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The response to John Humphrys’ “jokes” shows we’re still letting the wrong people speak about pay

It is, apparently, only women standing together with their female colleagues who aren’t allowed to comment, while men can carry on making those same women the butt of their jokes

By Sian Norris  

John Humphrys arriving at the Broadcasting Press Guild Television and Radio Awards in 2013. Photo: PA

Have you heard the one about the woman who was paid less than her male colleagues for doing the same job?

That’s the joke according to Radio 4’s Today show presenter John Humphrys, who found himself in hot water on Thursday night after a conversation between him and Jon Sopel was leaked to the Times. In the leaked recording, he makes light of the pay gap and recent revelations by former China editor Carrie Gracie that the BBC was paying her less than her male counterparts. In what he’s defended as “light-hearted” and “sarcastic” comments, Humphrys asked Sopel “how much of your salary are you prepared to hand over?”—and then claimed that he had himself “handed over already more than you fucking earn.”

He went on to say, “Oh dear God she’s actually suggested you should lose money,” referencing the fact that Gracie had said she didn’t think she required a pay increase, but believed the four regional editors should be on equal pay. (Jon Sopel is North America Editor.)

Like dozens of men caught in the sexist act before him, Humphrys has defended his comments as “banter” between two friends who were “taking the mickey out of each other.” But it feels less like he was taking the mickey out of Sopel or himself. The butt of the joke is, once again, the women who are fighting for equal pay for equal work.

The Equal Pay Act was introduced into UK law in 1970. Yet 48 years later, Gracie’s letter shows how women are still struggling to earn the same as their male counterparts. According to statistics produced by the Fawcett Society, the current median aggregate gap for part time and full time workers is 18.4 per cent. Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics’ snapshot of hours and earnings estimates the gap for full time workers is 9.1 per cent. Last year it was revealed that at the BBC women’s mean hourly rate was 10.7 per cent lower than men’s.

Many excuses are made for the gender pay gap, including that it’s a “mother gap” borne of women ‘choosing’ caring responsibilities, or that women simply don’t want to do “high paid” jobs. These claims are all highly disputable, especially when—as Carrie Gracie’s open letter demonstrated— sometimes the pay gap really is as black and white as women being paid less than their male equivalents.

A BBC spokesperson has said that his comments were just a private, off-air conversation. But this is disingenuous. It doesn’t matter if the comments were made off air. Men don’t have a sexism button that they can turn on when speaking to their mates and turn off when they walk into the office. If they hold discriminatory views in private, then the chances are those views will influence their behaviour, too.

If you think the pay gap is a joke, if you think the idea of women getting equal pay as something to ‘take the mickey’ out of, then you can’t wipe those views from your mind every time you walk into the studio—particularly when your job involves holding to account those responsible for unequal pay. There isn’t a sexism-amnesia formula that men like Humphrys can take in the workplace and that magically wears off just in time to make ‘banterous’ phone calls with your male colleagues.

Meanwhile, following the publication of her open letter, the BBC decided that staff who had tweeted in support of Carrie Gracie would be barred from presenting segments about pay in order to ostensibly meet the broadcaster’s commitment to “due impartiality.” The fact that Gracie was able to speak on Women’s Hour about the issue further demonstrates the oddness of the BBC’s arcane impartiality rules.

This becomes even more of an issue when you consider how, shortly after the offending phone call, Gracie had to sit in silence as the Today programme reported her letter. She wasn’t able to talk about this story—a man who treats the issue as a joke got to speak, instead.

It seems that the BBC’s ban will not apply to Humphrys. It is, apparently, only women standing together with their female colleagues who aren’t allowed to comment, while men can carry on making those same women the butt of their jokes.

If this is the case, and Humphrys is allowed to continue as before, then we must accept that the BBC’s culture is one where women who openly show solidarity with their colleagues are penalised, while men who joke about the same issue at women’s expense can continue in their jobs unaffected. Women are silenced and men are allowed to report on whatever story crosses their desk.

The fact that this conversation was leaked raises further interesting questions about the culture for women working in the media. Clearly, someone was frustrated enough at the BBC to share this phone call with the press. Similarly, the publication of the ‘Shitty Media Men’ list, and Gracie’s letter itself, suggests that we are at a point where women are saying enough is enough.

Crucially, we only know about these stories because of leaks. We are only hearing about men’s sexist attitudes in the media because whistleblowers are speaking out—not because they are being held to account. It’s striking that if it weren’t for people being sick of a sexist culture within the media, men’s behaviour would continue to be covered up, tolerated and normalised. Now the information is out in the open, the question is this: what will the media do about it?

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