I am a BBC Radio 4 freelance reporter/presenter working on a 10-part radio series. The public may pay my fees but they don't own me. So they can shove off if they want to know. I suspect they don't care that much. Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, believes the public have a right to know. Why?
Our fees are discussed in confidence with the BBC contracts department. I may well receive more or less than a colleague doing the same kind of work. If it is more, there is a reason – my age, experience, previous high-water marks in my career, my pulling power as evidenced by focus groups who report on my work, or maybe I got to sleep with a boss somewhere. Who knows. If the fees are less, that could be for the same reasons. Why should that be public property? What right has an airline pilot to pass comment on my work any more than I have on his?
Once fees are transparent to the world, editors will find it impossible to hire high-flyers (for a few dollars more) or the odd lame duck who needs a break but for far less money. Positive-discrimination hirings of minorities could become difficult once everyone knows what everyone else is earning. Invariably, they'll want the same and the temptation to create freelance fee bands will be overwhelming - and talent-destroying.
Presenter/reporters are assessed for an eclectic range of highly individual skills; and if the shrill jealousies of public involvement is allowed to interfere, individualism will perish. And once the public know, believe me, they will interfere. Think Jonathan Ross!
Worse still, once the public has the right to know details of our pay systems, why not our personal backgrounds too? They could be equally relevant and in the public interest, no? Is it a good idea to have a Jew covering Israel or a Muslim covering the Gaza Strip, or a protestant ensconced in Dublin for Radio 4? And what about that presenter of children's news? Isn't he twice divorced? Doesn't he have a drink-drive conviction? We have a right to know – don't we ?
The BBC Trust is wrong in arguing legal reasons for non-disclosure; the principle is not one of law but of morality, and sound commercial sense. A broadcaster's true value fluctuates with luck, fashion, good days bad days, and an editor's subjective view. There are precious few alternative radio employers to the BBC. Inter-channel poaching would become virtually meaningless if all BBC radio presenters fees were known to the opposition. Bargains could never be struck and necessary fabrications excluded from complex negotiations. Ultimately, instinct, experience and empiricism must determine whether my value as a war correspondent is more or less or the same as that of a gardening correspondent, but please allow me the privilege of confidential negotiations on my own behalf.
A final thought. Leigh's report says the BBC pays more than the market price for its top radio presenters. If only. Since leaving Panorama after 25 years (where I was paid a satisfactory fees arrangement for myself on a purely sui generis basis) and joining Radio 4, I have been paid less than one tenth of my old television reporter market value, and less that one 20th of my freelance newspaper writer value. Whoever is earning those big bucks, it certainly isn't me or my peers. And how much do I/did I earn? Wild horses wouldn't drag it out of me.