Media Forum: Is public sector pay too high?

Should we welcome David Cameron's latest proposal, Alasdair Reid asks.

Some of us at Campaign, it has to be said, have somewhat ambivalent feelings towards David Cameron. Nothing to do with politics, you understand, more to do with fuzzy memories from the past.

Can this really be the geezer from the Carlton Communications press office who used to send us endless releases about how well it was doing? Well, yes, indeed it can.

The Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition once worked for Michael Green, that most flamboyant of media entrepreneurs - the man who set commercial television on its head by pinching the ITV London weekday franchise from Thames Television.

So Cameron must know a thing or two about the industry, not least the notion that fortune favours the brave. And he must have some passing knowledge (direct or otherwise) of the enormous salaries that many workers in the media industry so richly deserve.

It was interesting, therefore, to hear his pronouncements at the Conservative Party's spring conference in Cheltenham. With thrift as his main theme, he outlined several measures designed to rein in public spending - including one proposal to "name and shame" (as one newspaper dubbed it) all high earners in public sector positions.

And of course, pro rata, there are probably more of those in media (at the BBC and Channel 4, mainly) than in any other sector. Last week, for instance, it emerged that Kevin Lygo, Channel 4's director of television, was paid a whopping £1,136,000 in salary and bonuses.

Cameron proposes to publish the names of all those earning more than £150,000. The idea, one would presume, would be to encourage publicly funded organisations to cultivate suitably frugal attitudes - or risk embarrassing their staff.

Is this a good idea? Tom George, the chief executive of Mediaedge:cia, doesn't think so. He argues that Cameron has climbed aboard a populist bandwagon - and that it doesn't stack up as a totally serious proposition. He adds: "It's part of the whole zeitgeist currently, isn't it? It's (on a par with) the whole furore about MP's expenses. There might be more of an argument - and a political issue - surrounding the question of what happens when those in the public sector fail to deliver. Those at the top of public organisations already have their salaries published - it comes with the territory. Below that level, I can't see why it should happen."

It is unlikely to, Simon Mathews, a founding partner at Rise Communications, responds. We all, he argues, have to justify what we earn in one way or another. He says: "I can't see a negative in this. We all know what has prompted this and, in the light of general concerns about abuses of the public purse, I can't see why this would be a problem. At the very least, this would highlight the fact that the public sector is well remunerated these days. For many years, there was a drain of talent away from the public sector into the private sector. Now that has been reversed."

However, Steve Booth, the chief executive of Arena BLM, thinks this is an initiative designed to capture headlines and deliver a short-term boost in the polls. Aside from that, he can't see any real value in it. He explains: "The fact is that so-called public sector media managers operate in competition with commercial operations - so they are subject to the same rules of the marketplace.

"The best people aren't going to work in the sector for the sheer love of it. The best people are ambitious people and ambitious people demand certain levels of remuneration. Any expectation that you could make them do the job for less by making them feel guilty is sadly misplaced."

Maybe it's not quite so straightforward, Iain Jacob, the chief executive of Starcom MediaVest Group EMEA, counters. Actually, he quite likes this idea. He concludes: "I don't think it's true that it is one marketplace (for talent). There are people who would prefer to work for a public service company than a private one."

NO - Tom George, chief executive, Mediaedge:cia

"It would put people off joining these organisations. If you're at Channel 4, you have to compete with everyone in the marketplace. You have to get the best talent and that means paying market rates."

YES - Simon Mathews, founding partner, Rise Communications

"Why not? Some people may feel squeamish about the prospect - and they'd have my sympathy. We are reluctant to talk about what we are paid but we have to justify how much we earn."

NO - Steve Booth, chief executive, Arena BLM

"You would restrict yourself to people prepared to live their lives in the public eye - people like MPs, in fact. You can't expect people to take part in the media business as if it were some sort of higher calling."

YES - Iain Jacob, chief executive, Starcom MediaVest Group EMEA

"Some people join the public sector for reasons beyond the money. But the thing about the public sector is that it's not always subject to the full Darwinian effects of the competitive market, so it makes sense to have additional levels of accountability."

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