyes of the British public on your payslip every month would inject a bit of compulsory modesty into the system.

There are clearly some good arguments for candour in this matter, particularly when salaries, or salary scales, are effectively set by those who benefit from them. Just imagine what MPs would be paid by now if they weren’t aware that their self-generosity would come under public scrutiny? But the implication that Jeremy Clarkson or Fearne Cotton’s salary, say, might be susceptible to the same process as that of politicians or army majors or departmental under-secretaries seems to me flawed, to say the least.

I’ve avoided Jonathan Ross as an example here, because although he’s always cited by indignant journalists as though he’s typical, he’s actually anything but. There was nothing representative about the brilliant heist his agent bought off in persuading the BBC to pay wildly over the odds in the first place, and nothing representative about the brazenness with which Ross subsequently flaunted his wad.

Where he is typical, though, is in wanting to earn as much as he possibly can for what he does and – more significantly – thinking of the size of his salary as the most concrete marker of his success. And both those truths of human psychology suggest to me that full-scale disclosure of salaries – where those salaries have been arrived at by individual negotiation – would drive costs up rather than down. To believe otherwise you have to be able to persuade yourself that the following scenario is plausible: on a given date the BBC discloses all its presenters’ salaries and those who suddenly discover that they’ve been earning far more than comparable colleagues ring up the Corporation with reddened faces and request that their payments immediately be trimmed to bring them into line. I would suggest that if there were red faces and awkward phone calls it would be for precisely the opposite reason.

As a BBC presenter myself, I have an interest in this matter. But as a presenter who is never likely to ignite a paparazzo’s flashbulb or a tabloid reporter’s envy, I’d suggest I exemplify the economising effect of secrecy. Thinking solipsistically about this, I realised I would have no objection at all to my BBC earnings being revealed – provided that they were above or at least in parity with similar colleagues’ – but that I would mind a lot if I was exposed as a budget buy. This might not be very dignified, but I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that way. High salaries have a way of leaking into the public domain. Low ones tend to be guarded more closely because secrecy – in a field where there are no pay scales and like-for-like comparisons are virtually impossible – sometimes allows people to settle for less. The public might reasonably want complete disclosure anyway ... but they shouldn’t casually assume it’s going to save them money.

Maximum exposure ... for the rainforest

It must be tough being an exhibitionist in Rio de Janeiro, and doubly so during Carnival. How exactly do demonstrate your commitment to letting it all hang out when virtually nothing in the city is hanging in?

Last year Viviane Castro, a model and Carnival queen, managed to out-do fellow revellers by appearing on the streets wearing nothing but a one-and-a-half-inch strip of sticky tape and a large pair of feathered wings. She was fined for breaching the Carnival’s nudity rules (who knew, frankly?), and her samba group were docked points.

This year she has sensibly added a political twist to guarantee continued coverage – painting Obama’s face on her left thigh, and President Lula da Silva’s face on the right, with the legend “Vendese” (For Sale) printed across her stomach, apparently to protest against increasing US influence in the Amazon.

And in between this unusual Heads of State face-to-face was that tiny piece of sticky tape again – just failing to conceal Castro’s mute but attention-grabbing commentary on Brazilian deforestation.

The loneliness of the solitary film censor

I was intrigued to read that staff at the British Board of Film Classification are protesting against budget-tightening which will require them to watch porn films alone, rather than in tandem. Solo viewings are standard for ordinary films, but professional scrutinisers tackle the harder stuff in pairs, like mountaineers – presumably so that if one of them loses their grip in a fit of indignation or (whisper it) unprofessional responsiveness, the other can act as a kind of analytical belay, hauling them back to dispassionate evaluation. Personally I would have thought they would have leapt to embrace this economy – not because any of them would have an improper need for privacy, but because it must be mortifying to watch these things alongside a work colleague, clipboard on knee as you tally up the orifices entered.

Either way, what a curious business it must be – judging films intended to do one thing only to their audiences and taking elaborate steps to ensure that they don’t succumb themselves. One wonders if they’re required to disqualify themselves from certifying a comedy if they inadvertently laugh half-way through.

* My colleague Philip Hensher speculated yesterday that “some sort of character analysis must be possible on the basis of pic’n’mix choices” – stirring memories in me of a long-distant news report (at least 30 years ago now) on precisely such a psychological analysis.

Among its “findings”, as I recall, was the revelation that my then-passion for wine-gums was in fact a classic sign of anal-retentive tendencies. Since then my own trips to the pic’n’mix counter have been conducted very discreetly and the contents of the bag revealed only on a need-to-know basis.