Why does the BBC pay Alan Shearer more than Mary Berry? Blame Richard Dimbleby

ITV scrapped 'golden handcuffs' deals for its stars years ago. Then why does the BBC keep throwing money at its endless parade of pundits?

Match Of The Day hosts Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright
Match Of The Day hosts Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright Credit: Kieran Clarke/BBC

The BBC had never before confronted a crisis like it. The year was 1958 and the national broadcaster faced the ultimate nightmare: saying farewell to the “daddy of commentary”. 

The “daddy” in question was Richard Dimbleby  – described by one newspaper at the time as “TV’s natural gentlemen”. He had gained a place in history by reporting on the liberation of Belsen concentration camp. And in 1953 he was the natural – indeed only –  choice as commentator for the Queen’s Coronation. 

Yet now it seemed the unthinkable might come to pass. There was a very real danger of Dimbleby defecting to crass upstart ITV. Independent television had come to Britain 1955 and within three years threatened to overwhelm the BBC. With hits such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium and glitzy US imports Dragnet and I Love Lucy it was mopping up in the ratings – winning over  72 per cent of the audience share from its state-backed competitor.

Success had bred confidence – and a determination to snatch from Broadcasting House one of its crown jewels. And so in early 1958 Associated Rediffusion, an early ITV franchise holder for Greater London, made Dimbleby an offer he would have struggled to refuse. The job of “chief commentator on all their events coverage…especially Royal events.”

There was one heck of a financial carrot too. Associated Rediffusion was putting on the table a five figure annual salary of £10,000, the equivalent of a little over quarter of a million today. 

Richard Dimbleby with Anthony Wedgwood Benn in the 1960s Credit: PA

A Dimbleby-less Beeb was beyond the bounds. And so heaven and earth was moved – and a hefty pay increase dangled – in order to keep him. As we know Dimbleby stayed at the BBC, where he was winning huge acclaim presenting Panorama. 

Sensibly, the BBC wooed him with a “counter offer”. And if the precise figure is lost to history it is thought to have been slightly below what Associated Rediffusion had put forward. It will have nonetheless represented a significant bump up – proving to Dimbleby that a price really could be put on his worth. And so began the tradition of the BBC holding on to its major names with golden handcuffs. 

This tug of war is now long forgotten. However, the muscle memory of that initial shock over ITV’s approach would seem to linger still at the BBC, which will have valued Dimbleby as much for his high profile as for his skills as a broadcaster. 

That perhaps explains why to this day the corporation places a huge commercial value on the perceived status of its pundits – inevitably rewarded with pay packets to match. 

Which is presumably the reason Gary Lineker, a very decent presenter but nobody’s idea of essential, remains one of the BBC’s highest earners with an annual deal worth £1.35 million (though he had been overtaken by Zoe Ball once her earnings from commercial entity BBC Studios’s  Strictly: It Takes Two are factored in). 

Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis Credit: BBC

More interestingly, it arguably tells us why the corporation is so keen on pundits– and on breaking the bank to keep them, much as it did with Dimbleby. Look at footie natterer Alan Shearer, who takes home £394,000 – more than what the BBC pays Emily Maitlis to host Newsnight or Andrew Marr to be the face of its political coverage.

There is also the curious case of John McEnroe. Unless they are tennis fans, many licence-fee payers may not even be aware McEnroe works for the BBC. But work he does, earning between £195,000 -– £199,000 for his efforts. This is where you may, if you choose, shout “you can’t be serious!” at your TV. Mary Berry, a genuine National Treasure, is paid only slightly more than McEnroe, with an annual salary berween £215,000 and £219,999.

McEnroe's salary is ahead of that of sports presenter Gabby Logan (£185,000-£189,999) who is on the air a lot more. And it’s considerably heftier than the £160,000 paid to news correspondent Orla Guerin, whose job often involves dodging bullets in war-zones even as McEnroe puts his feet up at Wimbledon. 

The quality of an individual pundit is entirely subjective, of course. And Shearer, as a former England captain, obviously knows his onion sack. That said, it isn’t as if his thoughts on the Crystal Palace back-four are glittering conversation starters. He says his bit to Gary Lineker and then it’s essentially forgotten. When last was a slice of Shearer punditry a national talking point?  He certainly isn’t the reason anyone tunes into Match of the Day. Would ratings dip at all were he replaced with, say, a mop in a Newcastle jersey?  

The BBC’s answer to this is that sport is different. There is intense competition from Sky and BT Sports. And private sector salaries are far higher. Gary Neville, essentially Sky’s answer to Shearer, is for instance on £1.5 million annually and in 2016 received a £300,000 pay rise (almost as high as Shearer’s entire packet). 

“You know as I do that sports presentation is a very different part of the market, people are paid a lot of money – much, much, more than by BT, by Sky and so – but that of course is different to public service,” the corporation’s then director general Tony Hall said last year. 

“Gary does a great job for the BBC. What we have also been doing though is recognising where the market doesn't play so much of an impact on news presenters and current affairs presenters for example where the pay for presenters has gone down. Although notwithstanding the fact we've also lost some people.”

It is interesting to note that ITV has long since disavowed “golden handcuffs” – except for light entertainment goliath Ant and Dec and Simon Cowell. In 2005 then controller of drama Nick Elliott expressed regret at paying millions for exclusivity deals with John Thaw, Sarah Lancashire, Robson Green and others.  

"It was just an idea of mine from the past, and rather a c––– idea,” he said.

Will the BBC one day look back on the near £400,000 is handed over to Alan Shearer in 2019 and conclude that too was a “c–––” idea? Perhaps – or maybe the conviction, which began 62 years ago with Richard Dimbleby, that talent with name recognition must be kept no matter what is too engrained. The BBC is founded on tradition – and the tradition of breaking the bank to keep its stars is among the most hallowed of all.