It's a myth - but it becomes true because we all believe it.
The key problem, of course, is working out who gets what and what is enough.
That's the issue this Canberra Times column addresses, spurred on by the 'revelations' about ABC salaries courtesy of News Limited . . .
Salaries and work
Not so long ago everyone was paid a fixed amount depending on his or her job. The position was the key. Hierarchy was relatively straightforward, even at the ABC. Executives in charge of programs were paid more than presenters fronting shows. Everyone knew (roughly) how much others were paid and, although significant discrepancies existed, the point was that pay structures were comparatively flat.
Then flexibility entered the system. This is a code word. It sounds dynamic. It suggests an organisation’s evolved to recognise difference instead of being bounded by antique, hierarchical structures. What it actually means, of course, is that one person is duding someone else through the use of patronage networks. That’s because the amount of money government provides departments and corporations to play with is fixed, whether it’s the ABC, Defence, or Finance.
But bosses can still play the exciting game of divvying-up this pot of money to bolster their own position by rewarding their own favourites. This stops independent thinking, which is a big advantage in any large organisation. Then the public service woke up to the fact that private enterprise has always enjoyed bigger pay packages. This was used to justify relativities, another code word. It means ‘increases’.
Put the two ideas together and it’s not long before it seems obvious that some people actually deserve to get paid more than others who are doing the same work. Before long you end up with an unequal society where people become obsessed with the trappings of material wealth. This is the real problem with our becoming hung-up on pay. We forget that there’s more to life than money. Our thinking is skewed. We’re led to value some things more than others. And, instead of asking simply if we have ‘enough’ money we become led down the path to wanting ‘more’.
In the ABC, it began with presenters. Whenever the commercial stations noticed some talent that they wanted to recruit, they'd stage a quick raid and lure that person away by offering bags of money. The ABC didn't worry about this, instead sniffing haughtily about its own vibrancy and training a replacement. Then came David Hill.
He shocked the stolid, staid institution into dynamism. It saw itself as a competitor in the media landscape. This required changing the way things were done and transforming the Corporation making it responsive to audience demands. Money talks, and Hill broke the prevailing nexus that had insisted the presenter is less important than their Executive Producer.
Linking salaries to particular positions had a sclerotic effect. No one ever wanted to move on from a well-paid job, so the concept of “personal gradings" was introduced. The idea was that you'd be paid according to your “experience and ability".
This meant that some people could be quietly shuffled out of the way without executives having to make any hard decisions that might actually require payouts or hard cash. The Corporation coped by keeping the actual details of who received what, secret: this helped to put a lid on salary claims because productive journalists couldn't accurately compare their own output with that of others receiving more pay.
Inevitably, the iron law of bureaucracy reasserted itself. Administrators began comparing themselves to journalists who were obviously not producing stories and they began to demand more money. Others used “external comparisons" to justify ambit claims for increases until eventually logic disappeared completely from the structure. The pot of money delivered by the government every triennium was divvied up according to a complex formula involving considerations such as current salary, current job, and “it" factor, governed by the caveat that no one could ever go backwards.
It’s no accident that Tony Jones is the ABC’s highest-paid journalist. He’s good at presenting (unlike, perhaps, some other handsomely rewarded people – but I’ll leave it to you to guess who I mean) and he’s obviously good at bargaining, too. Yet the minute you begin examining how the salary game is played you become sucked into a prurient, personalised pastime, pitting individual against individual. Soon you find yourself wondering why Jones isn’t paid more? But perhaps the commercial networks don’t value his skills? Maybe he wouldn’t work for them, anyway. And why is Jones’ luminous wife, Sarah Ferguson (the Four Corner’s reporter; not the Duchess) paid less than half the amount he receives? Step down this path and you quickly lose your foothold, your head spins and the firmament vanishes. It’s not long before one forgets the real issue – the arbitrary nature of the entire system.
Don’t read this column should as any sort of soppy plea for some kind of communist egalitarianism – which actually didn’t turn out to be particularly equitable at all. Nevertheless, the very layer of secrecy in which these salary details were embedded would, prima facie, suggest revelation threatens the smooth functioning of the entire system. If so, that’s probably less because of the headline stories about the star system and rather more to do with those further down the order.
If Jones has been receiving more than $350,000 for a couple of years, but the average wage of all ABC employees is $82,387, its obvious pay scales aren’t that plush. You might also want to note the names that aren’t on the list. Actors, for example, have been left off because they’re not employees of the Corporation. Neither are independent business empires such as Alan Kohler. The problem is that everyone has a vital role somewhere – even the administrator who sent the computer response including the embedded salary information that so embarrassed the ABC when it was released to The Australian.
When Nicholas Stuart worked at the ABC his pay rank was Overseas Correspondent – Level One (sic).