One can be resolutely in favour of equal pay for men and women and still view the current debate about discriminatory salaries among senior BBC journalists as missing a much bigger point. That is neatly illustrated by the furore over comments by John Humphrys, who presents the BBC’s early morning current affairs programme Today on Radio 4.
In a leaked transcript of off-air comments, Humphrys tries to help out an old friend Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor – and one of those benefiting from the BBC’s higher-pay-for-men policy. In a pre-interview chat, he seeks to agree with Sopel how they will handle a coming interview about Carrie Gracie, who recently resigned from her post as the BBC’s China editor over her lower salary than men like Sopel.
Humphrys says he will have to raise as his first question whether Sopel should hand over some of his salary to Gracie to encourage her to stay in her post. But then he immediately offers to assist Sopel by making an interjection on his behalf in the planned interview: “And I could save you the trouble, as I could volunteer that I’ve handed over already more than you fucking earn but I’m still left with more than anybody else and that seems to me to be entirely just – something like that would do it?”
The problem, however, isn’t just that Gracie is being paid less than colleagues like Sopel. They are all being paid huge salaries. It is that there is a correlation between how much they are paid and the kind of political values they espouse for their employer.
Checks and balances
Once journalists were low-paid “hacks”. Most considered themselves in a craft, in which they served apprenticeships little different from carpenters or dock workers. You learnt a skill, and then put it to work for your bosses
Your employer was almost always a millionaire proprietor, but over the course of the 20th century the system developed some checks and balances. Most journalists saw themselves as part of the working classes, and belonged to a union. They worked in close collaboration with other working classes, especially cold-metal typesetters and printers, who could bring publication to a halt through industrial action. Such threats not only ensured a steady rise in wages for newspaper workers, but it placed a check of sorts on the High Tory politics the proprietors would have preferred.
An associated development was that in 1912 Britain produced a genuinely socialist newspaper, the Daily Herald. It was owned and run along largely cooperative lines, and soon became the country’s best-read daily. It was reinvented in the 1960s as the Sun, before Rupert Murdoch bought it – the first step in his relentless war to help create a totalitarian corporate media culture in the UK.
Destroying the unions
Murdoch not only coopted the Daily Herald / Sun to his corporate empire, but destroyed the media unions that acted as a very imperfect balance to the proprietors’ power. He then used the savings made by new media technologies that dispensed with the need for typesetters and most printing staff to upgrade the economic and social status of journalists. They were “professionalised” – encouraged to see themselves as professionals like doctors and lawyers. Rising pay meant that they were gradually transformed into members of the middle and upper middle classes.
How much you were paid was no longer seen an indicator of how much you had been coopted by the biggest corporations – how effective you were as a propagandist for the Establishment – but as proof of your professional skills as a journalist. On this view, the best reporters and news presenters were paid the highest salaries in exactly the same way, and for the same reason, that the best brain surgeons were paid most.
In the process, like many of “Thatcher’s children”, journalists abandoned all ideas of collective struggle and class politics. Instead they enthusiastically embraced a neoliberal ideology that argued society was a place where the fittest were winners in an economic race for survival. The losers dragged the rest of us down.
Humphrys as national treasure
If there is a figure who personifies this modern ugly ideology, it is the “National Treasure” of 74-year-old John Humphrys – the voice several generations of Britons have grown up with as he has framed and contextualised the news most days. He was the man who presented the BBC news every evening through most of the 1980s, the main years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule, and since 1987 has been their morning companion on the radio as they prepare for and head to work.
It is not coincidental that Humphrys is the highest-paid BBC news presenter, earning over £600,000. Humphrys’ conviction that he deserves every bit of his enormous pay packet should come as no surprise. Nowadays, he barely bothers to conceal his deeply reactionary politics, as Mark Doran has documented.
Humphrys’ espousal of a winner-takes-all, anti-welfare brand of politics has on occasion become so unmistakeable that in 2013 the usually supine BBC Trust was forced to make a rare intervention and condemn a programme he headed on the future of the welfare state. (The BBC buried its own coverage of this slap on the wrist by hiding the report in the entertainment section of the BBC’s website rather than the news section.)
The Child Action Poverty Group, which made the complaint to the Trust, observed of Humprys’ documentary: “This programme, like too many media stories, failed the public by swallowing wholesale the evidence-free myth of a ‘dependency culture’ in which unemployment and rising benefit spending is the fault of the unemployed.”
Smell of warm bread
Humphrys, remember, does not speak for himself. He has been selected for the job because his reassuring, avuncular voice provides the credibility and authority needed by the BBC to sell you propaganda parading as news.
Many years ago scientists worked out that, if the smell of warm bread were piped into the sterile, brightly-lit environment of supermarkets, it turned customers into shopping zombies. Their critical faculties were hijacked and they became passive consumers, ready to be manipulated into purchasing things they did not need.
John Humphrys is that smell of warm bread, piped through the radio to dull the critical senses of millions of listeners as they absorb propaganda presented as “lively debate” – debate between two sides, espousing slightly different policies within a broader neoliberal system whose central value is that of “big dog eat little dog”.
Back to the equal pay debate. Certainly, Gracie needs the same pay as Jon Sopel. But we as audiences would be far better served if both took a significant pay cut.
We don’t need even richer journalists; we need senior journalists in the BBC and elsewhere – and politicians – who understand the experiences of low pay that affect millions of Britons. Then they might remember that their employer is not a neutral disseminator of information and news, but a deeply interested and hugely powerful actor in channelling propaganda to perpetuate the power of the corporate elites that run our societies.