December 2, 2011 10:07 pm

Making (radio) waves on high pay

The executive compensation debate is highly contentious and one’s views on it can easily cause a storm on Twitter

Saying no is a life skill. I have written an entire chapter on this in my new book that comes out in January, so you would have thought that I might have learnt the lesson myself. But when a very persuasive researcher called from BBC Radio 4 at 10.15 one night to ask me to appear early the next morning, I said yes.

There are not one but three reasons I should have said no. One, I was obviously a very long way down their prospective guest list. Two, I have no experience of being interviewed by John Humphrys, professional Rottweiler. Three, the subject was the highly contentious one of executive pay.

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I do think that executive pay needs some debate, and I don’t believe in paying people for failure. As the FT’s former editor Richard Lambert said last year, company bosses who live in a parallel universe have to be careful or they could end up being viewed as aliens. But this debate had been stirred up by a very clever PR ruse, and I was not going to let it pass.

Compass, a progressive leftwing think-tank, whose unashamed focus, according to its website, is the rejuvenation of the Labour party, had commissioned a report on executive pay. So far, so good; nothing is going to rejuvenate the Labour party quicker than a good strong debate about the differential between the opposite ends of the pay spectrum. But their pièce de résistance, PR-wise, was to title the people from whom they had commissioned the report the “High Pay Commission”. This made them sound very official.

The report, despite being a PR stunt, did have some sensible suggestions, as I told Mr Humphrys at 7.35am. Executive compensation structures should be simplified and more details on pay bands should be published. But one suggestion in the report was in my opinion barking mad: that workers should be put on the remuneration committees of public companies. That means workers on boards. I would like to see more women on boards, as regular readers know, and I appreciate and value the service given to me by the smiling lady at the Tesco checkout, but is she qualified to sit on the plc board?

Illustration showing John Humphrys as a voodoo doll

The argument that the pay differential between bosses and workers was “not fair” seemed to me also to be a non-argument, because anyone over the age of seven who says things are unfair needs a reality check. I pointed out that being the boss of a public company was not a popularity contest, and that these companies were not workers’ co-operatives, but were owned by shareholders. I would welcome, I said, more intervention by shareholders on the subject of executive pay.

The BBC had that same morning mentioned the High Pay Commission several times before I went six rounds with Mr Humphrys, without mentioning that the “commission”, even with its official government commission-sounding name, was in effect a campaign tool for the Labour party.

Also, earlier in the programme a BBC business correspondent, Emma Simpson, had mentioned the recently published Incomes Data Survey, which showed that FTSE 100 executive pay had risen by 49 per cent overall in a year, compared to an average of 2.6 per cent for workers in the private sector. Yet the IDS report also showed that the basic pay of people at the top of FTSE 100 companies went up by less than the rate of inflation, none of which detail was alluded to in the BBC report. When you compare like with like, the chasm is not so yawning – or such a good story.

My interview caused a storm on Twitter, with many wanting to lynch me and some wanting me promoted immediately to the House of Lords. And I then got a dozen invitations to appear on broadcast media later in the day. To all of which, I sensibly said no.

mrsmoneypenny@ft.com

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