BBC underpaid female TV host, tribunal rules

  • >> Amie Tsang, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-01-11 14:51:43 BdST

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Samira Ahmed presents Newswatch on BBC One and BBC News and Radio 4’s Front Row and was a Channel 4 News presenter. Photo: BBC via Twitter

The television host who took the BBC to court over unequal pay has won the first high-profile court case to be brought since the fallout over pay disparity at the public broadcaster began more than two years ago.

Samira Ahmed, who was paid 440 pounds (about $565) per episode when she started hosting a programme called “Newswatch,” argued before an employment tribunal that she should have been paid as much as Jeremy Vine, the host of another programme, “Points of View,” who received 3,000 pounds (about $3,850) an episode. The tribunal found that the work that Ahmed did was similar to that done by Vine, and that the BBC had failed to prove that the difference in pay was not because of sex discrimination.

“The difference in pay in this case was striking,” the panel wrote in its judgment Friday. “Jeremy Vine was paid more than six times what the claimant was paid for doing the same work.”

Ahmed was seeking almost 700,000 pounds in back pay. The amount of her award will be decided at a later date.

“No woman wants to have to take action against their own employer,” Ahmed said in a statement. “I love working for the BBC. I’m glad it’s been resolved.”

She added, “I’m now looking forward to continuing to do my job, to report on stories and not being one.”

The panel said that “the BBC found itself in difficulties in this case because it did not (and, to an extent, still does not) have a transparent and consistent process for evaluating and determining pay for its on-air talent.” The criticism is particularly stinging since the BBC has been assailed for its pay practices since 2017, when it was first required to publish salaries.

The broadcaster is still dealing with a significant number of complaints from other women. About 120 women were considering collective action against the broadcaster over equal pay as Ahmed’s case was in court.

The National Union of Journalists said Friday that its efforts to push the BBC to resolve those cases had led to successful settlements. “But there is still work to be done,” said Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of the group, which has supported Ahmed and other BBC employees. “I’d call on the BBC to learn the lessons from this judgment, and to work constructively with the NUJ to sort these cases out.”

Ahmed’s victory is likely to embolden others with a complaint about the BBC, according to the Fawcett Society, a charity that campaigns for gender equality.

“All employers need to take note, and the BBC must learn the lessons from this case and settle the remaining cases as soon as possible,” said Sam Smethers, the society’s chief executive. “It also sends a clear message to every woman out there who has the courage to challenge discrimination. If you fight, you can win.”

The programs presented by Ahmed and Vine are each about 15 minutes long and involve airing and discussing viewers’ comments. Ahmed’s program focuses on news coverage; the program hosted by Vine deals with feedback on entertainment programs.

The BBC argued during the hearing that Vine’s program required different skills because he was expected to be a friend to the audience in a way that Ahmed’s job did not require, and so deserved to be paid more.

It said Vine needed to be cheeky and have a “glint in his eye.” The tribunal was not persuaded by this argument. “We had difficulty in understanding what the respondent meant by a ‘glint in the eye’ and how that translated into a ‘skill’ or ‘experience’ to do a job,” the judgment said. It also noted that the lighthearted tone was probably attributable to the script.

On Friday, the BBC struck an conciliatory tone. “For us, this case was never about one person, but the way different types of programs across the media industry attract different levels of pay,” it said.

“In the past, our pay framework was not transparent and fair enough,” the broadcaster added in a statement, “and we have made significant changes to address that.”

The BBC is a public service broadcaster financed mostly by a television license fee paid by most households in the country and is often criticised for the way it spends this money.

It has grappled with complaints over salaries since at least 2017, when it first published the pay bands of its highest-paid stars after the government made it a requirement of its governing charter. That prompted an outcry over the lack of diversity in its highest ranks and led to hundreds of pay complaints. In early 2018, Carrie Gracie quit her job as the BBC’s China editor in protest over not being paid as much as her male peers.

© 2019 New York Times News Service