Dominic Lawson: BBC salaries bring out the stalker in us

Even those offended by how much the Corporation's stars earn should respect the idea that they have a right to privacy

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We British have become – to an alarming extent – a much less private people. There is one thing, however, which even the most uninhibited find it excruciatingly awkward to discuss in public: what we are paid. Most would rather reveal their sex life in full than any of the contents of their bank accounts.

It is fair to say that those who earn the most – unless they are monstrous braggarts – are among the most sensitive. So we can only imagine the agonies within the BBC as it fights off the campaign to force it to reveal the pay of all its star performers. This campaign – largely the work of one or two highly influential tabloid newspapers – has made the chairman of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, perform a volte-face. He has abandoned his longstanding support for the management's refusal to throw the ravening pack the red meat it has been slavering for, and declared that "transparency" should extend to disclosing whatever the likes of Jeremy Paxman and Fiona Bruce take home.

However, following what I understand to have been threats of resignation by some very senior BBC executives, this disclosure will not go as far as revealing precisely what such presenters are paid. Instead the details of "pay bands" will be published, but this breakdown will not extend to the exact salaries earned by the individuals concerned.

Needless to say, this will do nothing to appease the pursuing press. While ostensibly their campaign is for the safeguarding of the public purse – it is after all, we who are funding these salaries – their real motive is to satisfy the curiosity of their readers. The public would like to know what J Paxman and F Bruce earn, because they are interested in every aspect of their lives. Such vicarious ogling is quite independent of the fact that those performers are paid out of the licence fee, rather than by advertisers (which would be the case if they worked for ITV). The "public interest" argument – we pay them through a compulsory levy, so we deserve to know exactly, down to the last detail, how our £145 fee is allocated – is a spurious justification for mere celebrity-stalking.

It is a shame that Sir Michael Lyons did not feel able to make this obvious point, since he is certainly not too stupid to have worked it out for himself. It is one of the unfortunate aspects of so many modern regulatory bodies that they are more worried about their own future than that of the organisations under their purview. This means that, politically, they tend to pursue the path of least resistance. It seems especially true of Sir Michael Lyons, who began his career as a politician (albeit at local rather than national level).

It is not as if there is anything new about the BBC splashing out large sums for entertainers, in competition with the private sector. In years gone by Morecambe and Wise were frequently the beneficiaries of bidding wars between BBC and ITV and no one seemed to mind very much at the time.

A strong intellectual case can be made for the BBC not being involved in such commercial battles at all; that it should revert to being a purely high-minded provider of services not offered by the private sector. A similar point was made recently by Stephen Fry, when he denounced the corporation for joining in the great dumbing-down of British cultural life. This argument was made with still greater force by the magnificent PD James, who in her characteristically forensic interrogation of the BBC's Director-General, Mark Thompson, asked why the Corporation felt it a public duty to produce programmes such as Britain's Worst Teeth, Dog Borstal and Help Me Anthea, I'm Infested.

The trouble for the BBC is that it is precisely because every television owner in the land is compelled to hand it £145 that its executives are reluctant to become the broadcasting equivalent of an old-style broadsheet newspaper. They know that the vast majority of their audience are more likely to be readers of red-top papers, and if they don't provide the masses with the entertainment they seek – Strictly Come Dancing, for example – then they might have something like a broadcasting version of the poll tax riots on their hands.

Even given that dilemma, however, there is no doubt that in recent years the BBC has used its astonishing £3bn a year of compulsorily extracted fees to gain celebrity bragging rights over a commercial sector horribly constrained by the collapse of advertising revenues. At the showbiz end of the scheduling, the BBC's executives are every bit as ratings-hungry as their commercial rivals, and it's simply a fact that the biggest talents are the key to gaining the biggest audiences and therefore will command payments which seem out of all proportion to a normal scale of remuneration.

In a perfect world, BBC Light Entertainment executives would concentrate much more on discovering new talent, whom they would not need to pay exorbitant fees, and would take any later poaching of those stars by the commercial sector as a compliment to their own talent-spotting abilities. Life isn't like that, however. In the real world, such executives are driven by the need to mangle the opposition – and then to gloat about their victories at the Groucho Club afterwards, preferably in the faces of their rivals from the commercial channels.

In their own defence, the BBC's panjandrums insist that in almost every case they have snapped up, or retained, star performers for less than those men and women could have got by signing for commercial networks. One should take anything the agent Max Clifford says with industrial quantities of salt; nevertheless it is interesting that he gave credence to the Corporation's claim, by remarking that any revelation of performers' BBC pay "would be a total nightmare ... If you're telling everyone your star is getting £100,000 and suddenly it's revealed that they're only on £20,000, you lose big time".

An un-named BBC presenter also lent support to this argument, telling the Telegraph, almost plaintively: "We're already at the BBC at discounted rates, and now they want to publish those rates to a public that won't understand." You can understand why the presenter in question wished to remain anonymous: telling the public that they "don't understand" the pay of people like him is asking for a lynching. Nevertheless, that BBC presenter is right about the public that pays his salary. What those at the top of the showbiz pile earn is – just like the pay of leading footballers in the Premier League – out of all relation to most people's idea of just rewards; there is a visceral and eternal resistance to the notion that pay has no moral content, that it is just a function of what the market will bear.

Yet even those who are mortally offended by the fact of someone earning more in a year's work for the BBC than many earn in a lifetime should be able to respect the idea that such a person has a right to privacy, a right not to be financially "outed". Actually, newspaper editors understand this more than they let on. None of them would like the general public to know exactly what they are paid – and the more demotic the paper, the more horrified the editor would be by the idea of his salary being made known to the readership.

When it comes to pay, very few of us are exhibitionists, but we are all voyeurs.

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