I started my first full-time job in journalism in 1996. At the same time, two women started in the same office. Initially, we were all freelance, paid by the day. And we were paid different rates. I was paid the most, my female colleagues got different, but smaller, amounts.
A few months later, we were offered staff jobs. We accepted, on the condition all three of us were paid the same salary. We were, after all, doing the same job.
More than twenty years later, the BBC is still struggling with that concept.
Were any other large public organisation to routinely underpay its female staff, its behaviour would be exposed by the BBC. Campaigners would be invited onto its programmes to denounce the disparity, and demand action.
But, as more and more accounts confirm, every time the BBC has been challenged over its own behaviour, it has dragged its feet. Eventually, sometimes, it has offered substantial pay rises to women. It has never conceded the principal of equal pay.
And yet, BBC managers are still fighting the wrong battle. It offers to cap or cut the pay of high-profile presenters, an act that does nothing to tackle the routine unequal payment of women in similar or identical roles to men.
Why are they no overpaid women?
Broadcasting is different to other industries. In part, your value to your employer is based on your appeal to audiences, a quality that is hard to quantify. It is possible that, to Today programme listeners, John Humphrys is worth more than Sarah Montague. It is possible that his experience is worth paying for.
But for this argument to be credible, in many cases where men and women present side-by-side, it should be the more experienced or more popular woman who earns the most. And that doesn’t happen. The inevitable conclusion is that the main reason John Humphrys is paid at least four times more than Sarah Montague is because he is a man.
The BBC is, deservedly, attracting criticism because it’s been forced to publish these figures. It did its best to stop the publication. We can see why.
Later this year, other employers will have to do the same, and it’s certain they will reveal similar disparities elsewhere.
My first job, where I was paid more than my female colleagues, was not at the BBC. It was in commercial radio. This isn’t just a BBC problem, no matter how badly the BBC is handling it.
A question of trust
The BBC’s dreadful response to the issue raises wider threats for an organisation that depends for its survival on public support.
Every ten years or so, the BBC must go to the Government and make the case for the continuation of its unique system of funding.
Every time, it gets harder to justify a regressive universal tax in an increasingly crowded market.
Many of the women who have been underpaid and so badly treated by BBC managers still cherish the public service ideals the Corporation is meant to stand for.
The BBC remains central to pretty much everyone’s life in the UK — but the catastrophic, cack-handed management of this problem risks severely denting public support for the BBC.
The BBC needs to apologise, explain how its going to put things right, and then get on with it.