The BBC has an inconsistent, almost dysfunctional attitude towards money. Now and then it engages in the commercial market aggressively and enthusiastically, but, for most of the time, it likes to think of itself as a cultural institution which is above the squalid dealings of everyday business. The corporation's strange, Christ-like position in our culture, being both of the world and transcending it, has been pointed up by a new report into its spending.
For the BBC's foot-soldiers, the fact that salaries and fees are paid by the licence-payer puts a brake on any hint of extravagance. Wages up to middle management level are at the low end of average. Freelance contributors are paid on a scale which ranges from the adequate to the unashamedly exploitative. The corporation's unstated bargaining position is simple and brutal: if people feel they are underpaid, they know where they can go. There are plenty of others to take their place.
Anyone callow enough to raise the question of remuneration is likely to discover another level of complication. Discussion of money within the main part of the BBC is regarded as bad form. Those who commission programmes are not involved with the vulgar business side, which is the responsibility of another department.
All this is perhaps as it should be. A public institution, dealing in many areas where there is no obvious competition, the BBC should be above the ducking and diving of the market place. And yet, as this week's report from its Trust confirms, there is one level at which different rules apply – the very top. The BBC, according to Sir Michael Lyon, the chairman of the Trust, is not actually over-paying its superstars and therefore distorting the market, but is merely competing in a fair way with other broadcasters. This is supposed to be reassuring.
With a distinctly unconvincing show of sternness, Sir Michael has said that "there's a clear message from the Trust that there is more to be done" but has disdainfully refused in interviews to make any specific reference to big-money payments, even without mentioning the names attached to them. It is slightly bewildering position for the Trust to take, given that the BBC is a publicly funded body, but is entirely consistent with its position in the past. The salaries of staff can be broadcast to the nation but "talent costs", as they are known, must remain a closely guarded secret. So we must depend on leaks, significantly undenied, for the information that generous three-year deals have been agreed with Jonathan Ross (£18m) and the Little Britain duo (£6m), with Graham Norton earning £5m over two years. Other BBC luminaries were reported in 2006 to be on salaries that still sound distinctly generous – £940,000 for Jeremy Paxman, £800,000 for Terry Wogan and £630,000 for Chris Moyles.
Perhaps the inconsistency between lavish rewards (and secrecy) at the top and scrupulous housekeeping in other areas of the corporation are not so surprising. The BBC has recognised that we live in a country of two nations: that of civilians and that of celebrities. Normal rules of restraint and public responsibility are important in the context of civilian staff and contributors but are suspended in dealings with members of the small and select celebrity nation.
The effect of this double standard is visible in the schedules. There is a direct connection between the millions spent on grinning-big-time presenters like Ross and Norton and the drastic decline of investment in, say, serious drama or quality children's TV. It could be argued that, by pandering to the celebrity culture, the BBC is merely reflecting the reality of the times in which we live but, if it feels the need to compete with ITV in race towards inanity, then it is more than television which is in trouble.
That all-encompassing, all-excusing fascination with personalities who, often for inexplicable reasons appeal to the public, bleeds into other areas of public life. A very ordinary person like the BBC presenter Jeremy Clarkson, for example, can reach a such a level of fame that hardly a day goes by without his name appearing in the news. Last week, he said something studiously controversial about breaking the speed limit. This week his mother, God help us, is publishing a book about herself, teddy bears and Jeremy. Celebrity fever of this kind is more than a silly joke. Not so long ago, thousands of apparently sane people signed a petition demanding that Clarkson should be prime minister.
Doubtless the BBC is delighted and, when Clarkson's contract is due to be renewed, will hand over a mind-boggling amount of our money in order to hold on to him. It is not the market that is in danger of being distorted, but our national sanity.