Smooth (comms) operator: Carrie Gracie's BBC pay protest a warning to us all

The BBC found itself in the difficult position of having to report news about a hot potato of its own this morning.

Carrie Gracie's resignation was discussed in a slightly ill-tempered interview between John Humphrys and Mariella Frostrup (images via @BBCCarrie & @BBCr4today on Twitter)
Carrie Gracie's resignation was discussed in a slightly ill-tempered interview between John Humphrys and Mariella Frostrup (images via @BBCCarrie & @BBCr4today on Twitter)

It's not the first time it has happened - in 2012, director general George Entwistle effectively resigned on air under questioning from the Today programme’s John Humphrys about his handling of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

On Today this morning, listeners were treated to the intriguing editorial conundrum of the programme being presented by Carrie Gracie, on the day when her decision to quit as the BBC's China editor in protest over equal pay was headline news.

It's a BBC News article of faith that all stories should be dealt with impartially - so as programme editor how do you cope when one of your presenters is the subject of such a contentious news story?

Carrie Gracie is a first-class journalist and a shrewd operator who will have timed the publication of an open letter of resignation deliberately on the eve of one of her occasional Today programme presenting shifts. She knew the story would make headlines and maximise publicity for her cause – highlighting the issue of unequal pay between men and women in BBC News who do similar jobs.

Former colleagues of mine described the mood among the Today programme’s overnight production team as tense. It was impossible to ignore the story, which is on most newspaper front pages today, but BBC impartiality rules specifically bar presenters from voicing their own opinions.

One option would have been to stand her down and bring in a replacement. In the febrile atmosphere which has seen hundreds of BBC News staff supporting Gracie's cause on social media, that would have been controversial as it would have inevitably prompted 'Gracie axed' headlines.


Read next: The problem with the Today programme


In the end the story was covered in news bulletins, the newspaper review and in a slightly ill-tempered interview between Humphrys and Mariella Frostrup. Carrie Gracie's only comment was to say she had been touched by the support she had received from BBC colleagues and beyond.

One interviewee notable by her absence from the programme was the BBC’s recently appointed head of news, Fran Unsworth. As a veteran of many BBC crises and a well-regarded 'safe pair of hands', this will be an interesting challenge for her to solve.

Gracie has acknowledged she is well paid by most standards, but she is outraged by the fact that her male counterparts are paid much more. Her cause is backed by many high-profile BBC colleagues and politicians.

A BBC statement sought to defuse the situation by saying the issue of presenter pay is being independently reviewed. With budgets tight, fat pay rises seem unlikely and cutting pay for star presenters is probably impossible.

This story coincided with a protest at the Golden Globe Awards where stars wore black and women speakers took it in turns to pour scorn on Hollywood’s sexist and abusive culture.

It’s only January, but already 2018 looks set to be a year where all organisations, regardless of their profile, would be well advised to ensure they have clear policies in place in relation to matters of gender equality. We have been warned.

Adam Batstone is a director at MHP Communications and a former assistant editor for BBC News

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