Carrie Gracie has described an investigation into pay discrimination at the BBC as a “whitewash”, after it cleared the broadcaster of wrongdoing.
The former BBC China editor won substantial back pay in 2018 after going public with details of how she was out-earned by equivalent male journalists at the broadcaster. She said the methodology used by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in its investigation was baffling and that women could not rely on a regulator but should instead “stay strong, calm, united and justice will prevail”.
The independent inquiry followed years of disputes between BBC bosses and women who claimed to be illegally underpaid compared with male colleagues. Hundreds of female employees received pay rises or back pay.
While many BBC pay cases were settled through internal processes, some women were forced to take lengthy legal action. Earlier this year, the BBC presenter Samira Ahmed won a £700,000 employment tribunal case against the corporation after the BBC was unable to explain why she was paid less than her male counterpart Jeremy Vine for doing equivalent work.
Despite this, the EHRC concluded its 18-month investigation by saying it had found no evidence of unequal pay, having carried out in-depth re-examinations of just 10 pay complaints against the BBC.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, the chief executive of the equality watchdog, said: “We did not find any unlawful acts where we looked.”
The organisation acknowledged that it was possible that illegal unequal pay had happened elsewhere but made it clear that as a publicly funded body it was limited in the number of case studies it could look into.
Under equal pay legislation, it is illegal to pay women less than men for doing the same work. This is a separate issue to the wider societal concern about the gender pay gap, where men dominate higher-paid jobs.
Suzanne Baxter, who oversaw the investigation, said her team tested whether the BBC had complied with equality legislation in each of the 10 pay grievance cases against the corporation. She concluded: “We found that the decisions that they’d made did stand up and were compliant with the legislation.”
As a result the EHRC cleared the corporation of breaking the law, while acknowledging there was the potential for pay discrimination at the BBC to occur because too much discretion was given to individual managers to set salaries. Poor record-keeping also meant that managers were sometimes unable to explain why individuals were being paid differently to those doing similar work and whether if it was for reasons other than gender.
The BBC Women group said it was disappointed with the limited nature of the investigation: “Out of over 1,000 complaints, the EHRC looked in depth at only 10 cases and accepted the BBC’s excuses for why these were not ‘likely’ to be equal pay cases ... New cases are coming forward and women are still heading to court. We fight on.”
Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said she was surprised that the BBC had been cleared after years of pay disputes: “There will be many NUJ members who read this report and feel it doesn’t address their lived experiences. The fact that so many individual settlements, including Samira Ahmed’s NUJ-backed tribunal win, have taken place underlines the clear problems that have existed.”
Tim Davie, the new BBC director general, insisted there had been “significant improvements to BBC pay practices in recent years” but “we have to work even harder to be best in class”. He said he would accept every one of the EHRC’s recommendations, which include reducing job pay ranges. At the moment a woman at the BBC can find herself managing a man who is in a lower pay-band but earns more than her.