Sarah Montague's 'incandescent rage' and the BBC's bigger inequality problem
Imagine some of the things that might make you ‘incandescent with rage’. Getting evicted because you can’t pay the bills? Not being able to feed your children? Living in a house with mould on the walls and cockroaches in the kitchen? Not the BBC’s Sarah Montague, who came unglued after discovering that perhaps she should have been earning more than £133,000 a year for spending a few hours a week talking about politics on the radio.
One was reminded of that wonderfully misjudged quote from Ashley Cole, who opined in his autobiography that he almost crashed his car – presumably because of incandescence – on being offered ‘only’ £60,000 a week by Arsenal.
Words are powerful little things, and by using the wrong ones to make a point you risk undermining your own argument. So it was that the overwhelming majority of comments on social media, and beneath the article Montague wrote in The Times, were unsympathetic to her supposed plight.
And some of those commenting were of the opinion that more scandalous than the lack of gender equality at the BBC is the lack of opportunity for those who didn’t attend public school or Oxbridge.
As predictable as the readers’ comments were the tweets from influential women, expressing their dismay at the rampant misogyny on display. But nowhere in the mainstream media did I notice anyone ask the question: Why exactly should Sarah Montague be paid the same as John Humphrys?
According to Montague, “it never occurred to me that I would be paid less than a man doing the same job”. Therein lies a fundamental problem with her argument: she doesn’t do the same job as Humphrys, in the same way that Cole didn’t do the same job as several of his more illustrious team-mates.
The same argument could be applied to Carrie Gracie, the BBC’s former China editor, who was similarly incandescent upon learning that she was earning less than Jeremy Bowen, the Middle East editor. Amid the fury from women and virtue signalling from men, it was barely mentioned that Jeremy Bowen has been getting shot at in the Middle East since the 1980s. He is a war correspondent, one of the most recognised and respected journalists in Britain, a household name.
On top of that, the Middle East is more newsworthy than China, as per current events. It could easily be argued that Gracie no more deserves to be paid as much as Bowen as the tennis correspondent on a national newspaper deserves to be paid the same as the football correspondent.
Footballers all kick a ball about for a living, but in football as in the media, people are valued by their contribution to the team, their pulling power and their experience. In football, it is quite possible for a 20-year-old kid who played 40-odd games in a season and scored 20-odd goals to be paid far less than a 35-year-old bloke who has gone a bit doddery and doesn’t train much.
Which leads us seamlessly to Humphrys. Of course, his salary of £600,000-£649,000 is absurd. But the claim by Montague – otherwise known as Lady Brooke – that she had been “subsidising other people’s lifestyles” – by whom, presumably, she meant Humphrys – was almost as ridiculous.
It is the British public which subsidises all the lifestyles of Radio 4’s presenters, through the licence fee. And Montague’s lifestyle is presumably very nice indeed, given that she earns almost five times the average UK salary, is a former stockbroker and married to an aristocrat.
It should also be noted – and wasn’t by Montague – that fellow Today presented Mishal Husain earned more than both her and Justin Webb. The two presenters who earned more than Husain were Humphrys and Nick Robinson, the BBC’s former political editor and another household name.
It is not fashionable to express sympathy for Humphrys, and I’m not about to start now. But it strikes me as ironic that he has become emblematic of white, male, middle-class hegemony in Britain, given his background.
His father was a French polisher, and he left school at 15. Viewed through the prism of class, Humphrys, who joined the BBC in 1966, reported on the Watergate affair, the resignation of Nixon and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and was reading the Nine O’Clock News as long ago as 1981, can be seen as a triumph of the social mobility of a previous era.
You might think Humphrys is past it, too obviously right-wing, a cantankerous old goat who should be put out to pasture. But the reasons he earns a lot more than Montague, and everyone else on the Today programme, are not exactly a mystery: he is essentially a celebrity, which Montague is not.
Montague, Husain, Robinson and Webb all attended public school, while Husain and Robinson went to Cambridge and Oxford respectively. Montague had to make do with Bristol, the archetypal ‘Oxbridge reject’ university, while Webb slummed it at the London School of Economics.
Gracie, David Dimbleby, Andrew Marr, Martha Kearney, Sophie Raworth, Jane Garvey and Kirsty Wark attended independent schools, while Gracie, Dimbleby, Marr, Kearney, Fiona Bruce, Reeta Chakrabarti, Evan Davis and Emily Maitlis went to Oxbridge. Over at Channel 4, Jon Snow, Cathy Newman, Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Matt Frei attended independent schools, and the last three went to Oxbridge. After dropping out of university, Snow, the son of a bishop, was promptly given a plum job by Lord Longford.
Only 7% of British children are educated in the independent sector, and about 1% attend Oxbridge. But the people who are supposed to be holding politicians’ feet to the flames are too often from the same exclusive club as them, a club that a tiny percentage of the rest of the population belong to.
You hear it said a lot: “What do politicians know of the lives of the man and woman on the street?” Probably about as much as BBC and Channel 4 journalists.
The BBC would no doubt argue that the intellectual cream rises to the top, and that by recruiting from Oxbridge they are operating a meritocracy. But that ignores the fact that just because you attended Oxbridge doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more intelligent than everybody else – it might just mean you had parents who were rich enough to send you to public school in the first place.
So when Montague spoke of her “incandescent rage”, it was all too easy to write her off as an envious, grasping, media luvvie, betraying a sense of privilege and entitlement. She provided the real misogynists with an easy target, a convenient deflection, and risked trivialising the struggles of thousands of women who are genuinely being discriminated against in the workplace.