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A winning week for women

03 Jul 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
A winning week for women

It has been a spectacular few days for women – on the football pitch before the cameras, in the political field, and scoring a few pay equality goals in broadcasting.

The England women’s football team may have lost a World Cup semi-final in a horribly familiar way – missing what would have been an equalising penalty against an admittedly superior American team.

But a vital threshold has been crossed. The women’s game has arrived and become mainstream viewing. More than 7.9 million watched England defeat Norway in the quarter-finals with the semi-final in Lyon attracting a peak of more than 11.7 million - another all-time record for a women’s sporting event and the largest TV audience of the year so far.

While women’s football may sometimes lack a little in strength and speed, the accuracy and imagination of the passing often surpasses that of the men’s game. Above all it is entertaining for anyone who has a passing acquaintance with football.

In defeat there was also a big win for the BBC and public service broadcasting. By showcasing such games the BBC has provided the perfect platform for what was until recently a minority sport.

The results demonstrate not just the pulling power of live sport but also the wisdom of making it available on free-to-air television rather than hidden away behind sports subscriptions. The hope now is that more people will attend women’s league football and more young women will play the game. In its turn that could become a virtuous circle that will raise standards so that next time the Lionesses will be good enough to beat the US with or without help from the video assistant referee.

Interestingly, the same phenomenon has been happening across Europe, from Ireland’s RTE to ARD in Germany - in part a response to an initiative to encourage the broadcasting of women’s sport by the European Broadcasting Union.

There has also been a big breakthrough for women in politics – whether they can play football or not. Ursula von der Leyen, the German politician, is due to become the next President of the European Commission with Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, becoming president of the Central European Bank, if confirmed by the European Parliament. But that’s another blood sport.

After many rows and ructions at the BBC, women are at least taking some further steps towards pay equality.

Three women, Claudia Winkelman, Zoe Ball and Vanessa Feltz have moved into the top 10 league of BBC earners - which was an all male preserve as recently as last year.

Fiona Bruce, Sarah Montague, Jo Whiley and Lauren Laverne were all given large pay rises as part of the drive towards equal pay for equal work between men and women at the Corporation.

The BBC said that women now make up 40 per cent of the highest earners and that the gap would soon be narrowed to 55 - 45 per cent.

Women account for 47.9 per cent of the BBC’s workforce and occupy 43.8 per cent of leadership positions.

That of course is largely small print stuff and BBC Makes Progress In Gender Pay Scandal was never going to float any tabloid headlines.

Naturally most of the attention was given to the fact that the number of presenters earning more than the Prime Minister’s £150,000 a year salary – that most spurious comparison of all - had risen from 64 to 75.

Almost certainly this was due to trying to increase the salaries of women while “persuading” men to take pay cuts. Many did but the BBC almost certainly lost some high profile male presenters such as Chris Evans, Simon Mayo and Eddie Mair to the commercial sector as a result.

In an increasingly competitive industry the overall pay of BBC staff rose by 6 per cent to £1.48 billion.

Naturally all this – and the rise in presenter pay in particular - is portrayed in the BBC-hating sections of the press as “a kick-in-the teeth” for the 2 million or so over 75s who are due to lose their free licence fees next year.

The papers mostly neglect to say that “the kick-in-the-teeth” was actually administered by the Government deciding it would no longer pay for the free licence fee system introduced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

This has left the BBC in the unenviable position of starting to charge all those over 75s not on pension support, or cut £745 million a year and rising, from programme budgets.

There are a few things missing from the arithmetic behind the shouty headlines that compare the increase in top presenters pay and the over 75 licence fee issue.

As Sir David Clementi, the BBC chairman, pointed out cutting talent salaries would save around £20 million a year out of the £745 hole in BBC finances.

It might still be worth putting a squeeze on Gary Lineker’s more than £1.75 million for football coverage and Alan Shearer’s more than £440,000.

Answer, however, on how the rest of the gap could be bridged between £20 million and £745 million came there none.

Without such a policy on free licence fees whole swathes of BBC output, which the public says it values, would have to be closed down.

Maybe that’s what the right-wing press want – just as they are carelessly philosophical about the impact of a No Deal Brexit.

Even by its own exotic standards The Sun’s coverage of the BBC’s annual report and salary levels is the most bizarre.

Under the headline British Broadcasting Cover-up the paper accuses the BBC of hiding the true wages of its stars because of “secret” payments made via its commercial arm, BBC Studios.

It’s hardly much of a secret still less a cover-up. The Government required the BBC to disclose the salaries it paid to staff earning over £150,000, which turned up interesting results on pay inequality.

The BBC could not reveal and probably does not even know what independent producers making programmes for the Corporation pay their stars.

The Government also exempted the BBC from disclosing what presenters and performers earn from BBC Studios, a commercial arm not funded by the licence fee, on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.

For good measure The Sun goes on to argue that whole sections of the BBC should indeed be shut down including its website – no self-interest there - and the BBC licence fee should first be decriminalised and then abolished.

But at least it’s been a good week for those women who don’t have to take penalties.

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14 Nov 2019 

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