Welcome to the unique world of the BBC, where staff aren't fired for ripping their bosses to shreds on TV

Channel 4 NewsCarrie Gracie on Channel 4 News.
  • Imagine brutally calling out your bosses for not paying you fairly and still keeping your job.
  • That’s exactly what happened to BBC journalist Carrie Gracie, who is fighting to bridge the gender pay gap at the British broadcaster.
  • It was an extraordinary week for the BBC, with women backing Gracie and journalists interviewing their bosses on television.
  • It’s the BBC’s worst crisis in years, but the broadcaster remains a brilliant platform for free speech – even if it inflicts self-harm.

Imagine publishing a brutal open letter complaining that your company doesn’t pay you fairly. Imagine then doubling down on your claims in front of a powerful group of parliamentarians live on TV. And imagine taking the fight to Twitter, detailing your boss’ attempts to appease you and thanking your supporters.

Now imagine walking away from these outbursts knowing that you’re not going to be fired anytime soon.

The notion is ridiculous, isn’t it? Almost no employer would stomach this kind of public lashing from a member of staff without retaliating with an axe.

But the scenario above is not imagined. It happened this week at the BBC and shows why the broadcaster is not just any employer.

BBC journalist Carrie Gracie threw a thunderbolt at her managers last month by publishing a letter about her efforts to secure pay parity with her male peers. She accused Britain’s biggest broadcaster of running a “secretive and illegal pay culture.”

The bombshell missive has made headlines in Britain for weeks, turning a rumbling issue over the BBC’s gender pay gap into the broadcaster’s worst crisis since children’s TV presenter Jimmy Savile was exposed as a prolific paedophile in 2012.

Gracie doubled down on her remarks in an emotional parliamentary hearing on Wednesday, in which she told MPs of the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee about her battle for equal pay.

Carrie Gracie: Still ‘in development’ after a 30-year career

Gracie was appointed as BBC News’ China editor in 2013. The journalist was initially reluctant to take the job after she had breast cancer twice and her daughter was diagnosed with leukaemia. She was convinced, in part, because the BBC promised to pay her the same as her male counterparts.

But when the BBC published the salaries of its stars last year, Gracie was dismayed to discover that her two male contemporaries were paid “at least 50% more” than her and another female colleague of the same rank. When she raised the matter through an internal grievance process, things only got worse.

Carrie GracieParliamentlive.tvCarrie Gracie gives evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Gracie, a skilled journalist with more than 30 years experience, was told by the BBC that her salary was lower because she was only “in development” in the China editor role, according to her testimony. Covering its tracks, she said the BBC offered her back payments of £100,000 ($US141,000) to bridge the gap between her and male peers.

It was “an insult to add to the original injury,” Gracie said, seething with anger, adding that it felt like a “tacit admission of pay discrimination.” Gracie then called out her bosses by name and accused them of being dishonest and putting the entire reputation of the BBC on the line.

“If we are not prepared to look at ourselves honestly how can we be trusted to look at anything else honestly?” she asked, adding: “If corporate centre take my compass away, I don’t know who I am as a BBC journalist – if they don’t report the truth, how can we?”

The BBC’s most powerful executives were listening in to the chastening hearing – and indeed, were asked to respond to Gracie’s evidence directly after she left the witness seat. Gracie remained in the room and sat directly behind her bosses, furiously scribbling notes. At one point, BBC Chairman Sir David Clementi even turned in his seat and apologised to the journalist. It summed up the humbling experience.

Gracie is not alone in the fight for equal pay

Gracie is not alone – 170 women at the broadcaster are openly campaigning for change. It’s an elite group too, containing some of the BBC’s biggest stars, including Mishal Husain and Clare Balding. Some of them stood and cheered as Gracie entered the parliamentary committee meeting to give evidence this week. Others have backed her up in TV, radio, and newspaper interviews.

Many of these interviews actually took place on the BBC. To be clear: This is the BBC using its own airwaves, to allow its own staff to tear strips off of its own management – all in front of an audience of millions.

In fact, Gracie’s evidence was beamed live on BBC News and topped many bulletins. And BBC executives actually went on TV to be grilled by BBC journalists. Like Fran Unsworth for example, the BBC’s news director (and the woman ultimately responsible for setting Gracie’s salary), who was challenged spiritedly by Ben Brown on the news channel.

BBCBBC NewsBen Brown interviews his boss, Fran Unsworth, live on BBC News.

Just stop for a moment to think about that. Put yourself in Brown’s shoes. He is live on TV, interviewing his boss as she sits at the eye of a cataclysmic storm. Even for the most seasoned journalist, that must be strange.

A platform for free speech

What makes this all the more extraordinary is that Gracie remains employed by the BBC. Sacking her would of course only make things worse for the corporation. But the exact opposite has happened – she has, in effect, been promoted. Since publishing her letter in January, she has filled in as a host of BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme, the biggest news show in the country.

The irony was not lost on Gracie, who tweeted: “What other news organisation would let you call it secretive and illegal on #equalpay, + still let you front flagship show? Despite troubles, #BBC IS GREAT.”

She’s right. The BBC is a peculiarly British anachronism: A near 100-year-old institution, funded to the tune of £3.8 billion by a quasi-tax, with a mission to do three simple things: Inform, educate, and entertain. It gets a lot wrong as the yawning chasm of its gender pay gap shows.

But it gets many, many things right. Being a platform for free speech, even when it constitutes an act of self-harm, is pretty high on the list of good things about the BBC. And it’s worth remembering that as it toils through its latest crisis.

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