When Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, told a broadcasting seminar in London on Wednesday night that the BBC should publish details of the salaries paid to its top presenters and stars, he performed a U-turn so violent it threatened to put necks out of joint along the loftiest corridors of the corporation's headquarters.
Sir Michael, for so long opposed to revealing who gets what at the BBC, appears to have discovered the faith of a clamouring press, whose demands to know just how much the likes of Jeremy Paxman and Graham Norton take home have become deafening.
But if a new era of transparency throws light on the secretive deals struck in the boardrooms of the BBC, insiders warned of dramatic changes to the way it does business that could set it on a collision course with its stars and their agents.
"There would be an absolute feeding frenzy," says Mark Borkowski, the entertainment industry publicist and founder of Borkowski PR. "It would spark a war between the media and celebrities over the amount the BBC pays and suddenly agents will need to convince the media their guy has value."
Revelations about pay would also change the nature of deal-making, potentially leaving the BBC short on bargaining chips and fledgling careers in peril. "It would be a total nightmare," says Max Clifford, the celebrity publicist. "As a manager or an agent, you don't want anyone to know what your client's deal is. Whether you're making a lot or nothing, you talk it up higher to boost their career. If you're telling everyone your star is getting £100,000 and suddenly it's revealed they're only on £20,000, you lose big time."
High-profile stars remained tight-lipped yesterday, with most refusing to comment on their salary or the Trust's about-turn. According to the latest figures, the BBC spends £229m on talent each year, of which £70m is awarded to an exclusive group of top presenters. "What I'm paid is between me and the BBC," said the presenter Andrew Marr. "And whether or not it's made public is up to the BBC." Today presenter Evan Davis said he would feel "very comfortable" if his salary were published: "We are paid for by licence fee-payers," he said. "If they want to know and the BBC has evidence that they want to know, I don't think we should stop them."
One radio presenter who preferred not to be named said transparency would only put "downward pressure on salaries" at the broadcaster. He added: "I would quite understand if they wanted to pull money back from some of the very well-paid people."
But in a climate where presenters such as Jonathan Ross and Adrian Chiles are already following their purses to commercial broadcasters, could a drop in salaries at the BBC lead to an exodus? "The real winners in this could be Sky and ITV," says Mr Borkowski. "They'll find it much easier to attract talent." An anonymous agent went further: "If things change the talent might just hit the road. Everyone's under the microscope at the moment but there needs to be an element of trust and a focus on value. Morecambe and Wise were on big wages that nobody knew about. But they were worth it."
If the BBC is threatened with a walkout of top talent, it will have to find new ways to hang on to big names. Cleverly constructed deals between management, agents and their clients, with all-important secrecy clauses, arguably increases the likelihood that the true scale of pay may never see the light of day. "There are always ways to sweeten a deal," said one insider. "You'll see stars being paid in kind or getting extra benefits in deals done firmly under the table."
There is some speculation that Sir Michael's words have more to do with PR than any real concession to openness. The BBC is already cutting its managers' pensions and pay, making this a smart time to scale back excessive salaries for presenters. "I wouldn't be surprised if they get away with lumping stars into broad ranges," said one insider
Whether or not their portraits hang in the corridors of Television Centre or those of the BBC's rivals, Mr Borkowski warns "they'll be subject to intense scrutiny whatever they do".
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