David Behrens: Questionable largesse of BBC would baffle the sharpest mind on Mastermind

John Humphrys on MastermindJohn Humphrys on Mastermind
John Humphrys on Mastermind
IT'S ALWAYS said, when the pass rates go up, that school exams must be getting easier. But don't let the figures fool you '“ the real measure of the nation's declining intelligence is the choice of specialist subjects on Mastermind.

Back in Magnus Magnusson’s day, contestants were expected to tackle academic topics like Charles II or the Balkans between the wars, and they got extra points if they could spell the host’s name correctly. Today, according to the show’s producer, the most popular request is Harry Potter.

Last year, no fewer than 262 people nominated JK Rowling’s work as their specialist subject, and another 41 chose Blackadder and Fawlty Towers. One applicant wanted to be asked questions on “meat”, and when told it was too vague, said, “well, how about just pork?”

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If ever I was allowed out of the house for long enough to appear, I would choose specialist questions about myself. Name? Occupation? That’s two points right there.

But a more interesting subject would be the programme’s present host, John Humphrys.

Your two minutes starts now, John. How much did you earn last year? £600,000? Don’t you think that’s excessive for half an hour’s work on a Friday night and a couple of hours on some mornings?

The last question was rhetorical, so no points there.

Humphrys was one of the BBC presenters to have taken a voluntary pay cut this year, though with a remaining salary of well over a quarter of a million, he is, as he admitted “not exactly on the breadline”. The BBC, he added, was in a very different position from days past, when he and many others had “money pretty much thrust upon us”.

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That much was already apparent from the published figures. Radio 2’s Chris Evans, the corporation says, is in a pay bracket of £2.2m to £2.25m. What other organisation has a pay structure that needs a bracket for an amount that size? The figure is justified, the director-general, Tony Hall, said, because he presents the most popular show on the most popular radio network in Europe, and could be poached at any moment by a commercial rival.

I can tell you now that there isn’t a commercial station this side of the Atlantic that could afford a fifth as much for a presenter, even one as popular as Evans – so the argument about having to pay market rates is as fallacious as when in 1994 the recently-privatised British Gas tried to justify giving Cedric Brown, an ex-fitter from Sheffield, a 75 per cent rise to stay on as its boss.

In the news department, the argument makes even less sense. The BBC’s own review of salaries this week found a 6.8 per cent difference in male and female earnings – this after its China editor, Carrie Gracie, resigned from her £135,000-a-year post because, she said, even the £45,000 rise she had been offered would have left a “big gap” between her and her male counterparts.

Has anyone, under any circumstances, ever offered you a £45,000 rise? Nor me. But it seems the BBC can still thrust money on people when it is caught on the back foot.

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The going rate across broadcast and print journalism for a foreign editor is nowhere near the amount Ms Gracie’s male ex-colleagues must be getting, and you have to question the propriety of an organisation that has so obviously lost control of its HR spending.

The presenter Julia Bradbury said this week that the largesse of Humphrys and others was not the way to the redress the gender gap. Women, she said, should be paid more; not men less.

I like Bradbury but I think she’s wrong: BBC presenters across the board are paid disproportionately too much and when, in the course of the present exercise they level the playing field, they should cut the grass deeply as well as evenly.

It always used to be the case that the big salaries were in ITV, and those who remained loyal to the Beeb did so for the prestige. It was ITV’s strong unions that kept wages high in the 70s and 80s, but it is weak management – one which, according to Ms Gracie, treats vocal women as “the enemy” – that has scored the BBC its latest own goal.

So here’s another rhetorical question for John Humphrys, Lord Hall and 
the rest: what do you think you’re playing at?