BBC stars John Humphrys and Jon Sopel 'joke about equal pay row in leaked recording'

Two of the BBC's top-earning male journalists reportedly joked about the equal pay fight of one of their female colleagues.

John Humphrys, host of Radio 4's Today programme, and North America editor Jon Sopel were apparently recorded off-air talking about Carrie Gracie.

Gracie quit as China editor after accusing the BBC of a "secretive and illegal pay culture" in which her male counterparts at the same level were being paid far more.

According to The Sun and The Times, Humphrys told Sopel: "The first question will be how much of your salary you are prepared to hand over to Carrie Gracie to keep her, and then a few comments about your other colleagues, you know, like our Middle East editor and the other men who are earning too much…"

Sopel replied: "I mean, obviously if we are talking about the scope for the greatest redistribution I'll have to come back and say well yes Mr Humphrys, but…"

Humphrys, 74, reportedly responded: "And I could save you the trouble as I could volunteer that I've handed over already more than you f****** earn but I'm still left with more than anybody else and that seems to me to be entirely just..."

The exchange reportedly happened on Monday, before the Today programme was on air, and the same day Gracie co-hosted the show with Humphrys.

The BBC presenter told The Times the conversation was not intended to make light of Gracie's push for pay equality.

"This was what I thought was an exchange between two old friends who have known each other for 30 years and were taking the mickey out of each other," said Humphrys.

"It was nothing to do with Carrie's campaign."

A BBC spokeswoman said: "This was an ill-advised off-air conversation which the presenter regrets.

"The BBC is committed to getting its pay structures right and, as we have said, we are conducting a comprehensive analysis of presenter pay."

Humphrys will also be allowed to continue to report on the BBC gender pay gap issue.

The spokeswoman told Sky News they believe he is still impartial because he has not campaigned or expressed support for a particular position.

The BBC pay disclosure last summer showed Sopel was in the £200,000 - £249,999 pay bracket, while Humphrys was earning between £600,000 and £649,999.

Gracie has said she gets £135,000.

Former BBC journalist Miriam O'Reilly, who won an ageism case against the corporation in 2011, claimed to have heard the recording.

She described it as "smug and condescending" and "beneath what the public would expect to hear from John Humphrys".

Gracie released an open letter to the "Dear BBC Audience" when she quit, claiming her employer was not "living up to its stated values of trust, honesty and accountability".

She said male international news editors were being paid 50% more than women in the same role.

Gracie added that she had been offered a £45,000 pay rise, to £180,000, but that it was still less than men in the same role.

"I simply want the BBC to abide by the law and value men and women equally," she wrote.

Responding to Gracie's letter, the BBC said "fairness in pay is vital" and that an "independent judge-led audit of pay for rank and file staff showed 'no systemic discrimination against women'."

The row comes after the BBC published salaries of some of its biggest stars in July.

It revealed disparities between some presenters in similar roles - for example a £200,000 gap between Huw Edwards and Fiona Bruce, who both present evening news programmes.