Dhaka, Bangladesh
BBC's battle with Samira only exposes its own weakness

BBC's battle with Samira only exposes its own weakness

By Stefan Stern

One of the BBC's stated core values as outlined in its mission is, "Great things happen when we work together." In fact, it's central to its mission and purpose as a public broadcaster. It should follow then, I suppose, that when it doesn't work together as a corporation great things won't happen. That's certainly one conclusion I've drawn from spending a few days watching the employment tribunal brought by my friend Samira Ahmed. She's suing the BBC for nearly £700,000 in lost earnings over a claim of unequal pay. It made for a pretty startling spectacle. I don't think I have ever seen an organisation go to such lengths to try to belittle its own work and the contribution of some of its staff. Central to the BBC's case was that Newswatch, the programme Ahmed presents on the news channel and BBC One, could not truly be compared with Points of View, another "voice of the viewer" show hosted by the well-known broadcaster and presenter Jeremy Vine, which in fact plays to a smaller overall audience and has been filmed in corridors, unlike the studio-based Newswatch. Counsel for the BBC argued that a Points of View presenter was like a "concert pianist in a concert hall", whereas the Newswatch presenter was, in comparison, more like "someone playing piano to a ballet class of 10 children". Given that Newswatch was launched in the wake of the Hutton inquiry to ensure the BBC was regularly held to account, this felt like insouciance of a high order. But the barrister was not out of line, she was dutifully reflecting her client's wishes and perhaps its attitude towards the proceedings, as revealed by other pieces of evidence presented at the tribunal. For example, the senior managers who had been responsible for and involved in discussing pay for Vine - whom Ahmed says was paid nearly seven times more than her for equal work - did not speak at the hearings. Instead, other, sometimes more junior, managers had been volunteered to give evidence - some of which consisted of emails that appeared to have been sent long after relevant discussions had taken place. At one point the cut and pasted Wikipedia entry for Vine was produced as a source on the presenter the BBC saw fit to rely on. It didn't appear to possess more suitable records of its own. It all left me wondering if this is simply what happens to managers in big organisations as they rise up the career ladder. Do they necessarily become less sympathetic to their colleagues - less humane? That surely does not have to be the case. Of course tough things will happen where there are competitive and ambitious people striving to do well. But you'd hope that in an organisation such as the BBC - "We respect each other and celebrate our diversity", another core value - this ability to be straight and deal with colleagues in a civilised manner comes with the territory. Unfortunately, this tribunal has revealed weaknesses in some parts of BBC management. Like dozens of other women at the BBC, Ahmed has been seeking to receive equal pay for work of equal value as that carried out by male colleagues. That is, after all, the law, established in 1970. At one point Ahmed's barrister tried to determine what Vine's employment status was. The tribunal was told that Vine was "employed for tax purposes but not employed for employment purposes". Whatever the purpose, Vine got £3,000 per 15-minute episode, while Ahmed got £440 for presenting a programme of similar length and content. "We take pride in delivering quality and value for money" - another core BBC value. Speaking at an HR conference in Manchester last week, the BBC's outgoing HR director, Valerie Hughes-D'Aeth, said of the people management business: "We tend to have been very good at people skills: empathy, compassion." After a few days at the tribunal I can't honestly say I spotted where the empathy and compassion elements came in. Sometimes it feels as though the BBC has never really got over the shock of losing its former director general, Greg Dyke, in the row that followed the publication of Lord Hutton's report. His resignation following the results of the inquiry caused huge upset among staff at the time, prompting more than 1,000 employees to stage a walkout. Many pleaded with him not to leave. Can an organisation suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder? The BBC has been menaced by politicians, threatened with severe financial cutbacks, instructed to fund free TV licences for the over-75s, and then told by the outgoing culture secretary that the licence fee itself may be abolished. These are not easy times for the broadcaster. And yet the absence of firm and confident leadership has left the organisation vulnerable and floundering. These are the conditions in which dubious editorial decisions, bad management behaviour and toxic work culture can proliferate. Employment tribunals are rarely pleasant. You are only there because a dispute has proved impossible to resolve, for one reason or another. The cards are often stacked in the employer's favour. And yet there was a simple and elegant truth to the closing words spoken by Ahmed's barrister, Claire Darwin: "The claimant is here today because she wants equal pay for equal work, and I would invite the employment tribunal to uphold her right to it." The tribunal's judgment will be published just before or after Christmas. Whatever the outcome, as shown by the support Ahmed has received from colleagues such as the BBC's Naga Munchetty and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, one thing has become clear: great things can happen when we work together.

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