One of the worse jobs I ever had was working in a factory in the East End of London that made plastic mouldings for shop displays – the type of thing that holds chocolate bars or lipsticks in a shop. My job was to go around all the different parts of the factory, collect all the industrial waste bins and empty them into a compactor. By the time I had emptied the last bin the first one would be full and so my job would continue all day. The one and only saving grace of the job came at 5pm every Friday when I would receive a brown envelop with my weeks wages in cash.
At the factory there was a very clear hierarchy. The foremen got paid the most, followed by the forklift drivers, then the warehouse workers. The actual factory line workers were next on the pay-scale and I was very close to the bottom. I was only 19 at the time so I was happy to receive any money at all. But what the money indicated was how much the company valued you. The more important you were to the factory owners, the more you were paid. The person who collected the rubbish was instantly replaceable – so I got the lowest wage.
As a BBC executive producer I now get paid monthly and receive a lot more money than I did as a factory bin man. Who gets paid what in television is big news. It’s a political hot potato at the BBC, and celebrity pay at other broadcasters is frequent tabloid fodder (just google “Simon Cowell salary” and the first three hits are all Daily Mail headlines). At ITV and Channel 4 there are several primetime presenters who are rumoured to receive seven figure salaries. At the BBC there are currently over 19 actors, presenters and journalists who are paid over £500,000 a year (down from 21 the previous year). The BBC has even published how much it pays its staff broken down into pay brackets.
Now, I’m not going to enter into the debate as to whether BBC staff are paid too much or too little. That’s not my point. My point is that in all the newspaper columns that followed the BBC’s publication of its staff pay brackets and in all the tabloid gossip of who gets paid what, one obvious fact remains constantly overlooked. And that’s the fact that the vast majority of British TV millionaires – from Jonathan Ross to Chris Evans – are white and male.
Of course, most of us cannot hope to be millionaires nor do most of us seriously hope to be. If money was our main motivator to get out of bed I think we would have gone into other lines of business – not making documentaries, reporting the news or writing screenplays. Nevertheless, pay does often tell us something wider. Like my East End factory, it’s an indication as to who the most valued people are. As Jonathan Ross said in an off key joke in 2007: “I am worth one thousand BBC journalists”.
If people from diverse backgrounds in the media want to know how well we are valued and progressing we must look at issues of pay. Pay gaps between different groups persist in different industries in the UK, for various complex reasons. But the bottom line is that these gaps should be as small as possible. Women should be paid as much as men, black people the same as white people, disabled people the same as able-bodied people, and so on. The fact that there are persistent – and often under-looked – pay gaps at the top, suggests that there might well be persistent pay gaps at other levels. The problem is, we just don’t know.
So far, much of the debate surrounding increasing diversity in television has centred around how many of us are being employed. Yet as a nineteen-year-old collecting rubbish in an East London factory I realised how important pay was. Is it not about time that those of us interested in diversity started to ask for the figures about our pay packets instead of always counting how many of us are in the office or at the shoot? I think so.