"The BBC is being unfairly attacked: it has to pay market rates for top talent." "The BBC doesn't pay women enough." Logically, those two statements cannot both be true. But an awful lot of people are turning somersaults to try to rationalise them.
The default position of Britain's moderate Left – including the BBC itself – is both pro-BBC and pro-equal pay. The publication of the salaries of BBC presenters could easily provoke, as the Corporation's defenders would see it, a populist backlash.
Take the issue of austerity. For six years now, we have watched Tory MPs being accused, on air, of heartlessness in their pursuit of savings, as if it were somehow their own money they were being stingy with. Occasionally, interviewers ask ministers whether they could get by on income support or the minimum wage or whatever. But just imagine watching those same exchanges in the full knowledge that the interviewer is paid twice as much as the minister. Not quite the same dynamic is it?
Supporters of the Beeb sense a threat to their soft cultural dominance, even to the licence fee itself, and they are right. Their instinct, understandably, is to rally to Auntie's defence. At the same time, though, they can't stand the idea of gender disparity. So they tie themselves in knots trying to justify BBC pay levels in general while condemning how much it pays women. Polly Toynbee, who used to work there, wrote an unusually tetchy column in which she attacked the BBC for sexism while simultaneously attacking the Right for complaining. Her rationale was that BBC salaries "don't begin to compare with the grotesque booty FTSE 100 CEOs pay themselves".
It's clear enough how events will now play out. The BBC, while uncomfortable about the pay disparity, would much rather discuss sexism than the vast sums it pays anchors to read autocues. My suspicion is that, instead of cutting salaries – something which may, in some cases, be contractually impossible – it will raise salaries for its female employees, thus gouging licence-fee payers even more.
Let me repeat. Either the BBC is paying market rates, in which case none of its employees has grounds to complain; or it undervalues women, in which case it is not paying market rates. It won't do to try to square the circle by saying "market rates in general undervalue women". That is to misunderstand what market rates are. The market rate is not a sum that you happen to think fair; it is what employees settle for, given their other options.
Maybe you think it wrong that a market trader earns less than an actor who plays a market trader in a soap opera. Maybe you're right. But the only way to enforce your view would be by statutory wage regulation, something that always slows growth and reduces employment, thus ensuring that, over time, both actors and market traders take home less.
In any case, why should you get to decide? I'd love to live in a world where IBTimes UK columnists earn more than Premier League footballers, but it's not my call, and it shouldn't be. The only way to fairly gauge what someone's work is worth is to let others decide how much they are willing to pay for it.
The licence fee system means that BBC is not truly in competition with other broadcasters. Neither its revenues nor its salaries are determined by the market. A system that made sense when there was a monopoly channel in the early 20th century has been overtaken by technology.
Funnily enough, I don't think the BBC has anything to fear from commercialisation. We are creatures of habit, and most of us will continue to subscribe to it because of the quality of its output. It has a huge advantage in terms of existing market share – rather as, say, British Telecom had when it was privatised. It may well be that, in an open market, the salaries of many BBC employees, especially its producers and editors, would rise. And good luck to them: the rest of us would have no grounds to complain.