Fiona Bruce (pictured above) is rumoured to be being paid around £400,000 a year for her new role on Question Time
Fiona Bruce, who begins her tenure as the new host of BBC1’s Question Time tonight, is rumoured to be being paid around £400,000 a year for the job.
To me, this proves just one thing: that the BBC should be spending less money on stars and more on a few good negotiators.
It’s plain wrong that so much public money, coming straight from licence fee-payers, should be funnelled into the bank accounts of a small number of presenters: newsreader Huw Edwards earns more than half a million a year, as does chat host Graham Norton.
That cash could be used far more wisely to deliver all sorts of TV with higher standards and better budgets — from drama (at which the BBC excels, proved by the slew of award nominations for series such as Bodyguard and Killing Eve), to comedy and documentary. It is instead wasted on star names who are holding the Corporation to ransom.
A good negotiator could call their bluff and say: ‘We’re not paying your obscene demands. Lower your sights or sling your hook.’
I know because, for many years, I was an agent to the biggest names in TV, from Carol Vorderman to Natasha Kaplinsky, pushing for sky-high salaries. And I was constantly amazed at what the BBC would pay.
Fiona Bruce is replacing David Dimbleby (pictured above) as host of Question Time
Huw Edwards (left) and Graham Norton (right) are said to take in around half a million a year from their respective roles at the BBC
It sometimes seemed as if bosses were determined to hand over everything, rather than risk losing a star — and they never stopped to wonder where else that star might get work.
One example stands out in my memory. In the early Nineties, I represented Anne Diamond, who was then one of the best-known and most-loved personalities on the airwaves. The BBC wanted her and her longtime colleague Nick Owen to present a show to rival the ITV ratings hit This Morning with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan. It was imaginatively titled Good Morning With Anne And Nick.
I knew how badly the BBC wanted Annie. I also knew how keen Annie was to do the show. As it wouldn’t help my hardball stance if the Beeb’s executives saw her enthusiasm, I told her to spend the morning at the shops and leave the tactics to me.
Anne Diamond (pictured above) was one of the best known TV personalities of the nineties
The things I demanded, and got, in that meeting were an outrage: not just a sky-high salary, but a car, perks, guarantees and all sorts of gilt-edged trimmings.
I had to check a couple of times to make sure my jaw wasn’t hanging open.
But then I mentioned that my client would have to move house to present the Birmingham-based show and requested her removal expenses be covered. That would be a few hundred quid, at the very most — but I was met with a flat refusal. Apparently, this was a deal-breaker.
The BBC was prepared to give gold ingots for Miss Diamond, but it wasn’t paying for Pickfords. Naturally, I didn’t make a fight of it.
After all, I couldn’t have gone back and said: ‘Sorry, Annie, I mucked up the crowning glory of your career — but never mind, there might be other pinnacles.’
I’m not apologising for squeezing so much of your money out of the BBC for my clients. That was my job. But now I’m retired, and enjoying the winter sunshine at my apartment in Tuscany, it’s only polite to point out how much better things could be run.
What the Corporation never seems to understand is that a high-profile programme is a priceless showcase for a presenter.
Fiona Bruce left) had previously worked alongside David Dimbleby (right) and Peter snow (back centre) for the 2005 election night coverage
It’s all very well to say Fiona Bruce will do a good job of Question Time: she’s highly experienced, famously unbiased, difficult to fluster and always articulate. These talents deserve financial recognition and reward.
It is also true that celebrities typically enjoy a shorter working lifespan than they might in other careers. Many who hit the top will stay there for five years or less. It’s a high-pressure job with intense competition and they won’t be earning the big bucks forever.
Think of the lovely late Keith Chegwin, former host of Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, a real pro and once a household name who was reduced to putting on shows over the internet from his bedroom. Fame can be fickle.
Keith Chegwin (pictured above) was reduced to putting on shows on the internet from his bedroom
But the money a star can command on screen is often far outweighed by what he or she can earn from corporate events.
I suspect Bruce’s fee for presenting an award or giving an after-dinner speech has doubled overnight since she landed the Question Time seat — and if it hasn’t, then she needs to find a better agent.
For BBC A-listers, it isn’t unusual to charge £50,000 for an evening’s work. Frankly, with earnings like that, they should be paying to keep their day jobs.
Most egregious of the lot is Gary Lineker, picking up in excess of £2 million for Match Of The Day. Nobody, surely, tunes in just to watch him.
The Beeb could replace him with any one of 20 first-rate sports reporters, commentators or former players and not lose a single viewer.
Not only is he getting far more than he’s worth, but Match Of The Day opens the door to innumerable other deals for him.
Gary Lineker (pictured above) picks up in excess of £2 million for Match Of The Day
That phrase ‘market value’ is not just jargon. To an agent, it is the key to all negotiations. We always have to know when figures are rooted in reality and when they’re being plucked out of the air.
As an example, I represented the great investigative journalist Roger Cook when his show The Cook Report was at its height on ITV. The broadcaster wanted to double the number of episodes in a run, but it was only offering a five-figure sum.
Indulging in some histrionics, I threatened to walk out of negotiations and told the assembled heads of department that I wouldn’t have bothered paying for my train fare had I known they were going to insult me. They weren’t expecting such a forthright rejection and, within an hour, had agreed to double Roger’s salary.
Roger Cook (pictured above) had previously spoken about the dangers of working as an investigative journalist
That was fair — twice the workload, double the money.
But if I’d asked to triple his pay, the deal would have fallen apart. That’s market value.
And there’s the lesson that BBC executives need to learn.
They have the power. They could put their collective foot down and say ‘no’.
When Chris Evans (pictured above) left Radio 2 the shortlist to replace him was predictable
But they never do, unless there’s a specific clause in the rulebook relating to relocation expenses or some equally fatuous trivia.
What they should also realise is that they have the power to make stars. In every newsroom, there is undiscovered talent — and at every theatre, every comedy club and every pub quiz.
Britain is full of stars who would be thrilled to land a job in entertainment and wouldn’t expect an exorbitant salary. Sadly, the BBC is loath to take the risk.
Look what happened when Chris Evans left Radio 2. The shortlist to replace him was as predictable as it was boring. It was a straight choice between Sara Cox and Zoe Ball — the latter begins the job on Monday (with a £1.2 million fee). Do we seriously believe there are no other talented DJs out there? That we have no choice but to keep handing jobs to people who have been doing the same old thing for 20 years or more?
The trouble is, when Auntie does accidentally stumble over a new star, she doesn’t know what to do about it. After Nadiya Hussain won The Great British Bake Off in 2015, it was clear that a terrific talent had emerged.
Yet the Corporation didn’t have much clue about its next move.
We’ve seen Nadiya in a succession of short-lived formats, from travelogues to cookery contests, that were all (forgive the pun) half-baked. That’s because most of the managers at New Broadcasting House are frightened of innovation and don’t have substantial experience in nurturing new talent.
Even when a star does land in their laps, all they can do is regurgitate the same old ideas. This isn’t a new problem.
Jill Dando (pictured above) had the ability to make viewers feel as though she were chatting to them
I saw it more than two decades ago with Jill Dando, a presenter with the exceptional ability to make viewers feel she was chatting to them personally in their own living rooms. The Corporation never did her justice — some of the proposals she was offered might as well have been scribbled on the back of a fag packet.
If I was director-general, I wouldn’t have hired Fiona Bruce for Question Time. I’d want a great presenter who felt brand-new, someone surprising, yet a face who viewers would rush to watch. I’d give the job to Nadiya.
And, above all, I would avoid agents like the plague.