Radio 4's John Humphrys criticised for gender pay gap blunder

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Sonya Barber
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He claims the leaked conversation with colleague Jon Sopel about Carrie Gracie’s resignation was ‘silly banter between old mates’

Radio 4 Today programme host John Humphrys is in serious hot water after a recording of an off-air phonecall between him and the BBC’s North America editor Jon Sopel, during which they spoke about Carrie Gracie’s resignation, was leaked to the public.

Gracie left her role as the BBC’s China editor after 30 years working for the broadcaster, because of a significant pay disparity between her and her male colleagues. 

She explained her reasons in a brilliant open letter published on her website on Sunday 7 January saying: “The BBC belongs to you, the licence fee payer. I believe you have a right to know that it is breaking equality law and resisting pressure for a fair and transparent pay structure.”

Gracie bravely co-hosted Monday’s Today programme with John Humphrys (before which she tweeted “wish me luck”), but it has since emerged that Humphrys discussed Grace’s situation with Sopel on the phone that morning before they went on air.

In a transcript of the chat, Humphrys says: “Slight change of subject, 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, you know, like our Middle East editor [Jeremy Bowen] and the other men who are earning too much.”

Sopel responds: “I mean, obviously 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 replies: “And I could save you the trouble as I could volunteer that I’ve handed over already more than you f**king 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?”

Sopel says: “Don’t …”

Humphrys adds: “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?”

Carrie Gracie resigned from her position as China editor over pay discrimination.

Humphrys has since defended the conversation as “silly banter between old mates”, telling the Times: “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.” 

A spokesperson for the BBC has said: “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.”

However, the Guardian reports that “a source from the corporation told the Guardian that “management are deeply unimpressed” with the conversation.”

The conversation was leaked to Miriam O’Reilly, 60, who won an ageism case against the BBC after being dropped from Countryfile in 2011, who she said she was stopped from appearing on the Today programme when she told bosses that she’d heard the clip.

She said the conversation’s tone was “smug and condescending.”

“I have heard the recording and it is base – and beneath what the public would expect to hear from John Humphrys. Winifred Robinson was stood down for tweeting support for [Gracie] … I expect the same will now happen with Mr Humphrys.”

Speaking about the revelations, Woman’s Hour host Jane Garvey said that the exchange “reveals, very neatly, what we’re up against” and that it was a “useful reminder to be ever careful in a room with microphones”.

She followed with a tweet this morning (12 January) saying: “Heading into work at the Department of Mixed Messages, formerly known as the BBC #bbcwomen.” 

Gracie has received an outpouring of support since she published her powerful letter with other senior staff members and presenters at the BBC taking to Twitter to share their outrage with the trending hashtag #IStandWithCarrie. 

Clare Balding wrote: “Carrie Gracie’s stand is important. It’s about respect as well as reward. We don’t want future female broadcasters, journalists, reporters, commentators, editors & producers to have to fight for the right to be paid equally for doing the same job.”

On Monday’s Today programme, Gracie said: “The support that I’ve had speaks to the depth of hunger for an equal, fair and transparent pay system.”

Gracie concluded her open letter to licence payers saying: “It is a century since women first won the right to vote in Britain. Let us honour that brave generation by making this the year we win equal pay.” We could not agree more. 

Images: Rex Features.