The BBC has defended one of its highest-paid male stars after a fierce backlash from MPs and campaigners over why he was allowed to discuss the gender pay gap on-air despite having mocked the issue earlier in the week.
The corporation earlier faced calls to force Radio 4 Today presenter John Humphrys to step aside after transcripts leaked last night reportedly showed him ridiculing the gap with colleague Jon Sopel off-air.
The broadcaster was accused of “double standards”, given women were prevented from broadcasting on the issue after they commented on it.
It came as Beeb bosses were forced to hit back at claims that former Countryside presenter Miriam O’Reilly was bumped from the running order of the flagship morning show on Friday because of the leaked comments.
“I told the producer I had heard the exchange between Humphrys and Sopel and Mr Humphrys was not impartial,” O’Reilly claimed on Twitter.
“A matter of minutes later the producer rang back sounding a little embarrassed. He said something along the lines of news moves on,” she said.
“It was the guest - me - who was stood down rather than Mr Humphrys.”
The BBC said Humphrys was bound by the same rules of impartiality as everyone else.
But his continued presence came after bosses this week demanded those who have given support to the ‘#BBCWomen’ campaign to achieve equal pay stand down from reporting the topic.
Labour’s Stella Creasy told HuffPost UK that it was “unfair” some stars have been stopped from speaking while Humphrys continued to work.
The Walthamstow MP said: “This shows the BBC needs to ensure equal pay rather than using editorial guidelines to try to prevent presenters talking about this issue.
“It’s clear everyone has an opinion, so it is unfair to stop some speaking and not others.
“That some of those opinions appear rooted in the 19th century when it comes to why this matters only further underlines the importance of getting this right.”
Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey, who, alongside colleague Winifred Robinson, has been banned from reporting on pay disparity, described the corporation as “the Department of Mixed Messages”.
Womens’ Equality Party leader Sophie Walker asked whether Humphrys could continue to report on the gender pay gap following his reported comments.
Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson also raised the apparent inconsistency.
And former Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw said: “BBC management really must grip this urgently. It seems they’re running a ‘one rule for the men & another for the women’ policy”.
O’Reilly, 60, who successfully sued the BBC over age discrimination, denied she was the source of the story, and hit out at the BBC for having the invite withdrawn, while Humphrys was free to present the programme.
″[I]t’s clear there is one rule for male presenters at the BBC and one for women”, O’Reilly said.
A BBC spokesperson told HuffPost in a statement: “The Today programme often makes changes to schedules and contributors in the run up to broadcast.
“This item became a much broader discussion about social change and consequently Afua Hirsch was a more suitable guest to talk about the wider issues. It’s wrong to suggest anything else.”
Afua Hirsch tweeted on Friday evening to make clear she knew nothing about the change in lineup.
O’Reilly told HuffPost: “The BBC would say that, wouldn’t they? Interesting it suddenly became a ‘broader discussion’ when I mentioned I had been leaked the Humphrys/Sopel recording.”
She said she was told she may be invited on the programme on Saturday potentially avoiding Humphrys, who often presents on weekdays.
But the Radio Times reported that the Saturday edition will, in fact, be helmed by him.
Downing Street said the decision to discipline Humphrys was “a matter for the BBC”, with a No10 spokesperson adding: “The PM is clear that tackling injustices is a vital part of building a country that works for everyone”.
Transcripts of the exchange between Humphrys and Sopel appeared to depict Humphrys, who also fronts TV quiz Mastermind, mocking the fight to end the pay gap, asking Sopel: “How much are you prepared to hand over?”
According to the leak, Humphrys addresses the difference in pay between North American editor Sopel, 58, who is paid between £200,000-£249,999, and now former China editor Gracie, 55, who was paid £135,000:
HUMPHRYS: “The first question will be how much of your salary you are prepared to hand over to Carrie Gracie to keep her and then a few comments about your other colleagues, like our Middle East Editor and the other men who are earning too much…”
SOPEL: “If we are talking about the scope for the greatest redistribution I’ll have to come back and say well, yes, Mr Humphrys, but…
HUMPHRYS: “And I could save you the trouble as I could volunteer I’ve handed over already more than you fucking earn but I’m still left with more than anybody else and that seems to me to be entirely just - something like that would do it?”
HUMPHRYS: “Oh dear God. She’s actually suggested that you should lose money; you know that don’t you? You’ve read the thing properly have you?”
A BBC source previously told HuffPost that management were “deeply unimpressed” by the exchange.
And a corporation spokesperson said on Thursday evening: “This was an ill-advised off air conversation which the presenter regrets.
“The BBC is committed to getting its pay structures right and, as we have said, we are conducting a comprehensive analysis of presenter pay.
“PwC are working with us on this to ensure an objective external assessment of how we have set pay in the past, what we need to do differently going forward, and what further action we need to take immediately.
“We will publish that in the coming weeks.”