It's easy to have a pop at Auntie Beeb, but they're not the only organisation with some serious thinking to doby Stuart Maconie / July 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
The fallout from the Great BBC Pay Disclosure, 2017 did not include the atomic pulse wave of righteous ire at the corporation’s profligacy that the right wing press must have hoped for. That particular lobby surely yearned for something the MPs’ expenses scandal (and the tsunami of moral outrage that followed)—revelations about the baroque duck houses on Radio 2 presenters’ country piles, perhaps, or at the very least, designer garments to be rent in shame on the steps of Broadcasting House.
Egged on by the BBC’s many and various enemies in Fleet Street, the government had demanded that the corporation disclose the names and pay of everyone earning more than £150,000. This was one of the conditions required for the guaranteed continuance of the license fee in a new royal charter (Cameron wanted to merely ‘out’ any on-air talent earning more than £450,000 but Theresa May, perhaps still tipsy with power at this point, cut the limit to £150,000 when she became PM).
Whatever sanctimonious guff was trotted out about ‘transparency’, the actual logic was transparent to all. The very notion of the BBC gnaws daily at the vital organs of many on the right, it being “a standing rebuke to the idea the state can’t get anything right and everything should be left to the market,” as Jasper Jackson pointed out in the New Statesman. This particular bit of faux-naif bullying from Downing Street and its friends in the Fourth Estate was intended to embarrass the BBC and render it less lovely in the eyes of the nation. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
No, this fallout was far stranger and will probably be more profound in its effects—an ill wind that actually blows some people quite a lot of good. Beyond the understandable ‘sheeshing’ about the size of those very manly alpha male packages up at the top of the list, there were several less expected, and more interesting, responses. For a start, many listeners and viewers took to social media to say that, actually, they thought the wages weren’t that high. Certainly, they didn’t look so bloated when you realized that the entire list—the whole fortunate and gilded ninety-six of them—cost 28 million quid, whilst Ant & Dec alone (if you see what I mean) rake in 30 million from ITV.
Almost as surprising was how, within minutes, the list made vocal and passionate feminists of the most unlikely sisters, such as the Sun, the Times, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. Not previously known for their fiery commitment to gender equality in the workplace, their newfound anger on behalf of Claudia Winkelman, Clare Balding, Emily Maitlis, Jane Garvey and others was as justified as it was unexpected.
Another aspect of the data, collated by Sky News political correspondent Lewis Goodall, was less discussed. Apparently, almost half of the BBC’s highest paid employees were educated at private school; forty-five per cent, to be exact, compared with just seven per cent of the nation overall. Goodall, writing on the Sky News website, was fairly sanguine about this, and with good reason: “It’s quite unfair,” he explained, “to single out the BBC in this regard anyway, I’m sure the pattern of private school dominance is repeated across our industry: at Sky, ITV and across Fleet Street.” (It’s also interesting to reflect on the fact that the two or three highest-paid performers on the list are all state school kids.)
The cliché used to be that sports—football and boxing, chiefly—were the only real launch paths for working class into the rarified strata of highly paid celebrity. And, of course, music, which could make homespun people’s millionaires of Formby, Fields, Our Cilla and even the Beatles—although there was always something singular and classless about the latter.
“We were working-class kids from towns like Stockport or Swindon, Wolverhampton or Wigan”
Then, in the decades after punk, a new kind of cliché emerged: writing about music was another way up that ladder. The British music press now feels melancholy and moribund, but between punk and Britpop it was probably the most democratic, influential and exciting sector of British publishing. It wasn’t just a vital cultural nexus for pre-internet youth. It was also hugely lucrative for publishing houses like IPC and Reed International. At the NME, we used to taunt the yachting and country types from the upmarket glossies who held their noses in the lift, telling them that it was us, and the greasemonkeys at Motor Cycle News, who were keeping them in cravats.
I belonged to that cohort of writers. From Parsons and Burchill to Morley to Moran, we were working-class kids from towns like Stockport or Swindon, Wolverhampton or Wigan, who would not normally have got past the commissionaires at Condé Nast House or Kings Reach Tower.
With the decline of the music press—certainly with its retreat into expert essayist nostalgia, rather than fiery samizdat bush telegraph—that particular avenue to a media profile is largely gone. I got my job at the NME with an intemperate/gushing/enigmatic review of Edwyn Collins, sent to the paper both hazily addressed and dismally typed.
But neither that, nor my background, seemed to mitigate against me there—and thus I’m now writing these words for a national magazine. In any section of the press but the once virile music weeklies, that would have been unthinkable outside of an unpaid internship. Unpaid internships have had the same effect on publishing that student loans have on pop groups: shifting the demographic markedly towards the middle class kids who don’t rely on a wage or a grant.
Goodall’s findings prompted some concerned talk of a rather formulaic kind. Labour MP David Lammy told The Independent: “On gender, on race, on disability, on sexual orientation and on class, it is clear that the BBC has a lot of work to do in fulfilling its public purpose of reflecting all aspects of the United Kingdom.” Leaving aside that the small matter that this isn’t actually the public purpose of the BBC, Lammy of course has a point. But from my experience in several sections of the media—from Radios 3 and 4 to the reeking bearpit of the NME subsroom—I can say that the BBC is at least aware of, and daily engaged in, if not obsessed with, this issue.
“I can’t imagine such issues getting much of an airing in the boardrooms of News International”
I’m not sure everyone else is. Friends in BBC management tell me daily that efforts to improve this imbalance are ongoing; as apprenticeship schemes in the digital divisions and production and drives to recruit from outside of the home counties and graduates. I can’t imagine such issues getting much of an airing in the boardrooms of News International or around Lord Rothermere’s dinner table. With routes into the media becoming less and less navigable for young working-class talent, it’s not just it’s not just that perennial Aunt Sally, or rather, Auntie Beeb, who needs to redraw the map—and give some long overdue help with directions.