BBC journalists have been told they cannot present items about BBC pay if they have “stated a position” on the issue, effectively gagging reports on the corporation’s own gender pay issues.
The directive is understood to have been issued by incoming news director Fran Unsworth at a meeting this morning and filtered down to staff through senior management.
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It comes after BBC China Editor Carrie Gracie announced her resignation yesterday in protest at what she said was the broadcaster’s “secretive and illegal pay culture”.
Gracie hosted the Today programme this morning, as scheduled, but was not interviewed on the topic of her own resignation because of strict BBC guidelines on impartiality, however she did deliver a statement on-air.
The BBC was forced to divulge the salaries of top-earning on-air talent last year, revealing a 9 per cent gender pay gap, although an independent pay audit of rank and file staff at the organisation found no “systemic discrimination against women”.
A BBC presenter told Press Gazette today: “Fran Unsworth has ruled that anyone who has tweeted or indicated a position on BBC pay – not just Carrie Gracie – cannot present an item about BBC pay in future.”
They said that Gracie had been reporting from a secretive one-party state in covering China and that now her employer was not allowing her to talk about her own resignation, adding: “It’s like life under Stalin.”
The directive was “now affecting how we tell the story of pay”, according to the source, who said: “My feeling is no situation is so bad that the BBC can’t make it worse. They are past masters at digging a bigger hole for themselves.
“What they should be doing is coming out and explaining how they have got themselves into this mess and accepting that there is a problem and working with staff and the unions to meaningfully fix it.
“We stand ready to discuss how we fix this. We don’t want it to go to court, we don’t want it to cost the BBC more than necessary but there needs to be a rethink on how they are approaching this. It will never go away if they don’t negotiate.”
The presenter said they knew of two BBC journalists, both women, who had been told they could not cover Gracie’s resignation because they had tweeted about the issue.
In one instance a TV presenter had to run a pre-recorded report instead of a live interview, while a radio presenter had a section withdrawn about the facts surrounding equal pay, they said.
Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey opted out of interviewing Gracie on the Radio 4 radio show earlier this afternoon with former Guardian media editor Jane Martinson stepping in.
Garvey told Press Gazette the decision for her not to speak to Gracie was made by her editor but that she thought it was the right move, saying a BBC presenter interviewing another BBC presenter felt “somewhat farcical”.
She said: “I have not been made to feel that I couldn’t speak up. I would not carry on working [at the BBC] if they were putting me under some kind of pressure – and they haven’t.”
But, she added: “The BBC are going to really struggle to find a BBC female journalist who does not believe in equal pay. I mean where is that woman and why is she working for the BBC? This is just ridiculous and they know it is really.”
Top talent including Emily Maitlis, Victoria Derbyshire, Mishal Husain and Sarah Montague would be disqualified from presenting segments on BBC pay under the new directive.
Labour MP Jess Phillips tweeted today that the gagging order was “tantamount to shut up little women” and said she would be writing to director general Tony Hall about it.
The rule has already been broken once: BBC News presenter Simon McCoy conducted an interview on BBC pay equality after tweeting support for Carrie Gracie earlier this morning.
The BBC Women group made up of more than 130 BBC staff released a statement supporting Carrie Gracie’s resignation.
It said: “It is hugely regrettable that an outstanding and award-winning journalist like Carrie Gracie feels like she has no option but to resign from her post as China editor because the BBC has not valued her equally with her male counterparts.
“We wholeheartedly support her and call on the BBC to resolve her case and others without delay, and to urgently address pay inequality across the corporation.
“Up to 200 women that we know of in various grades and roles across the BBC have made pay complaints. The NUJ alone is involved in more than 120 of these cases.”
There are existing rules dictating that BBC staff cannot interview people on a matter which they have expressed an opinion on publicly.
It includes the line: “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.”
Press Gazette understands the BBC has reminded staff of that guideline.
Picture: Reuters/Neil Hall