Forget, if you can (though the BBC doesn’t want you to), about the sex pay gap among BBC performers who earn vast amounts of money. Don’t get hot under the collar because Ms X is only paid £300,000 a year when Mr B takes home millions. OK, if you feel strongly about it, do go on a demonstration demanding that poverty stricken female presenters should be paid millions rather than merely hundreds of thousands. But spare a moment’s thought, not about the sex of the people being paid these ludicrous sums, but about whether such sums ought to be paid to anyone at all by a public broadcaster.
The BBC, understandably, is terrified that this tiny glimpse we have been given of its extraordinary profligacy will lead to more and more people demanding either the end of the television licence or a large reduction in its cost. That is why it is doing all it can to persuade us that the only problem is its failure to pay women on the same excessive scale as it pays men.
I said we have only been given a tiny glimpse of the BBC’s profligacy. That is true. There are many famous names which do not appear on the list, not because they are only paid a few hundred thousand a year, but because the programmes in which they appear are made by independent companies. I am sure many of you will be able to think of lots of such people. The ones who come instantly to my mind are Ian Hislop, Paul Merton, David Dimbleby, Jeremy Paxman and David Attenborough (gosh – all men – but please forget that). Their, no doubt, excessive salaries are funded by the licence payer, but they are channelled through independent production companies, which means they don’t have to be revealed to us. But what we can be absolutely sure of is that a list of their salaries would include several more BBC chaps being paid in millions. Indeed, some of those on the list we have already seen pick up quite a bit more money from programmes made by independent companies (I gather Mr Evans is definitely paid a lot more than the trifling £2.2M of which we have been told).
Let us move away from what the BBC managers call the “talent” (as though everyone else who works for the BBC has none of that). There are a great many managers (these aren’t people who do anything so mundane as to make programmes) who are paid in excess, sometimes considerably, of £200,000 a year. Most of them are devoted to things like PR, or budgeting (meaning decreeing that “talent” should be paid a fortune and interesting contributors should be paid peanuts or nothing at all). Anyway, they add more millions to the licence payer’s bill.
But, of course, the BBC is not just a broadcasting company. It is also the proprietor of a website which is, I gather, the most popular news website in the entire world. It has achieved that popularity because it has hundreds of millions of pounds of licence payer’s money to squander and, as a result, doesn’t have to have any of those irritating advertisements which drive us round the bend on other news websites.
This all seems horribly gloomy. We are forced by law to pay for an organisation which thinks “celebrity” is more important than substance, which is run by overpaid penpushers and which thinks nothing of annihilating honest internet competition by using other people’s money.
But there is so much more to the BBC than the bits Lord Hall Likes.
Think of the thousands of genuinely talented programme makers, the producers and editors, the cameramen, the sound technicians and, yes, the lesser known presenters and performers. They are not paid a pittance, but neither are they generously paid. And yet it is they, not the “celebrities” or the managers, who make the BBC, on the whole, an enormously good broadcasting company.
At this time of year one naturally thinks of the Proms. They must be very expensive, but, surely, they are worth the money. Money which is not paid, as with Radios 1 and 2, to a handful of show offs, but is spent on world class orchestras, choirs, and conductors. No commercial company, we can be confident, would do the job the BBC does with the Proms.
There is so much on Radio 4 and Radio 3 that is admirable. Yes, I know the BBC wastes a lot of money on Radio 4 “comedy” shows which are desperately unfunny. Why can’t they rediscover the real talent shown by the satirical performers of the sixties and seventies? Peter Cook’s glorious imitations of Harold Macmillan were hilarious. His modern equivalent’s assumption that just saying anyone who voted for Brexit is an evil racist and Daily Mail reader is funny is incredibly boring. But, attempts at comedy aside (and let’s also forget about the tedious “consumer” stuff), both Radio 4 and Radio 3 provide hundreds of hours of entertaining and educational programmes.
And the telly can also be pretty good. When the BBC decides to do without celebrities it can come up trumps. There is first class drama. There are fascinating documentaries (I don’t begrudge Attenborough his millions). Those with an interest in gardening, maybe even in cooking (though that does tend to be overdone), nature and, God forbid, politics, can find sublime programmes to their taste.
Last, but by no means least, there is the World Service. It used to be funded by the Foreign Office. Now it is paid for by the licence payer. As a result, brilliant though it is, it is subject to frequent cuts so as to allow more money to be spent on “talent” on Radios 1 and 2 and BBC 1. But it is still the best international broadcaster in the world (if you can’t get to sleep at night there is nothing better than listening to the World Service).
But something does have to be done. No sane person could defend the gigantic sums of money the BBC forks out for “celebrities”. I am not saying that the likes of Mr Evans could not command their ludicrous salaries on commercial radio (though he would obviously not have the large audience he now has for the simple reason that the BBC doesn’t actually have any competitors in national radio). But the very fact that Mr Evans could be paid even more millions elsewhere means there is no need for him to be on the BBC. Anyone who wants to listen to his inane chatter will be able to do so somewhere else (if he is stuck on a London radio programme his devoted fans who don’t live in the capital will be able to listen to him on their telephones or computers). Similarly with Mr Lineker. He could provide his few minutes of commentary on football matches on the ITV, or Sky or another independent broadcaster. There is no need for a public service broadcaster to pay him £1.7M a year, because his, no doubt, fascinating opinions will still be available on other channels.
On the whole, it seems to me, the BBC should stick to programming which cannot be done well on other channels. I have never understood why I am required to pay for Radio 1. There may be bits of Radio 2 which ought to be preserved, but not many. I can’t see much point in BBC 4 (a television channel). Quite a lot of BBC 1 is unnecessary, which does not mean I oppose popular programmes. The website should plainly be reined in.
I think it would be a disaster to abolish the licence fee completely. But it should definitely be reduced. The BBC should have a look at its charter and reflect on why it is there.