Editorial standards put BBC reporters in tough spot over pay equity issue

Carrie Gracie’s resignation sent shock waves through Britain. Gracie, the former China editor for BBC News, resigned from her post Sunday after learning that her male colleagues were paid more than 50 percent more than she was for equivalent work.

Gracie says she is not necessarily asking for a raise, nor for her male colleagues to earn less. She insists she is merely asking for pay equity in the workplace.

Scores of BBC reporters, presenters and personalities expressed support for Gracie this week, in what appears to be the tipping point in a recently renewed struggle for gender-based pay equity at Britain’s public broadcasting house.

But, the BBC’s austere editorial policies are preventing any journalist who has expressed public support for Gracie’s effort to report on her story at the BBC. The BBC contends that any journalist who expressed public support is involved in the story and cannot report on it impartially.

Katty Kay, the Washington-based anchor of BBC World News America, tweeted her support for Gracie using the hashtag #IStandWithCarrie Sunday night.

“After I tweeted my support I was told by BBC management that I couldn’t talk about this story on air because my impartiality had been compromised,” Kay said in an email. “This rule applied to all BBC presenters who’d supported Carrie on Twitter.”

BBC Radio 4’s Jane Garvey, who hosts “Woman’s Hour,” stated on air that she could not interview Gracie because of her public support. Rather, she turned the microphone over to freelance reporter Jane Martinson to conduct the interview. Winifred Robinson, another BBC Radio host, was taken off the air on Tuesday after expressing support for Gracie.

Gracie and Robinson declined to comment for this story. Garvey did not respond to a request for comment.

The BBC’s uneven application of this rule has been scrutinized. BBC host Simon McCoy tweeted that Gracie has “his full support. 150%” before interviewing an employment lawyer about Gracie’s story. And, Newsnight host Evan Davis led his broadcast, covering Gracie’s resignation, after expressing his personal views as well.

As of Thursday night, more than 85 of Gracie’s BBC colleagues had expressed support via Twitter and more than 130 had signed a letter of support.

In correspondence this week, the BBC repeatedly pointed to its editorial standards, which are available online.

The editorial policy in question reads as follows:

When dealing with controversial subjects concerning the BBC, our reporting must remain duly impartial, as well as accurate and fair. We need to ensure the BBC's impartiality is not brought into question and presenters or reporters are not exposed to potential conflicts of interest. It will be inappropriate to refer to either the BBC as "we" or the content as "our." There should also be clear editorial separation between those reporting the story and those responsible for presenting the BBC's case.

“Staff were reminded of the long standing editorial guidelines on Monday,” a BBC spokesperson clarified in an email. “Decisions are down to editors to ensure the story is reported impartially on their output.”

Kay, however, noted that messaging from management was not so clear.

“The speed with which the story unfolded caught managers by surprise and the guidelines weren’t as clear as they could have [been],” Kay noted. “I don’t think management actually wanted to shut women up on the subject but the confusing guidelines left some women with that impression.”

In the end, the guidelines were not points of instruction or recommendation, rather catalysts for confusion through the ranks of a sprawling worldwide news organization.

The pay equity debate is nothing new in Britain, but has gained momentum in the past year. New legislation dictates that public and private firms of 250 employees or more must disclose their gender pay gap statistics by April. The BBC has already complied, revealing a 10 percent gap in average earnings between men and women. Additionally, CNN reported that “just under a third of the [BBC’s] top paid executives, managers and media stars are women.”

In a July response, more than 40 journalists — including Gracie and Kay —wrote a letter to BBC Director-General Tony Hall demanding management close the pay gap. Kay says that management did not bar her and her co-signatories from covering the BBC’s pay equity story at that time — at least not in any way that she was made aware.

Gracie alleges that the BBC is breaking the law — specifically Equality Act 2010 — by using public license fee dollars to execute pay discrimination. In response, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, a public watchdog, promised to write to the BBC seeking answers, the Guardian reported Monday.

In a series of statements to Poynter, BBC executives have consistently measured the broadcaster’s gender equity performance by relative rather than absolute standards, contending that the BBC pay gap is not as bad as that of other British organizations.

“Fairness in pay is vital,” a BBC spokesperson said in an email Wednesday. “A significant number of organisations have now published their gender pay figures showing that we are performing considerably better than many and are well below the national average.”

BBC Director of News Francesca Unsworth used a similar, but more forthright argument.

“Pay is an issue that we need to resolve swiftly and get right. This is a priority not just for me, but for the entire BBC. The public holds us to higher standards than other organisations. We must hold ourselves to those standards too,” said Unsworth. “While a significant number of organisations have now published their gender pay figures showing that we are performing better than many — we need to go further.”

To make the situation worse, the Sun and the Times reported Thursday night that BBC Radio 4 Today host John Humphreys had joked on a Monday morning call with North America editor Jon Sopel about “handing over” pay to Gracie, sparking outrage from Gracie’s supporters and leaving BBC management “deeply unimpressed.” It is unclear whether Humphreys or Sopel will be permitted to report or edit stories about Gracie from here forward. Humphreys did host BBC Radio 4 Today this morning.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan says that the best thing a news organization can do to achieve impartiality in reporting is to close the gender gap, not to silence female employees supporting a colleague.

“If a news organization is concerned with enforcing impartiality, it might be better off sharpening its focus on how fairly and impartially its own staff members are compensated,” said Sullivan in an email. “Expressing support for a former colleague who has taken a brave stand on gender equity is not, in my view, in conflict with performing one’s normal journalistic duties.”

Mei Fong, a former China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, agrees.

“The case for equal pay is the case for better reporting,” Fong wrote in a New York Times op-ed Thursday. “Pay women equally to men and more women will stay in the business; more women lessens the preponderance of male viewpoints and allows a clearer presentation of how things are.”

In the United States, as entertainment and news media have grappled with a season of widespread sexual harassment and assault allegations, the issue of pay discrimination and gender equity in the workplace has not consistently made the news. But, it has reared its head in recent weeks.

In late December, Catt Sadler quit her job as anchor of E! News amid allegations that her co-anchor Jason Kennedy was earning nearly twice as much in salary. NBC, E!’s sister network, has also come under fire for paying newly promoted “Today” host Hoda Kotb less than a third of what Matt Lauer — who was fired for allegations of sexual misconduct — was making at the time of his firing.

In the film industry, USA Today reported Tuesday that Mark Wahlberg was paid $1.5 million for reshooting scenes for “All the Money in the World” while Michelle Williams was paid less than $1,000. Reshooting occurred in order to replace scenes with Kevin Spacey, who was accused of sexual assault, with Christopher Plummer.

In both cases, efforts to punish sexual predators resulted in pay inequities for women.

Though she resigned as China editor, Gracie is still a working BBC employee. In fact, she has been presenting BBC Radio 4 Today this week.

Despite her situation, Gracie publicly praised her employer on Thursday morning, tweeting “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.”

And, Gracie would prefer to focus on her China coverage — reporting that Kay and fellow colleagues praised intensely.

“Carrie is one of the best journalists of our generation and a top analyst on China,” said Kay. “She speaks fluent Mandarin, has extensive knowledge of the country and she will be hard to replace. Not having her expertise on this critical story is a loss for the BBC."

BBC executives offered Gracie a raise earlier this week, which she turned down because it would still place her at a lower pay grade than her male colleagues.

Gracie doesn’t want a raise. She wants equality.

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