Britain's august BBC revealed a yawning gap between the pay of its top male and female stars Wednesday when it named its highest earners for the first time.
The 95-year-old public-service broadcaster has made much in recent years of its need to pay high salaries to keep up with the likes of Internet giants Google and Amazon as they encroach on traditional media companies' turf. But it appears to have taken a more controversial leaf out of the Silicon Valley playbook, a degree of systematic gender bias in its pay structure that could expose it to expensive discrimination lawsuits.
The numbers may be small by U.S. standards, and few if any of the 96 names on the list of those earning over 150,000 pounds a year ($195,000) are household names in the U.S., but the scale of the disparity, for a corporation that likes to be seen as a world leader in its field, is striking.
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At the top of the list was Chris Evans, the radio and TV presenter who took over as presenter on Top Gear for one series after Jeremy Clarkson defected to Amazon two years ago. Evans took home up to 2.25 million pounds ($3.3 million) in 2016-17. By contrast, the highest-paid woman was Claudia Winkleman, who earned less than half a million pounds for her work on Strictly Come Dancing (the show that gave rise to Dancing with the Stars in the U.S.) and other shows.
(For context: The $20 million salary reportedly earned by Today show host Matt Lauer would cover all of the BBC's top 15 employees with enough left over for a pied-à-terre in Brooklyn.)
Whether in news or sport, presenting or acting, TV or radio, the BBC's male stars routinely earn a multiple of the women who do the same job. Soccer star Gary Lineker, for example, pockets over 1.75 million pounds, almost all of it for a once-a-week soccer highlights show, while Clare Balding, its lead female sports presenter, earns less than 200,000 pounds for a much broader range of duties. News anchor Huw Edwards, meanwhile, earns at least 40% more than counterpart Fiona Bruce, who is on less than 400,000 pounds. The average gender pay gap for full-time workers in the U.K. is 9.4%, according to the Office of National Statistics.
The issue of pay at the BBC first became a hot topic after 2008, as years of falling or stagnant real incomes across the U.K. sharpened emotions over income inequality. T he vast bulk of the BBC's funding comes from a mandatory and flat-rate license fee that every household with a TV in the U.K. has to pay. That fee amounts to a regressive tax on lower-income families.
Naming all those who earned over 150,000 pounds a year was part o f its latest 10-year funding settlement with the Conservative government.
The Guardian quoted Ruth Gamble, a partner at employment law specialists BDBF in London, as saying that the list has "the makings of a good sex discrimination or equal pay claim."
"To defeat such a claim, the BBC would have to demonstrate that there is an explanation for the difference, which has nothing to do with gender," Gamble said "If the disparities are as striking as many expect them to be, it will not be an easy argument.”
The BBC holds a central role in British public life, showing everything from royal weddings and sports events to local news and popular dramas through its TV channels, radio stations, and online sites. While respected around the world, it has long been resented by its commercial rivals, who argue the license fee gives it an unfair advantage and distorts the market. However, its status and reach have often enabled it to hire at below the rates paid by private-sector broadcasters.
"We are a global broadcaster, we want to employ stars, we want to employ the very best presenters, correspondents," director general Tony Hall said. "We're in a market, and it's a competitive market."
"We've made progress, but we recognise there is more to do and we are pushing further and faster than any other broadcaster," Hall was quoted on the BBC's own website as saying. He vowed to have equality between the numbers of men and women appearing on air, and in the amount they are paid, by 2020.