BBC is using ‘smoke and mirrors’ ploy to disguise top talents earnings

The BBC stars’ pay con: Investigation reveals broadcaster is using ‘smoke and mirrors’ ploy to disguise top talents real earnings by hiding their deals in offshoot company

  • BBC paid £19.3M to stars earning £150K plus between April 2017 and April 2018
  • That was £11.8 million less than the total spending figures for the previous year 
  • Mail on Sunday investigation reveals that rather than this being due to cost cutting, the BBC has shunted earnings into a commercial offshoot company

The BBC has been accused of ‘deceiving’ licence-fee payers by hiding millions of pounds paid to its biggest stars.

The broadcaster revealed in its annual accounts last week that it had paid a total of nearly £19.3 million to stars earning £150,000 or more between April 2017 and April 2018. That was £11.8 million less than the figure for the previous year.

But now a Mail on Sunday investigation can reveal that rather than this being due to cost cutting, it is simply that the BBC has shunted some or all of the stars’ earnings into BBC Studios, a commercial offshoot company set up last year where salaries can be kept secret.

FIONA BRUCE: Declared up to £189,999. Paid for 100 days of work presenting BBC News At Ten. Hidden up to £210,000. Received up to £399,999 in 2016-17, including earnings from Antiques Roadshow

EVAN DAVIS: Declared up to £259,999 Presenting 110 editions of Newsnight and The Bottom Line on Radio 4. Hidden up to £40,000. Confirmed that pay for Dragons’ Den is now funnelled through BBC Studios

  • New BBC staff will be forced to confirm their pay is ‘fair’…

    BBC is using ‘smoke and mirrors to cover-up’ salaries of top…

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Despite being urged by many of its own staff to also make BBC Studios’ payments public, Corporation chiefs first fought a running battle with the Government to keep every penny of its stars’ earnings a secret and, when they lost that fight, carved out a deal that any payments made through BBC Studios would not have to be disclosed.

The practice, branded a ‘con’ by one MP, has led to an apparent plunge in the earnings of some household names. They include:

  • Claudia Winkleman, who was paid up to £499,999 by the BBC in 2016-17 but who, according to the annual report, received up to £379,999 in the last financial year. The BBC Radio 2 presenter was unavailable for comment but it is understood her earnings for co-presenting Strictly Come Dancing – estimated at up to £12,000 an episode by a showbusiness insider – are paid through BBC Studios.
  • Newsnight and BBC Radio 4 presenter Evan Davis, whose publicly declared pay fell £40,000 from the sum of up to £299,999 that he received last year, but who this weekend confirmed that BBC Studios pays his fees for presenting Dragons’ Den.
  • Newsreader Fiona Bruce, whose pay appears to have plummeted from a band between £350,000 and £399,999 last year to between £180,000 and £189,999 this year. Her agent declined to say if BBC Studios paid the 54-year-old for her work on Antiques Roadshow or Fake Or Fortune?

CLAUDIA WINKLEMAN: Declared up to £379,999. Paid for weekly Radio 2 show and a ‘range of programmes and series’. Hidden up to £120,000 including earnings from Strictly, whose stars are now thought to be paid through BBC Studios

Other well-known figures have simply vanished, despite still regularly appearing in hit BBC programmes. They include:

  • EastEnders star Danny Dyer, who was paid up to £249,000 by the Corporation last year, but who did not feature on the latest BBC list of 64 stars who received £150,000 or more in the year to April 2018. Dyer and several other EastEnders stars receive their now undisclosed salaries through BBC Studios.
  • Strictly judge Darcey Bussell, who received up to £199,999 last year. The retired ballerina is understood to be paid by BBC Studios for her work on the show that last year drew audiences of up to 12 million.
  • Matt Baker, whose work on The One Show and Countryfile contributed to earnings of up to £499,999 in 2016-17 but did not feature on the BBC’s list of top earners last year. His agent did not comment but it is thought his payments for The One Show and Countryfile are funnelled through BBC Studios.

The BBC’s list of top earners – whose salaries are published in income brackets of £10,000 – has dropped from 96 to 64 in the Corporation’s latest accounts.

It means BBC stars pocketed almost £19.3 million in 2017-18, compared to £31.1 million in 2016-17. Politicians this weekend voiced fury over the lack of transparency.

Writing in The Mail on Sunday, Damian Collins, Chair of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, says: ‘It is time for the BBC to… provide real transparency and publish the pay of all stars earning more than £150,000, no matter who is writing the cheque. This is something that the Corporation owes to those who pay the licence fee.’

Ironically, Lord Hall, the BBC’s Director-General, described his Damascene conversion on the issue of pay transparency to Mr Collins and his fellow committee members in January. Lord Hall, who had led the BBC’s fight to keep earnings a secret, said: ‘I now understand the transparency in this area is the root to trust in the systems of the BBC.’ 

DANNY DYER: Declared nothing. Actor is not on this year’s list of those on more than £150,000. Hidden up to £249,999 His EastEnders pay – thought to be up to £249,999 last year – is now paid via BBC Studios

DAME DARCEY BUSSELL: Declared nothing Strictly judge is not among list of 64 top earners this year. Hidden up to £199,999 Like others on Strictly, it is thought that the retired ballerina is paid by BBC Studios

Urging Lord Hall to make good on his words, Tory MP Philip Davies said: ‘The new list is a con. Naturally people wonder what the BBC has got to hide. If they have got nothing to hide then they should publish everything.’ Fellow Tory MP Andrew Bridgen added: ‘The BBC is guilty of using smoke and mirrors.’ Lord Hall cannot complain that the controversy is a surprise. In March, almost 250 BBC staff including Mariella Frostrup, BBC Breakfast’s Naga Munchetty and Victoria Derbyshire signed an open letter that said: ‘Full publication of individual salaries and benefits (and other payments through BBC Studios and all commercial arms) would have a lasting positive impact on the culture of the BBC and beyond.’

With suspicion over the transparency of BBC pay, some fear that the system may allow the Corporation to create the illusion of cutting costs by giving stars more for work paid through BBC Studios and less for work that contributes to the figures published in annual reports. 

A BBC spokesman denied this was the case. The latest pay disclosures suggest that some stars are being paid for unspecified work, described in the annual report as a ‘BBC TV fee for a range of programmes and series’.

MATT BAKER: Declared nothing despite continued high-profile on The One Show and Countryfile, he was not on the list. Hidden up to £499,999 ‘Multi-genre’ work, which earned up to £499,999 last year, is now paid by BBC Studios

One recipient was Mary Berry, paid up to £199,999 in 2017-18. That does not include payments for work on BBC shows including Britain’s Best Home Cook, Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets and Mary Berry Everyday. The 83-year-old was unavailable for comment but an insider said she may have earned up to £20,000 per episode.

Another example is Graham Norton, whose pay of up to £609,999 last year – down by up to £290,000 on the previous year according to the annual report – comprised his weekly show on BBC Radio 2 and a ‘BBC TV fee for a range of programmes and series’. The figure does not include earnings from the 55-year-old’s weekly chat show, The Eurovision Song Contest or the talent show Let It Shine. His chat show earnings are paid through SO Television Ltd, an independent firm commissioned by the BBC to produce the shows.

According to SO’s latest accounts, he earned £2.6 million in ‘presenter fees, productions fees and royalties’ in 2016. A spokesman for Mr Norton said: ‘I’m afraid we don’t comment on our clients fees.’

A BBC spokesman dismissed claims that the list was misleading. ‘The BBC leads the way on transparency and we went further than the Royal Charter requires by giving details of the work people did and giving details of pay in the current year as well,’ he said.

‘The Government has agreed that BBC Studios is a commercial operation not underpinned by the licence fee so, just like the independent production companies it competes for business with, it isn’t required to disclose salaries.’ He insisted the sole reason for setting up BBC Studios was about ‘securing the future of BBC production’.

So what is BBC Studios meant to do (apart from hiding salaries)?

The BBC’s commercial arm BBC Studios has proven to be a convenient way to hide stars’ pay.

Yet its website boasts of ‘embodying the very best of bold British creativity’ and contributing to ‘significant financial returns that are reinvested into the BBC’.

WHAT A WASTE: Fatberg Austopsy

However, it made just 40 hours of non-BBC programmes in its first year. Its programmes include Fatberg Autopsy, for Channel 4, which saw experts analysing the content of a giant lump of congealed fat, wet wipes and human waste. And viewers of W Channel can look forward to Sex, Knives & Liposuction, in which the presenter considers whether to have plastic surgery.

BBC Studios, which makes 55 per cent of all BBC programmes and was given free rein to pitch to rival broadcasters last April, insisted the company had made a ‘good start’.

DAMIAN COLLINS MP, CHAIRMAN OF MEDIA SELECT COMMITTEE: License fee payers have a right to the full picture 

The use of BBC Studios to mask the pay of the Corporation’s highest earners runs against the spirit of the Royal Charter agreement and the transparency that it was meant to achieve.

Last year, for the first time, the BBC published the salaries of talent earning more than £150,000 after recommendations from the then Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

U-TURN: Lord Hall initially fought to keep stars’ earnings a secret

The BBC had argued it would lead to an exodus of talent – a so-called ‘poachers’ charter’ – as other broadcasters moved in to steal the Corporation’s best and brightest stars.

In reality, a year on, that myth has been dispelled. Far from leading to talent leaving the BBC, the salary disclosures have ignited a debate about equal pay for men and women, diversity on screen and value for money.

But this year, something was missing. Nearly £12 million, in fact.

Another key part of the Royal Charter agreement was the ability of the Corporation to establish BBC Studios, enabling the broadcaster to use its expertise to create productions for other channels.

BBC Studios is counted as an independent production company and, in what has become a huge loophole, the stars it pays do not have to appear on the BBC’s list of top earners.

This is not right.

To be sure, the BBC is moving in the right direction in areas such as gender pay.

But much more needs to be done, with less than a quarter of the money disclosed in this year’s list being paid to female stars.

The reason why we have had the debate about how much women are paid at the BBC compared to their male colleagues is because the Corporation was forced to publish this data – yet I fear that we are still not getting the full picture.

It is time for the BBC to stop hiding behind this loophole, provide real transparency and publish the pay of all stars earning more than £150,000, no matter who is writing the cheque.

This is something that the Corporation owes to those who pay the licence fee.

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