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It’s complicated

Over the past eight months or so the salaries of UK radio and television presenters have been getting plenty of coverage in the media, largely because of the historical and continuing alleged unequal piles of dosh that have been doled out to men and women.

Two main accusations have been made:-

Firstly, that in some radio/TV organisations [biggest name in the dock the BBC, presumably because it gains the bulk of its funding via its licence fee and therefore could be said not only to be shelling out taxpayers’ money but in that sense should also be setting some sort of model example] it has been routine practice until recently to pay male presenters more than their female equivalents.

Secondly, that – at all levels within such organisations – if you look hard enough (and plenty of people have) you can find glaring instances in which people of different genders doing the same job have been paid unequal amounts … contrary to both the letter and spirit of UK laws designed to ensure ‘equality of pay’.

Furthermore, earlier this week, a good deal of publicity was given to the case of Ms Christa Ackroyd, the television anchor of BBC Yorkshire’s Look North news/current affairs programme for over a decade, who has just lost her legal case with HMRC over her income tax liability.

The issue in question was the fact that she supplied her services to the BBC through what is described as a ‘for services’ company – in other words, a corporate organisation (probably a limited company) through which the BBC contracted to hire her services.

See here for a report by Anita Singh, Arts and Entertainment Editor, as appeared upon the website of the – DAILY TELEGRAPH

Today I wish to pass comments upon both these aspects – i.e. gender pay equality and what might be termed ‘individuals claiming to be freelance (i.e. non-employees of any organisation choosing to hire them), whether this be on a personal basis or because they are offering their services for hire through a separate legal entity which ‘owns’ the rights to their services for this purpose – as they apply to the UK entertainment industry and perhaps more generally as well.

To begin, I am in principle (of course) in favour of gender and general equality of pay, especially between those doing the same job.

I also accept the principle that, when it comes to work, you are only every worth what you can persuade someone (or even an organisation) to pay you.

However, I personally came across ‘equality at work’, as it were, when as a naïve and idealistic student in my vacation I took on employment in a local bakery as a means of gaining some cash.

On my first day, having been given a white coat and an absurd-looking hair-net, I set about my given task of lifting little metal trays containing recently-cooked bread loaves off a conveyor belt as they emerged from an enormous oven.

I cannot now recall the exact details, but for present purposes let us say that for most of the day I had been averaging 7 or 8 trays per minute.

During my afternoon tea-break I was taken aside by a male fellow worker who had been at the bakery a while and had the ‘facts of life’ explained to me.

There was an ‘official’ understanding – whether this was by convention or union/management agreement – that the required rate was only 5 trays per minute.

By knocking out 7 or 8 trays per minute I had been in breach of said understanding and from this moment onward had to slow down. Clearly, whether I knocked out 5 or 8 trays per minute was immaterial, I was going to get the same pay as everyone else, so there was no point in me exceeding a rate of 5.

When it comes to radio/TV presenting, however, other factors come into the equation.

Consider this.

In the summer of 2017 when the BBC’s little problem with ‘gender equality’ hit the headlines, it was revealed that Derek Thompson, the actor who has been playing the part of senior nurse Charlie Fairhead in the BBC medical soap Casualty since 1986, was being paid between £350,000 and £400,000 per annum – a hell of a lot more than all the other actors (male and female) who were appearing in the show and, while we’re at it, more than ten times as much as a senior nurse in the NHS in real life [i.e. according to figures I’ve just looked up, somewhere between £24,000 and £31,000 per annum].

Why do you think this was?

The answer, of course, is because Derek Thompson has been a mainstay of the show for over thirty years. It doesn’t matter that his character is just a nurse, or indeed whether other actors play world famous professors or senior consultants, or even whether not Thompson is the best actor in the show, just about as good as all the others or even, frankly, even the worst actor in the cast by a country mile.

Thompson gets paid as much as he does because he’s the supposed ‘star’ of the show – and also perhaps [I’m making this up] maybe as high a proportion as 70% of Casualty viewers tune in partly because they love his character and want it in their lives, and maybe also he’s got a shit-hot agent who has used his/her negotiating skills to point out why – if the BBC should lose him from the show – as night follows day, they’d probably also drop a couple of million viewers and an equivalent proportion of their average ratings, the exacting standards via which, in the TV world, shows either get re-commissioned or they don’t.

The same factors apply to the positions of BBC veterans John Humphrys (Radio 4’s Today programme, Mastermind presenter) and David Dimbleby (anchor of Question Time and the BBC’s General Election Results coverage).

It wouldn’t matter if you fired Humphrys tomorrow and replaced him with a female presenter – irrespective of whether she possessed thirty years’ worth of experience and/or red-hot film star looks.

Yes, she might be doing the same presenting job on the Today programme or Mastermind, and indeed she might be doing it just as well from a technical/professional competence point of view … but she wouldn’t be John Humphrys.

That’s my point. Those claiming that any female presenter sitting alongside John Humphreys at the microphone – or instead of him, sitting at the desk on the Mastermind set – is doing the same job and therefore should be automatically entitled to the same pay are making the same argument as the bakery worker who forty years ago took me aside and ‘told’ me to slow down my baking tray-lifting rate.

[The only difference between the two examples is, of course, that in my bakery’s case every worker was getting paid the same ‘bottom dollar’, come what may. There was no provision for, no account taken of, any individual worker who was capable of  working better or faster that everyone else and therefore (it might be argued) – on the principle that ‘you get paid according to what you can persuade someone you are worth’ – he/she should have been worth more to the organisation in question.]

I want to finish today by returning to the plight of Ms Christa Ackroyd who this week lost her fight with HMRC in what may become a major landmark case.

In the TV world – and I have some knowledge of it, having briefly worked for an ITV company during my chequered career – it was always a convenient arrangement to hire freelancers and/or people who supplied themselves via ‘for services’ companies.

In my day employment law decreed that an individual acquired ‘employment protection’ with an organisation after working for it for two years.

It didn’t matter whether you were an actor, a producer, a director, a lighting cameraman, a carpenter or a scriptwriter. Amass two years’ continuous service – and if after that you were ‘let go’ you had a right to claim wrongful, unfair dismissal, or even redundancy pay.

In the TV world, programmes were flighty things.

One cheap show of crass mediocrity and low quality could – out of the blue – become a monster hit and run for ten years.

Another, on which you’d lavished huge sums to get the very best actors, consultants and writers, gone to exotic locations and left no stone or expense unturned in the cause of delivering a prestigious, glossy, high class drama series of 12 or more episodes designed to win awards … could bomb completely and lose you millions.

In those circumstances, the prospect that every two-bit actor or stagehand could acquire employment protection after two years – and thereby gain annual holiday entitlements, a pension, and most particularly the right not to be unfairly dismissed even when and if their programme ended as a rank disaster – was a constant nightmare waiting to happen.

It would be as if – on Granada TV’s soap Coronation Street – every actor who ever worked on it for two years became Granada’s responsibility to employ until they reached retirement age, even if one day Coronation Street was to get axed because the audience ratings nose-dived to the point where continuing to make it became untenable.

Hence hiring people as freelancers and through their own service companies became attractive. If the show they were working on was always (or became) a disaster and stopped being made you could get rid of them at a stroke. If in ‘return’ for that – because they were being paid ‘gross’ – if they were able thereby to fudge their tax position (e.g. by claiming semi-legit ‘business expenses’ and so on) and ultimately pay less tax than if they’d been an employee, well that seemed to be an acceptable case of ‘fair exchange being no robbery’ [even if the victim of the robbery concerned was our dear old HMRC].

That said, very soon things got rather complicated.

HMRC took the view that if it looked, sounded and operated as if it was an employee – and it worked for you for two continuous years – it jolly well was an employee. Hence you should be withholding their income tax via your PAYE system, rather than paying them gross and relying on them to pay the correct amount of income tax.

That’s why having two presenters on a BBC programme, one of whom was an employee and the other a freelancer, was a problem.

HMRC took the view that if any worker on a programme was an employee then – by definition – they all should be.

I feel sympathy for Ms Ackroyd because at some point in the saga – in order to keep her (and others doing similar jobs) ‘off their employment books’ – the BBC encouraged, not to say insisted, that she supply her services to them via a ‘for services’ company. Which she then did by setting up her such a company and organising that it entered a contract with the BBC to supply her services to the BBC.

Now the court has decided that this was in fact a ruse designed to enable her to avoid paying income tax. As a result she is now facing a tax bill of £419,000.

It’s a tough old world, isn’t it?

About Jane Shillingford

Jane spent the bulk of her career working on women’s magazines. Now retired and living on the south coast, she has no regrets and 'would do it all again'. More Posts