Radio 4’s John Humphrys has defended his “jocular exchange” with Jon Sopel over colleague Carrie Gracie and the BBC’s equal pay controversy.
The presenter of the Today programme told ITV News on Friday that he was “totally totally in support of equal pay for equal work”.
But he was caught earlier in the week making disparaging remarks after Gracie decided to leave her post as China editor after she learned that male colleagues, including Sopel, a presenter and correspondent, were earning significantly more than her.
Humphrys’ controversial comments are believed to have been made on Monday and were leaked on Wednesday.
Humphrys told Olivia Kinsley of ITV News that Sopel was an old friend. They were in the habit of winding each other up, he said, and the jokey exchange “was a bit of mutual mickey-taking, and that is all it was”.
He said: “It was not meant for any other ears than Jon’s, although there happened to be a producer in the studio at the time – a woman as it happens, who thought it was very funny, because they know about the relationship that I have with Jon.
“It had absolutely nothing to do with my views on women’s pay, which I repeat and have said consistently should be equal – equal pay for equal work, absolutely no question of that. “It wasn’t meant to be broadcast to anybody. It was just a chat – I had no idea, neither did Jon, neither did anybody else – including the producer – that it was being recorded somewhere in the bowels of the BBC and somebody chose to leak it. And that er, yeah, was mildly annoying.”
On Friday, the BBC said the comments did not break its editorial guidelines as the pair were not explicitly campaigning about an issue, so Humphrys would not be barred from reporting on equal pay. Some female broadcasters who have commented on the issue have, however, been prevented from discussing equal pay on air.
Humphrys, when asked if this was a case of double standards, said: “I can understand only that if people have been misled as to what the exchange was all about, then maybe they could take the wrong message from it.”
When asked whether as an influential person at the BBC he would get behind the campaign to close the gender pay gap, he said: “ I am behind that campaign and so, if I may say so, is the BBC.”
On Thursday, a BBC spokesman said the leaked exchange was ill-advised and that the presenter regretted it. However, a source from the corporation told the Guardian that “management are deeply unimpressed” with the conversation.