The BBC is driving its presenters to despair

Richard Coles
Broadcaster Stuart Linnell, radio presenter Kirsty Lang, DJ Liz Kershaw and financial journalist Paul Lewis give evidence to a Commons select committee on Tuesday. Photograph: PA

A colleague at the BBC found a page on its website advertising what it is like to work for the corporation. It was illustrated with a still from W1A, the television mockumentary about BBC management; a mistake, perhaps, but it raised a wry laugh. I work in the part where W1A is filmed, so we are used to seeing props for the production around the office – “ideas seesaws”, ridiculous signage – if we notice them at all, because at the BBC satire is so close to reality we often conflate them. We used to laugh at a strategically placed corporate notice that sets outs the BBC’s aims. Last on the list is a commitment to make it an “even better place to work”, but recent revelations about what working for the BBC is really like have been anything but comic.

A few years ago many of us freelancers were instructed by the BBC to set up personal services companies (PSCs), limited companies through which we would contract our services to the corporation. Last year we were informed that HMRC had decided that we were in fact employed – or to use the BBC’s phrase “employed for tax purposes” – after it applied a test that many in the sector regard as useless. For example, I have been deemed an employee for tax purposes in spite of being servant to more than one master. Several masters, in fact, as a freelance broadcaster, writer, musician, journalist, speaker, housing association board member and part-time vicar of Finedon, among others. If I am not a freelancer, I don’t know who is. HMRC disagrees. In my case, and in many others’, the BBC nevertheless accepted its determination and paid, on our behalf, the outstanding tax demanded, which it then deducted from our fees without consultation or permission. In response I started a WhatsApp group for BBC freelancers. In our view, and in the view of the the QC we later engaged, entering into a loan agreement without actually bothering to get an agreement is unlawful, and of course should be protested. Thus our dispute began.

For a few of us, the better paid, it causes inconvenience, expense and the risk of exposure to unmanageable tax demands. For very many more, who are not highly paid, it causes real hardship. On Tuesday evidence was given to the digital, culture, media and sport select committee that showed just how hard. Colleagues have been made seriously ill with stress. Kirsty Lang, one of Front Row’s presenters, was instructed to become freelance and form a PSC after years on staff, and lost benefits such as sick pay. This meant that she had no choice but to work while being treated for cancer. Another colleague was driven to despair by the prospect of penury and went to her loft to take her own life. Fortunately, she could not go through with it. Another, a single mother, is using food banks to make ends meet. Another, Charles Nove at BBC Radio Oxford, was forced to set up a PSC in 2011. The BBC is now recouping tax and national insurance from his fee – on which, of course, tax and national insurance contributions have been paid as company income – to the extent that he fears being made homeless. Another local radio presenter was so stressed after tax had been deducted from her fee she ended up in hospital for more than a month, a predicament her manager recognised and so continued to pay her. Business Affairs has now demanded that unofficial sick pay is repaid.

These stories should give pause to those who ask why anyone should feel any sympathy for lavishly paid luvvies moaning about having to pay tax. The overwhelming majority of people in our group are not lavishly paid, and all of us accept our tax responsibilities; but forming PSCs was forced upon us by the BBC, which must take responsibility for that.

This dispute is actually all about accepting responsibility: our responsibility to render unto Caesar what is rightfully owed; HMRC and its masters at the Treasury must accept responsibility for its failure accurately to decide employment statuses; and the BBC must accept its responsibility as an employer. Insult was added to injury, by the way, when some were told to accept reduced fees to offset the cost to the BBC of paying employers’ national insurance contributions. What kind of employer thinks employees should be liable for its own national insurance contributions?

The corporation has long benefited from the loyalty of the people who work there. Many of us love the BBC and care about it deeply. The BBC, however, does not love us back. It is a mistake to expect overmuch from an organisation. It is not a mistake, I think, to expect fairness from it.

• Richard Coles is parish priest of St Mary the Virgin, Finedon