University College London (UCL) has, according to the Evening Standard, bowed to pressure to pay London living wage pay rates to campus cleaners – a move the newspaper claims some credit for.

Provost Malcolm Grant had previously declared that “UCL has no plans to join the London living wage campaign” – whether his apparently drastic change of mind is a good one or not is not my concern. On the face of it, not lifting the cleaners’ wage would appear to be wrong and counterintuitive to engagement; but I’d like to have more information before I judge.

The Standard’s article, however, points out that Grant’s remuneration was £404,000 last year, exceeding the cleaners' pay by 44 times. This got me thinking about the role of the media and its current obsession with leadership pay, particularly those in the public sector. Because of the reckless risks taken by those within the banking sector, I can understand the cynicism around salary levels – but reports are continually failing to establish the returns on investment on the sensationalised pay figures.

The BBC featured heavily on this recently. In one news programme, journalists took several pictures of leading public-sector individuals and went out on to the streets to ask people where they felt each should be ranked in order of pay, and to gain their views on the amounts once the salary figures had been revealed. No other information aside from the job title was provided to the public. The reactions to both the correct order and the sums were unsurprisingly that of shock and horror, with exclamations that “our money” should not be lining the nests of these people who are supposed to be looking after the country. The inevitable comparison was then made with the prime minister’s salary (being the lowest of them all), and more shock/horror ensued.


Now, as I shouted at my TV for this ridiculous manipulation of the facts, my husband asked me why I was so frustrated. My response, probably a little too sharply, was: “I’d love to have one of those reporters ask me. I’d ask him for the information on the work that these individuals have done and the results they have achieved. Only then would I assess my views on the appropriateness of their salary level.”

So can we rebalance the reports please? Some people earn more than others and some earn what feels like a lot of money, but lets first be very clear about the returns from each. I too look at how our public sector is run, both from the inside and as an onlooker. I have complaints and frustrations at inefficiencies, strangling bureaucracy and waste of resources - but I do not ever underestimate the huge task and accountability of the roles at the top of these organisations and the enormity of delivering the most important services to our country.