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Pay-inequality damages the BBC, say NUJ leader

11 January 2020

Michelle Stanistreet

Samir Ahmed’s tribunal spotlighted managers who have lost the plot, says Michelle
Stanistreet, in her regular column for NUJ Informed (December 2019).

Whatever the outcome of Samira Ahmed’s NUJ-backed equal pay claim, the BBC is the loser.

Every day of the hearing Samira met a crowd of supporters beside the flower stall at Holborn tube. Come 9.15 we’d set off to Victory House, the Central London Employment Tribunal. There, camera crews and photographers documented the start of another day in the battle for equal pay for work of equal value.

Among those accompanying Samira were journalists, presenters, actors, friends and admirers from across the arts, Women’s Equality Party supporters, the Fawcett Society, trade unionists and of course NUJ members.

It was a boost for the day ahead and reaffirmed what became apparent from the accompanying press and social media splash: Samira was not alone. Support was widespread.

Of course – like most cases before the Employment Tribunal – it signalled a relationship gone badly wrong. Taking your employer to court is not a step taken lightly. In this instance, the preceding couple of years were spent trying to find a solution. Resolution would have allowed Samira to focus on her work, confident of no longer being paid less than male counterparts. Avoiding a public battle was our aim.

Sadly the BBC felt differently. Equal pay complaints over Samira’s work on Radio 3’s Night Waves and on Radio 4’s Front Row were resolved and pay rises and back pay agreed. Not so, her role on Newswatch. The case centred on two BBC programmes that reflect viewers’ opinions – Newswatch, aired on the News Channel and repeated on BBC One, presented by Samira. BBC One’s Points of View was presented by Jeremy Vine until last year when it was reformatted. Fifteen minute slots that have much in common, except the presenters’ pay: £440 - £465 for Samira since 2012; up to £3,000 per episode for her male opposite number until his fee was cut to £1,300 at the beginning of 2018.

For the BBC this became a battle over its internal divisional silos of ‘News’ and ‘Entertainment’. For the NUJ, it was a case of straightforwardly comparable slots, fronted by experienced presenters.

As a witness, I had expected to be at the hearing for a couple of day to be cross-examined and be on hand for Samira during her evidence.

Day one came, however, and the scale of the BBC team shocked me. They filled rows on the respondent’s side of the room like disgruntled wedding guests, dismayed that the couple had not sundered before the nuptial ceremony.

The right response was obvious. I cleared my diary and remained at the tribunal until the end.

The resources deployed by the BBC made me wince. They had two barristers, one a QC, backed up by a row of instructed external solicitors. There were BBC lawyers, executives and witnesses to boot. It dwarfed anything that a trade union could muster.

On the NUJ’s side was our fabulous duo of barrister Claire Darwin, of Matrix Chambers, and Thompson’s Equal pay lead Caroline Underhill. Add in Samira, myself and the NUJ’s legal and equality officer Natasha Morris and that was the sum-total of Team Ahmed – from a legal perspective that is. All the goodwill and positive vibes in the room radiated from the Claimant’s side. The atmosphere in the Claimant’s Waiting Room – potentially fine material for a TV sitcom – exuded solidarity and humour sustained by caffeine hits.

Legal processes are necessarily robust and combative. Both sides want to win, and their teams are paid to do what’s necessary. The BBC’s strategy, however, was bizarre, at best.

It ceaselessly minimised Samira’s contributions as well as her skills and experience. Jeremy Vine was lionised. One BBC executive told the tribunal he had never heard of Samira. To this, a panel member asked: “Haven’t you seen Channel 4 news? Watched Newswatch? Have you listened to Front Row?”

The same witness later conceded that much of his witness statement, detailing Jeremy Vine’s experience and skills, was cut and pasted from Vine’s Wikipedia page. Our barrister was quick to ask – “would that not constitute a breach of the BBC’s own editorial guidelines”? Again and again, they tried to belittle Samira, undermine Newswatch and dismiss the News Channel as “niche”. Somehow Newswatch running on BBC One didn’t count. People switch off when it comes on, claimed the BBC. As a result a BBC executive was re-called to admit that such “programme junctions” affect all programmes, including Points of View. A farcical explanation of why this was the fault of schedule changes not linked to Jeremy Vine followed. One headline summed it up the approach – “BBC trash talks its own outputs”.

The corporation was content to denigrate its own content and people if that was required to persuade the panel that Jeremy Vine was worth more than six times the fee paid to Samira. The apogee of this tactic came when, in summation, the BBC’s QC likened Samira’s role to playing piano for a children’s ballet class, whilst Vine’s was more akin to a concert pianist. They might be playing the same tune but their performances were incomparable.

Sitting listening to this guff, it was easy to blame the legal team for their low-rent approach. But of course they are merely its personification. These were the BBC’s decisions and the BBC is responsible for their consequences. And these are serious. Burning so much money on a case while losing the moral high ground is a bad look. It is doubly foolhardy when its decision to ‘means test’ free licences to the over-75s is causing such damage. Failing to consider or care about the internal consequences of this case is crass. In short, the BBC’s top brass have lost the plot.

An expected announcement of further massive cuts – in “BBC speak” restructuring leading to £40 million of savings – was due around now. The election means that it is postponed until 2020.

Our public service broadcaster is in a fragile, vulnerable position at a critical time in its history. It needs champions and support if it is to sustain its purpose and values. It cannot afford to engage in acts of self-harm by defending the indefensible.

Now the hearing is over, this should be a sobering moment of reflection.

Whatever the outcome of the tribunal, the BBC should work with the NUJ to resolve all outstanding cases on equal pay and ensure that pay inequity is part of the BBC’s past and not its future.

On Friday 10 January 2020, Samira won her equal pay case -

Resounding NUJ victory in landmark equal pay case

Tags: , samira ahmed, equal pay, women, women in the nuj, journalism, equality, employment law, employment tribunal, broadcasting