Value of the BBC is not diminished by knowing how much its stars get paid

Sam Leith
BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg is thought to be among those whose salary will be revealed this week: PA

There’s nothing quite so delicious as the feeling of prurient disapproval we all revel in when we find out how much someone else is paid. So the temperature around Portland Place has risen several degrees from the friction of all those hands being rubbed in anticipation of Wednesday’s BBC salary peek-a-boo. Every one of the corporation’s stars who is paid more than £150,000 a year will have their salary published — or at least those, presumably, who haven’t been canny enough to funnel their earnings through a service company.

The pressure for disclosure is a tabloid-pleasing move. There’s cost-free political capital in it. David Cameron insisted that the BBC disclose the figures on talent paid more than £450,000; Theresa May whacked the floor down to £150,000. And who’s going to object? The stars themselves? Hardly: they’ll be painted as shifty and greedy if they step out of line. The BBC? “We pay their salaries!” goes up the cry. Go on, Fiona Bruce: get yer payslip out for the lads.

“Transparency” is one of those things, like “diversity”, “efficiency” and “best practice”, of which it is generally agreed that we can never have too much. But I smell a minty whiff of humbug here. The ground is being prepared for a little orgy of envy and embarrassment, and the main beneficiary of it will be those who wish the BBC ill, in particular the Daily Mail, the Rupert Murdoch press and the BBC’s ideological opponents on the Tory back benches.

Stirring the pot will be the corporation’s political enemies — cherry-picking what will be presented as outrageous overpayment to stars. But since the salaries of the talent at its commercial rivals are not published, there’s no readily available benchmark against which to compare it. To most of us, these multiples of the national average salary will seem ludicrous. Envy will do its work.

But will this ensure the corporation gives better value for money — by, effectively, naming and shaming the best-paid presenters? Unlikely. Rather, it will likely cause the less well paid to start pushing for an increase. Remember the Workers in the Vineyard? Jesus was onto something with that parable of his.

Where transparency is useful is not in the salaries of named employees so much as in the anonymised aggregates. If, as is rumoured, the disclosures point to a considerable gender pay gap, it’s absolutely right that we should know about it. But as far as overpaying for talent across the board goes, the BBC’s figures — less grabby and less easily illustrated than a photomontage of famous faces with £50 notes spilling from their pockets — tell us that over the past five years the payments to senior talent have gone down by a quarter, and payments to the very highest earners are down by 40 per cent.

But through this runs the old argument about whether the BBC should be paying a market rate for its presenters. And through that argument runs the basic fault-line into which Beeb-haters have been cheerfully hammering wedges for years.

The BBC is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. On the one hand, it comes under fire for chasing ratings and attempting to compete with its commercial rivals. If it doesn’t do so it comes under fire for providing poor value to the many licence-fee payers who want glitzy entertainment and couldn’t give a toss about the Today programme. It’s always going to be either “too commercial” or “too out of touch”. Its enemies attack it on both fronts. They are pro having their cake, and pro eating it.

Lord knows, like any major organisation the Beeb has absurdities and inefficiencies. The licence fee is looking weirder as a way of funding it, and its mission is, as its enemies know, vexingly incoherent. But we would be much worse off without it. And learning what Laura Kuenssberg earns won’t satisfy anything more than our curiosity.

Bravo to girl power ruling in the Tardis

When two hearts beat together as one … you know there’s been a new regeneration for the Doctor. This time, the man in the blue box is a woman. Rejoicing has broken out across the Who-sphere — and it’s made all the sweeter by the angry online comments (Sample: “Nobody wants a Tardis full of bras!”) from self-styled traditionalists. Anyone who can get angry about the casting in a science-fiction television programme is a gift to the world of lols.

As it happens, the original creator of Dr Who himself wrote in 1986 that he wanted a woman to be cast in the part one day. So traditionalists be damned. What keeps this show fresh is that, like the Tardis itself, it hops off in all sorts of directions in space and time. If it can — after all these years — travel in a different direction in gender, so much the better.

Jodie Whittaker is a fine actor and will, I trust, make a fabulous Doctor. A Tardis full of bras? Sign me right up.

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