Yesterday may have been the moment where Sir Michael Lyons, the man that chairs the BBC, finally lost his credibility. Because he managed to say one thing, then say another and leave everybody hopelessly confused. Which is particularly annoying because I want to know how much Graham Norton, Jeremy Clarkson and Gary Linekar are paid.
It seems Sir Michael wanted to bounce BBC managers into revealing how much top stars earn. After all, as I wrote yesterday, this is what he said in the text of his speech to the Voice of the Listener and Viewer in the late afternoon. “I do believe we should release the names of those who receive the biggest incomes from the BBC.” That was released to the press and Beehive City spotted it and dutifully wrote it up yesterday, trying to steal a march on rivals by relying on the printed, pre-released text.
However, in a last minute change, Sir Michael added a second par when he read the speech aloud. It’s not in the text, but it contains a complete u-turn designed to keep the BBC’s big names nice and happy. “This does not affect most of those people who are on our screens day in day out. It’s only the very top where we believe there’s a continued public concern and a signal need to be clearer about who is paid the most. It is not even a question of divulging the individual salaries.”
Hmm, so it is about revealing how much the best paid earn or not? Or does Sir Michael mean some nonsense half baked fudge in which the BBC announces who its 10 best paid stars are, but not how much they earn? Well that would only create more rampant speculation, and really not answer any questions. These people are rich, folks, but you licence fee payer, the people that pay their wages, are not allowed to know how rich. Which sounds absurd.
The result was that today the reporting of the topic was hopelessly divided. Neil Midgley of the Telegraph was pretty sure about the story, saying “Sir Michael said the broadcaster should bow to demands to disclose how much it pays its on-screen “talent”, including some of the best-known names in television” in a report entitled BBC told it must reveal salaries of biggest names.
But Patrick Foster over at The Times (£1 online for a month from tomorrow folks, so no link from here) led off on one of Sir Michael’s other lines that the “BBC’s most senior directors are to hand back a month’s salary for each of the next two years in a response to public pressure for cuts in executive pay”. Only later did Foster say that Sir Michael “stopped short of ordering Mr Thompson to reveal individual pay packets,” which is not what the Telegraph wrote.
No wonder, then, that today there is talk of a rift between Mark Thompson and other top BBC executives and Sir Michael over at the Trust. Eager, perhaps, to protect his own job from rampant Tories, Sir Michael tried to give the Blues what they wanted – only to end up winding up the rest of BBC and finishing somewhere, uneasily in the middle. Hopeless. Either publish the list, or defend stars right to have their pay kept confidential — don’t say one thing and then another – and leave us all confused.