The BBC has defended its “incredible record of achievement” as it braces for the backlash when it publishes a list of 96 stars earning more than £150,000 a year.
The list of top earners will underline how the Beeb exists in a market “even more competitive than ever” when faced with established rivals such as ITV and emerging broadcasters including Netflix, Director General Lord Tony Hall has said.
But it was facing a further row beyond how well-paid its marquee names are as it revealed two-thirds of those earning more than £150,000 are men.
Lord Hall argues the BBC needs to employ “the very best stars, great presenters, writers, actors, correspondents” to “help make the BBC what it is”, but acknowledges “we are dealing with the public’s money” and the salaries are “at a discount to the market”.
The breakdown of top talent is likely to include presenters such as Gary Lineker, Graham Norton, and Fiona Bruce, and is being released for the first time under the terms of the BBC’s new 11-year royal charter negotiated with David Cameron’s Conservative government.
The BBC will be at pains to argue it represents value for money, pointing to the overall ‘talent bill’ being down by more than £4 million to below £194 million.
In his round-up of achievements, Hall argues the news team “had a phenomenal year”, points to Ed Balls doing ‘Gangnam style’ and highlights ground-breaking shows such as the dark comedy Fleabag.
Lord Hall writes: “We’re talking about what, to lots of people, are large sums. This is not something we can take lightly. That’s why we always try to pay people at a discount to the market.
“It’s why the bill for top talent is down by 10 per cent year on year – down by a quarter over the last five years.
“And the amount we pay the very highest earners has dropped by 40 per cent over the same period.
“We’re not afraid to walk away if money becomes an issue. And that’s one of the reasons we’re the biggest investor in new British talent there is.”
He adds of more than 43,000 ‘talent’ contracts handed out last year, less than 0.25 per cent were paid more than £150,000. “And that’s how it should be,” he continues.
“Comparing people’s pay is not straightforward,” he goes on. “Very few do precisely the same thing. People working at the same show may have other – or different - commitments.”
Lord Hall also signals it is not good enough that two-thirds of the ‘talent’ earning more than £150,000 are men: “Is that where we want to be? No. Are we pushing further and faster than any other major broadcaster? Most certainly.”
The BBC’s aim is to have all lead and presenting roles equally divided by men and women by 2020.
He says: “This is already having an impact – of the talent on the list that we have hired or promoted in the last four years, 60 per cent are women.
“This broader target will have a profound impact not just at the BBC, but on the whole media industry.”
Veteran BBC broadcaster Andrew Marr has previously admitted that the process will be awkward. “It’s uncomfortable for all of us,” he said last month.