It is quite a feat of illusion that John Humphrys has somehow managed to convince the BBC that he is an institution, worth the accolade of being their highest-paid news broadcaster, falling in the £600,000 to £649,999 salary bracket. That he – quite inexplicably – appears to have given them the impression that he is indispensable and therefore above consequences. As though they couldn’t just hire literally any smug, old, white guy with regressive politics and a total disdain for women to speak over people and act only in his own interests.
Earlier this week, BBC Radio 4 presenter Winifred Robinson was taken off air after tweeting support for ex-China editor Carrie Gracie and thereby compromising her impartiality on the issue; Jane Garvey sat out a segment of Woman’s Hour for the same reason. The BBC had ruled that any journalist commenting on the pay gap had a conflict of interest and could not report on the story fairly.
But fairness, it would seem, is a flexible concept at the BBC – Humphrys was allowed to present the Today show on Friday morning despite a leaked recording of him mocking Gracie, apparently outraged at the prospect that his salary might suffer as the corporation addresses the pay gap.
The phone conversation, with news presenter Jon Sopel, took place off-air before Sopel was to be interviewed on Monday’s Today show, but it was caught on mic.
Of course, tone is everything. And the public hasn’t been privy to an actual recording – we’ve only seen the transcript.
And now, Humphrys has clarified that it was all just “silly banter between old mates”. Well, thank goodness for that, because it would be concerning indeed if he was sincere when he whinged about the BBC’s men having to “hand over” portions of their salary to keep their female colleague from leaving. The gist of the conversation, the “banter”, is that Humphrys finds it laughable that any male employee would suffer as a result of evening out the salary playing field. He is indignant: “Oh dear God. She’s actually suggested that you should lose money; you know that don’t you?”
Former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly has heard the recording and she does not so easily dismiss it as innocuous joshing, tweeting: “You should hear the tone of the exchange – base, smug and condescending.”
Is it possible that men’s harmless locker-room banter might sound quite different outside of the metaphorical locker room they are all so fond of? That rather than victimless teasing, meant in jest, it is actually indicative of the ingrained misogyny that determines women are worth less for doing the same job?
Still, it wasn’t enough for the BBC to actually penalise Humphrys. Although it was enough for them to frantically rejig the show, axing a planned segment on the issue and stopping O’Reilly from appearing on the programme after telling producers she had heard the tape.
Humphrys’ statement on the matter says: “This was what I thought was an exchange between two old friends who have known each other for 30 years and were taking the mickey out of each other. It was nothing to do with Carrie’s campaign.”
Which is really just a long-winded way of saying, “No one was supposed to hear this.”
Is it possible that men’s harmless locker-room banter might sound quite different outside of the metaphorical locker room they are all so fond of?
Because this is a man who in November conducted an impressively shoddy interview on the Westminster sexual-harassment scandal, asking Lord Hague if there was a witch-hunt and suggesting that things might have gone “too far in the opposite direction”.
He was criticised for a patronising interview with ex-Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman at the end of August, for questioning Johanna Konta’s citizenship after she reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon and for making a joke about Tory MP Vicky Ford crying over Brexit.
It is not exactly a surprise that a man whose on-air comments are consistently repellant is even worse when he thinks no one is listening.
Reportedly, a source has said that higher-level management are “deeply unimpressed” with the comments, but the official BBC response is: “This was an ill-advised off-air conversation which the presenter regrets.”
Colour me sceptical, but it is difficult to believe that John Humphrys regrets anything at all. The contempt he displays for women is evident.
We all really want to believe that we are living through a pivotal moment in the fight for women’s equality. We want to believe that #MeToo and Time’s Up and every other fight, on every scale, are having an impact.
But even men who are willing to give at least the appearance of caring about inequality in their industry still don’t want to be disadvantaged by trying to rectify the problem – in another story this week, Liam Neeson managed to both call the gender pay gap in Hollywood “fucking disgraceful” and also balk at the idea that he would take a pay cut. “Pay cut? No, no, no, no, no. That’s going too far,” he said. Humphrys isn’t alone in valuing his self-preservation above women’s rights to fair pay – he is just more brazen about it.
And allowing men like him the continued freedom to suppress change, and maintain the status quo that favours them, is thickening the muck women are having to wade through.
Jane Garvey tweeted on Friday morning that she was on her way to work at “the Department of Mixed Messages”. But the message we’re getting isn’t that mixed at all. It’s that women at the BBC are systemically undervalued and their voices silenced, while men’s are not. That’s pretty clear, actually.