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BBC Salaries Ignite Debate Over Appropriate Pay, Gender Equity

A general view outside BBC Broadcasting House at Portland Place in London on Wednesday, the day the public broadcaster published the pay of its top-earning employees.
Dan Kitwood
Getty Images
A general view outside BBC Broadcasting House at Portland Place in London on Wednesday, the day the public broadcaster published the pay of its top-earning employees.

The BBC has released salary information for its on-air talent for the first time, igniting simultaneous debates over the size, and the fairness, of the salaries — particularly over a conspicuous gender gap.

The public broadcaster has always included executive salaries in its annual report*. But this year, the government required the public broadcaster to reveal what the highest-paying presenters and actors make, too.

The resulting list includes approximate salary ranges for all 96 radio and TV staff making more than $195,000 a year.

The highest-paid, by far, is radio host Chris Evans, who makes more than $2.8 million. Sports presenter Gary Lineker earns more than $2.28 million.

Five other men, all working in radio, earn more than $650,000 each. You can see the full list of salaries here.

A prominent gender gap was on display: In addition to the top seven earners being male, two-thirds of the high earners overall were male.

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People of color are also underrepresented. The top 24 earners are all white. Overall, The Guardian reports 10 of the listed presenters are nonwhite, or 10.4 percent; meanwhile, more than 12 percent of Britons are nonwhite.

The disclosures, as anticipated, also prompted criticism over the size of the salaries in general.

Executives say that they're competing with commercial outlets for talent, and that it's expensive — but worth it — to hire the very best. For instance, the director-general of the BBC said Wednesday that the man who makes $2.8 million "is presenting the most popular show on the most popular radio network in Europe."

It's hard to evaluate whether BBC salaries are in line with commercial competition, since, as The Guardian notes, "no other broadcaster publishes the pay of its stars." The BBC has maintained that its salaries are not only reasonable but discounted, making the list an open invitation to "poachers." But the network's own media editor expressed skepticism, calling that a "bullish claim."

And how are the salaries playing with ordinary Britons? Here's a taste: Local news site Cornwall Live built a tool to allow readers to compare their own salaries with big-name paychecks at the Beeb, with the income calculated by the second.

Meanwhile, there's a conspicuous gap between the highest-paid and lowest-paid employees within the BBC. As The Guardian reports, a union representing the lowest-paid production staff is fighting for a minimum salary of $26,000. As of last year, the average salary at the BBC was about $56,000, the Telegraph reported.

The BBC provides a wide range of news, music and entertainment shows for TV and radio. It has enormous reach — to the tune of 96.5 percent of the British population on an average week, according to 2015 data.

The public broadcaster is primarily funded by a license tax on households with TVs, a system that has frequently been attacked by conservative politicians in the U.K. Failure to pay the fee is a crime. (PBS, NPR and other U.S. public media outlets have a different funding model, which includes federal funds but also relies on individual donations and corporate underwriting.)

Some politicians have taken the BBC salary disclosures as a chance to reiterate criticisms of the license fee system.

Member of Parliament Sammy Wilson, for instance, called the salaries an example of "champagne socialism" and said they demonstrate why the license fee should be abolished.

If you were wondering: As a nonprofit organization, NPR has to periodically disclose the salary of its highest-paid employees. The most recently filed paperwork covers 2014 and shows Scott Simon was the network's highest-paid host, earning $433,456 in pay and benefits, while Renee Montagne (who recently stepped down as co-host of Morning Edition) came in second with $420,871 in pay and benefits.

They were both outearned by an NPR executive, Kinsey Wilson, who was ousted in 2014 and earned more than half a million dollars total that year.

* The BBC continues to release executive pay information. For example, according to the most recent updates, the director-general of the BBC, Tony Hall, earns $586,000 while the deputy director-general, Anne Bulford, earns $567,000.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.