LONDON — For the past several days, BBC managers and executives have trooped to a small hearing room in central London to defend the broadcaster’s decision to pay a woman a fraction of what it paid a man for what she argues is similar work.
The testimony has been long and drawn out, comparing in colorless detail the company’s appraisal of a well-known female TV presenter’s work and a well-known male presenter’s work. The BBC’s position: Her work and her profile were not equal to her male colleague’s.
It is just the latest episode in a two-year drama that has put the BBC on the ropes because of criticism of its pay practices.
The BBC is being sued for back pay by Samira Ahmed, who argues that she was underpaid for years presenting a program called “Newswatch.” Ms. Ahmed was paid 440 pounds an episode in 2012 when she started presenting the weekly program, which discusses audience responses to BBC news coverage.
Ms. Ahmed says her work is comparable to that of Jeremy Vine, a colleague who presents a program that allows viewers to sound off over entertainment programs on the network. Mr. Vine was paid £3,000 an episode when Ms. Ahmed started.
British law stipulates that employees should receive equal pay for equal work.
The broadcaster, which is publicly funded, has been under heavy scrutiny of late over equal-pay practices. Just last year, Carrie Gracie abruptly quit her role as China editor over being paid less than her male peers.
In Ms. Ahmed’s case, the BBC has defended itself by playing down her profile and contributions, as well as the significance of one of its own programs. It disputes her characterization of her work as similar to Mr. Vine’s.
“Jeremy Vine and Samira Ahmed perform very different roles in their work for the BBC,” Gautam Rangarajan, the BBC’s director of strategy, said in a statement submitted to the hearing. “Jeremy has decades of visibility in high-profile programs that span both non-news and news output.”
“Samira Ahmed is an experienced journalist but with a lower public profile and narrower focus of expertise than Jeremy Vine,” he added. But Mr. Rangarajan also noted that “the BBC recognizes that broadcasting itself creates recognition.”
In several days of hearings, BBC managers have testified that because Mr. Vine’s program, “Points of View,” dealt with lighthearted entertainment, rather than news, he could command more of a fee because he was expected to be “a friend” to the viewer.
For example, if a viewer wrote in to Mr. Vine’s program, and the viewer’s question was answered with a statement from BBC management, Mr. Vine “would roll his eyes, as if to say, ‘I’ve heard all that before,’” Simon Miller, a producer for the show, said in a statement to the hearing.
“Although that was in the script, it was believable coming from him,” Mr. Miller said. “He was the audience’s friend when he was presenting and interviewing.”
Ms. Ahmed’s program, on the other hand, “is a journalistic program, which adopts an interrogative approach with a serious tone,” James Mallet, a “Newswatch” producer, said in his witness statement.
This difference applies across all programs, said Roger Leatham, the director of business affairs for BBC Studios Production.
“None of this is to denigrate the skills of factual presenters and journalists. They can also be highly skilled and excellent at their jobs,” Mr. Leatham said in his statement submitted to the hearing.
“They may work as hard as, and sometimes harder than, non-news presenters, but the market for their services operates differently and always has done from the days of Morecambe and Wise and before,” he added, referring to a British comedy duo popular in the 1970s.
Ms. Ahmed has sat on one side, flanked by her supporters, including Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, and Ms. Gracie, the former China editor. The BBC’s representatives have sat on the other, surrounded by lawyers and boxes of papers.
The trial, being heard before the Central London Employment Tribunal, is expected to finish this week, although it is not known when the three-judge panel will deliver a ruling.
Mark Thompson, who was director-general of the BBC from 2004 to 2012, is now chief executive of The New York Times Company.
Ms. Ahmed’s complaint adds to the continued scrutiny focused on the BBC since 2017, when it was forced to publish the pay bands of its most highly paid employees, after attracting criticism for seemingly lavish salaries it was heaping on some stars. Relatively few women were in the highest pay bands, the report showed.
It was through this report that Ms. Gracie discovered she was being paid less than men who were also regional editors. She took her complaint to her supervisors and was offered a raise, but not one that lifted her to the same level as her male peers. Ms. Gracie resigned in protest.
The BBC eventually apologized in June last year and gave Ms. Gracie her back pay, but not before executives were grilled before a parliamentary committee examining the BBC’s pay practices.
Furthermore, the BBC has been dealing with the fallout from the pay report. It received almost 300 grievance complaints, and about 120 women are seeking to bring a collective case against unequal pay.
The wider debate on women’s pay was highlighted again last week when Britain’s Office for National Statistics published figures that showed that the gender pay gap for the country had only marginally decreased from 2018 to 2019.
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