Kate Nicholas: Pay secrecy contravenes BBC's principles

The pressure is really ramping up at the BBC this week, as Tessa Jowell makes threatening noises about restricting rises in the licence fee. The irony is that Jowell's bone of contention with this bastion of impartial and accurate reporting is one of transparency and accountability.

Thanks to a series of damaging leaks, we now know that some of the BBC’s stars have take-home pay-packets that make those much-maligned corporate fat cats look positively humble by comparison.

Jonathan Ross enjoys a whopping £18m over a three-year period, Graham Norton has signed a £5m deal, while Jeremy Paxman – a man capable of scaring the living daylights out of any corporate boss – earns £940,000.

The problem however isn’t the pay-packets, it is the apparent double standards being exercised by the Corporation. Corporate transparency and accountability are an obsession for 21st-century media, and executive remuneration has become a major target for business journalists. Along with other media operations, the BBC has been happy to put the spotlight on ‘fat cats’ such as GlaxoSmithKline’s Jean-Pierre Garnier, and on HSBC’s pay-off to William Aldinger, giving voice to unions’ accusations of corporate greed.

The need for accountability and transparency is quite simply a given these days. Whether you are a plc answering to shareholders, a council answering to tax-payers, or a not-for-profit answering to donors, there is nowhere to hide, particularly when it comes to how you are allocated an organisation’s hard cash. So why does the BBC, possibly the most high-profile public service organisation in the UK, think it can refuse to respond to Freedom of Information requests?

Spokespeople may insist they ‘don’t comment on presenters’ salaries’, but they are swimming against the tide. Jowell has made clear that a greater emphasis on accountability lies at the heart of The Charter Review, and that the BBC must be willing to answer to those who pay for that charter via the licence fee. She has repeatedly spoken about the BBC’s ‘unprecedented obligation to openness’, and the need for it to emphasise transparency in its decision making.

It’s fairly clear that no matter how vehement the protests, Jowell quite rightly isn’t going to let this issue rest.

Having been happy to report on others’ woes over the remuneration issue, the BBC is now getting a taste of its own medicine.


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