Dani Garavelli: Humphrys' laughter rings hollow as anger grows

It's all right, ladies, lay down your pitchforks. Your anger is misplaced. You see, when John Humphrys mocked former BBC China editor Carrie Gracie's decision to resign over pay in an off-air conversation with North America editor Jon Sopel, he was just having a laugh.

The BBCs Carrie Gracie explains to journalists the reason for her resignation as China editor. Picture: Dominic Lipinski
The BBCs Carrie Gracie explains to journalists the reason for her resignation as China editor. Picture: Dominic Lipinski

We know this because he’s told us. Twice. “We are in the habit, Jon and I, of winding each other up and the purpose of this jokey – emphasise jokey – exchange was a bit of mutual mickey-taking,” he said after a transcript of the exchange was leaked by someone who didn’t find it so side-splittingly hilarious.

I’m glad all that’s been cleared up. Because now, I understand: the problem is not that Humphrys is arrogant and indifferent to the injustice of the BBC’s pay structure, it’s that everyone else lacks a sense of humour. I guess the fact Humphrys was engaging in a bit of bantz, while You And Yours presenter, Winifred Robinson, and Woman’s Hour presenter, Jane Garvey, who sent Gracie messages of support, were deadly serious, accounts for them being banned from covering the story and Humphrys not. If only Robinson had thought to add a “LOL” to her #IstandwithCarrie tweet, she could, presumably, have stayed behind her microphone.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

I tell you who is taking the mickey and that’s the BBC. It’s six months now since they published the league table of their highest earners – a table that revealed the corporation’s two female international editors (including Gracie) were earning 50 per cent less than the two male international editors (including Sopel) – and it appears to have done precisely nothing to rectify the situation.

Instead, it hums and haws and talks about the complexity of a long-standing problem it created. Meanwhile, wannabe MRA columnists serve up a platter of red herrings. They make snide comments about greed and mansplain the importance of taking individual skills and experience into account. Gracie turned down a proffered pay rise of £45,000 and resigned because, for her, it wasn’t about money, it was about not wanting to collude in discrimination. Oh, and she speaks fluent Mandarin and “chases around under surveillance, dealing with intimidation and police harassment”. It takes some chutzpah and/or delusion to question those credentials.

It’s worth remembering, too, that this row is not about the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap is the disparity between the average earnings of men and women and is usually caused by more men being promoted to senior roles. The Carrie Gracie row, however, is about the right to equal pay for equal work – enshrined in the 1970 Equal Pay Act – so it’s not surprising she has branded the BBC’s practices “secretive and illegal”.

Across the Atlantic, Hollywood is turning the same deaf ear to the clamour for parity. At the Golden Globes awards, many actresses wore black as they rallied behind the anti-sexual harassment movement Time’s Up. Yet, days later, it emerged Michelle Williams had been paid a tiny fraction of the fee handed to her male co-star, Mark Wahlberg, for reshooting scenes from Ridley Scott’s appositely titled All The Money In The World. That certainly seems to be what Wahlberg was after. The reason the scenes were being reshot was so that alleged sexual offender Kevin Spacey could be edited out. According to Vanity Fair, Wahlberg refused to approve Christopher Plummer as Spacey’s replacement until he had been paid $1.5 million. Williams, on the other hand, was so grateful for the efforts being made, she told the crew she’d be wherever they needed her, whenever they needed her. She received $1,000.

There are all sorts of conclusions you could draw from this vignette about the differences between the genders and the need for women to be more assertive when it comes to salary negotiations. But the point is surely this: we oughtn’t to be rewarding ego and aggression. The amount people earn should have nothing to do with their personality and everything to do with the quality of their labour.

Last week’s events – while disheartening – did women the favour of exposing a few more hypocrites and misogynists. Men like Justin Timberlake, who used the #Timesup twitter hashtag though he is currently starring in Woody Allen’s new movie, Wonder Wheel. And Liam Neeson, star of The Commuter, who described the post-Weinstein sexual harassment claims as “a bit of a witch-hunt”.

Other male commentators saw the Golden Globe protests as a personal slight on their own integrity and “an opportunity to reposition men as the enemy”. Why do so many of them still struggle to understand? Your own behaviour may be beyond reproach, but you benefit from a system that works in your favour. If you are silent about this; if – worse still – you make light of it, then you are complicit.

The intractability of the problem was underlined as the Golden Globes continued to honour alleged sexual harassers, even as their behaviour and industry-wide discrimination was being called out. Natalie Portman may have landed a blow when, as presenter of the Best Director award, she drew attention to the “all-male nominees”. But hours later James Franco won best actor in a comedy or musical, several women came forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct.

Despite all this negativity, I remain optimistic. In Hollywood and at the BBC, women are finally presenting an (almost) united front and challenging the system. Two hundred female BBC employees in various pay grades and roles are now said to be pursuing equal pay claims; it is to be hoped the corporation will soon be laughing on the other side of its face.

Our culture is slowly changing. The legislation that requires companies with over 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap is a big step forward; next – as the Women’s Equality Party has suggested – those companies with a gap of more than 5 per cent should be forced to publish a more detailed break-down of salaries as well as their hiring, promotion and parental leave policies.

Earlier this month, Iceland became the first country in the world to force companies with more than 25 employees to prove they pay everyone performing the same role equally, regardless of gender, sexuality or ethnicity. If any company fails to comply, they will be fined. This seems radical now, but where Iceland leads others will follow.

If women hold their nerve, gender equality will come. I just hope I am alive to witness it; and to applaud from the sidelines as Humphrys and his ilk totter off into oblivion.