In a blaze of publicity, the BBC has now published the pay of its top earners (you can see the full 16 page annexe here). Given the government is also committed to opening up corporate pay across the private sector, what actually happens when you publish salaries? Does the force of terrible headlines and an outraged public help reduce out of control pay packets? Or is the result, as the BBC Director General warned, really inflationary, driving up pay?
It is, of course, quite tricky to measure this sort of effect. This study of what happened when academic pay in Canada was made public concluded that publishing had no effect on pay levels (it also said academics weren’t paid enough. I digress). However, other evidence, such as this piece on opening up German executive pay, found a so-called ‘ratchet effect’ with disclosure increasing overall salaries by creating upward pressure from colleagues who demand to be paid better. One detailed study of CEO pay from the 1930s found openness had a generally upward effect:
…disclosure did not achieve the intended effect of broadly lowering CEO compensation. If anything, and in spite of popular outrage against compensation practices, average CEO compensation increased…The evidence suggests an upward “ratcheting” effect whereby lower paid CEOs…experienced relative gains while well paid CEOs…were not penalized (Mas 2016, 1).
It concluded that only ‘the most salient and visible wages’ were ‘restrained’-so Gary Lineker and Chris Evans could get a wage cut but everyone else could get an increase. So the evidence actually says, at the very best, publishing has no effect on driving pay downwards and could well drive it upwards. The focus on levels of pay also obscures other important issues around performance and exactly how people are paid. Perhaps the bigger story is over the BBC gender pay gap and perhaps publication could help close a pretty scandalous discrepancy (blog on its way on this).
However, this evidence only takes us so far. Pay levels in the entertainment sector may work very differently from academia (insert entertainment related joke) or ‘normal’ CEOs. The BBC is rather a unique institution and any popular judgment could be bound up in views of the BBC itself, which the public appear to love. This could account for the fact a full quarter of those asked think the pay is OK and only 53% think it’s too high. But maybe public opinion about pay is quite nuanced. Even this poll about MPs’ salaries in 2013 found 60% of Britons think Members of Parliament get paid too much but 28% felt MPs were ‘paid about the right amount’ and a full 5% ‘think Members of Parliament are paid too little’.
The difficult of measuring anything is about what to measure it against-what’s the benchmark being used? Compared with the average UK salary of £ 28,200 then the amounts are eye-watering. However, the pay of almost anyone of note in the UK is compared with the Prime Minister, whether it’s Chris Evans, 9,000 public sector workers or 24 employees at Kent and Medway council. The problem for any comparison is that the last two Prime Ministers have, bless them, taken a 5% pay cut and a self-imposed pay freeze since 2010 and so Theresa May has to scrape along with a measly £150,402 instead of the £152, 532 she could have won. For any Prime Minister there is, remember, a free central London house in a very desirable location plus weekend ‘chillin’ pad and £64,000 pension. Luckily for Theresa May, a Prime Minister is entitled to a ‘pension equal to one half of their final salary when the leave that office, regardless of…length of service’.
So, as with many eye-catching transparency reforms, it’s not clear exactly what will happen in the weeks, months and years after publication. Certainly there is a principled reason publishing such data. But the evidence suggests that there’ll be no great BBC pay cut and it could push some pay higher. Ironically, it could be worth a few days of Twitter storm each year for a nice salary boost.