Terence Blacker: The BBC has one law for the rich, one for the poor

The salaries of staff can be broadcast to the nation but 'talent costs' mustremain secret

Share
Related Topics

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.

Terblacker@aol.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teacher - Hull

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are recruiting for spe...

Foundation Teacher Cornwall

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Early Years and Founda...

General Cover Teacher - Grimsby

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Qualified Teachers needed for Supply in t...

KS2 Teacher required from October

£90 - £120 per annum: Randstad Education Hull: Key Stage 2 Supply Teacher requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
J. Jayalalithaa gestures to her party supporters while standing on the balcony of her residence in Chennai. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is one of India's most colourful and controversial politicians  

The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn’t produce

Andrew Buncombe
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?