Why does the BBC pay Samira Ahmed so much less than Jeremy Vine?

First published by The Herald on 29 October 2019

I WILL never forget how it felt to find out I was being paid less than a man who had been hired a month after me to do exactly the same job as me. The year was 2002 and both he and I had embarked on our first jobs in journalism, serving as trainee reporters on sister local weekly titles in Aberdeenshire.

Yet while I had been taken on on a salary of £9,000 a year his pay packet was 5.5 per cent higher at £9,500. To say that was a blow would be the understatement of my life.

Fresh out of university at the time, I wasn’t in the least bit clued up on the 1970 Equal Pay Act, but I knew that paying him more than me just wasn’t right and making that discovery was gutting. Our employers, it seemed, knew they had done wrong too: though they initially tried to dismiss my complaint on the basis that my colleague had to drive to work while I could walk, they quickly conceded that that was irrelevant and raised my pay by £500. It was hardly the stuff movies are made of, but the victory felt significant nonetheless.

And yet here we are in 2019, 17 years after a tiny victory that came 32 years after the Equal Pay Act was written into law, and women are still being put in the position of having to ask their employer to account for why they are being paid less than men for doing work of equal value. From council workers to news anchors, there seems to be no shortage of women for whom the law has offered no protection until they have taken action to enforce it, with BBC presenter Samira Ahmed this week becoming the latest in a long line of women forced to take a stand in the name of equality.

Ms Ahmed, a freelance journalist who was formerly a reporter and presenter on Channel Four News, has for the past several years hosted a range of programmes for the BBC, including Radio 4’s daily arts show Front Row and the BBC News channel’s weekly points of view programme Newswatch. She has taken the broadcaster to the Central London Employment Tribunal over what it pays her to present the latter, arguing that she should get the same £3,000 a show that Jeremy Vine is rewarded for presenting Points of View rather than the £440 an episode she has been paid since taking over the programme in 2012.

She would appear to have a point. Points of View may air on BBC One while Newswatch is available on the news channel only, but to all intents and purposes what Ms Ahmed and Mr Vine do on those programmes is broadly the same. Both are at the helm of presenter-led shows that last for 15 minutes, are aired once a week and offer the public the opportunity to give their views on BBC content. Sure, Jeremy Vine has to relay comments about programmes that are produced right across the BBC while Ms Ahmed handles views on news programmes only, but does that mean he deserves to be paid close to seven times as much as her for it? Does anyone really think that the situation is a fair one?

Well, yes, some people obviously do. Because despite being here before with former China editor Carrie Gracie – who last year was awarded years’ worth of back pay after receiving significantly less than the men doing the same job in other parts of the world – and despite agreeing to pay Ms Ahmed more for her work on Front Row and Radio 3’s Night Waves/Free Thinking – where she had been earning 50% and 33% less than her male equivalents – the broadcaster is adamant that the disparate levels of pay awarded to Mr Vine and Ms Ahmed can be justified. Their programmes, though similar, follow different formats, you see, with Mr Vine’s being classed as entertainment while Ms Ahmed’s is seen simply as news. The fact they are shown on different channels has also been offered up as an excuse.

Thanks to the other women who have been willing to stand up and challenge the law on equal pay before her, it seems likely that Ms Ahmed could win the argument. After all, when Dumfries and Galloway Council argued in 2013 that the salaries paid to female classroom assistants and learning support staff could not be compared to those of groundsmen and road workers it was quickly stopped in its tracks.

Just because male and female employees work in different locations, doing different jobs does not mean they cannot be compared for equal-pay purposes the Supreme Court’s now president Lady Hale ruled, setting a precedent that has been applied to Glasgow City Council and supermarket giant Asda in the years since. Taken in that context, the different-channel, different-format argument expected to be deployed by the BBC in the employment tribunal would seem to be more than a little bit thin.

Yet proving that Ms Ahmed should be paid equally to Mr Vine even if she can prove she works equally to him could end up being easier said than done, with employment lawyer Ross Meadows pointing out that the BBC will still have “a genuine material factor defence argument in its armoury”. You see while it is one thing to show that a man and woman are carrying out jobs whose value can be said to be the same, it’s another thing to expect them to be paid equally for them, with experience and seniority sometimes allowed to trump equality in the eyes of the law.

And this is where women, despite supposedly having had the law on their side for close to 50 years, have been set up to fail again and again. In a working world where men continue to hold all the most senior positions, where they use those positions to hire in their image – often without ever making it known there are jobs available to compete for – women are fighting a losing battle when it comes to gaining the experience that would confer on them the seniority that gives them the right to be paid equally.

Until that problem is addressed – until women are allowed to compete on the level playing field we are repeatedly told is open to us – unscrupulous bosses will always have a get-out on equal pay and the situation will continue to self-perpetuate.

As she was getting ready for her tribunal hearing this week Samira Ahmed released a statement in which she noted that the back of her BBC pass is inscribed with a set of values that include showing respect for each other, celebrating diversity and taking pride in delivering quality and value for money. In light of that, she said, “I just ask why the BBC thinks I am worth only a sixth of the value of the work of a man for doing a very similar job”.

Regardless of what the tribunal decides, it is a question we would all benefit from knowing the answer to.