Radio 4 Today host John Humphrys has claimed controversial off-air comments he made about the equal pay row at the BBC were “jokey”.
The broadcasting veteran has insisted the leaked remarks were “nothing to do” with the campaign launched by fellow BBC journalist Carrie Gracie for men and women at the corporation to be paid the same.
A tape recording of a conversation between the veteran presenter and North America editor Jon Sopel heard them discussing Gracie, who had dramatically quit just hours earlier in protest at unequal pay.
The pair made light of the disparity in pay between men and women at the BBC as they talked about former China editor Gracie – who accuses the broadcaster of unlawful salary discrimination.
In a leaked chat that is understood to have been recorded before Monday’s programme went to air, Humphrys reportedly asks Sopel how much of his salary he would “hand over” to Gracie to keep her at the corporation.
The 74-year-old host then jokes that he’s “handed over more than you f***ing earn”.
However Humphrys told the Times the conversation had not been intended as a criticism of Ms Gracie.
He said: “This was what I thought was an exchange between two old friends who have known each other for 30 years and were taking the mickey out of each other.
“It was nothing to do with Carrie’s campaign.”
Mr Humphrys told ITV News that he backed equal pay, stating: “We are in habit, Jon and I, of winding each other up and the purpose of this jokey – I emphasise jokey – exchange was a bit of mutual mickey-taking, and that is all it was.
“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,
“I had no idea, neither did John, 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.
“I was being sarcastic. It was a joke on me, rather than a joke on Jon. It was a jocular exchange. It did not represent my views – exactly the opposite. It was meant to be a bit satirical, ‘yeah well, you, Sopel, you’re not worth tuppence’, you know, it was that sort of exchange.
“And if people took it – took a different message from it, it could only be because they didn’t appreciate that it was a joke. But then they weren’t ever meant to hear it, do you see?”
A recording of the unaired banter was leaked to journalist Miriam O’Reilly who fought the BBC and won an age discrimination case in 2011 after being dropped from Countryfile.
She claims she was “stood down” from appearing on the Today programme to discuss equal pay after telling the BBC that she had listened to the “smug” and “condescending” recording sent to her by a guest in the US.
A transcript of the conversation between Humphrys and Sopel, 58, was published by the Sun.
Humphrys has defended it as “silly banter between old mates”, the newspaper reported.
According to the transcript, Humphrys says to Sopel: “Slight change of subject, the first question will be how much of your salary you are prepared to hand over to Carrie Grace to keep her, and then a few comments about your other colleagues, you know, like our Middle East Editor and the other men who are earning too much.”
Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor, responds: “I mean, obviously if we are talking about the scope for the greatest redistribution I’ll have to come back and say well yes Mr Humphrys, but…”
Humphrys says: “And I could save you the trouble as I could volunteer that I’ve handed over already more than you f***ing earn but I’m still left with more than anybody else and that seems to me to be entirely just – something like that would do it?”
Sopel says “Don’t…” before Humphrys interjects: “Oh dear God. She’s actually suggested that you should lose money. You know that don’t you? You’ve read the thing properly have you?”
A BBC source told Mirror Online that “management are deeply unimpressed”.
A spokeswoman said: “This was an ill-advised off air conversation which the presenter regrets.”
The Mirror asked whether any action has been taken against the pair.
The spokeswoman said: “We don’t comment on staff matters like that but I think our attitude should be clear from the two quotes I’ve given.”
She added: “The BBC is committed to getting its pay structures right and, as we have said, we are conducting a comprehensive analysis of presenter pay.”
The BBC is planning to publish the results of an “objective external assessment” in the coming weeks, the spokeswoman added.
O’Reilly, 60, wrote on Twitter that she had been due to discuss the pay gap on Today, but her appearance was scrapped.
She wrote on Twitter: “Stood down from appearing on @BBCr4today on equal pay. Sure it’s nothing to do with saying I had heard a less than impartial recorded exchange between John Humphrey’s [sic] and Jon Sopel re @BBCCarrie before last Monday’s programme.
“Clearly from the exchange, John Humphrey’s [sic] was not happy about his salary reduction in the equal pay scandal or the reasons why. Blokes together – what are they like….Thanks to guest in the US who sent me this.
“And this was all before @BBCCarrie took her place as co-presenter of Today. This was the attitude of these back slapping entitled males.”
She added: “You should hear the tone of the exchange – base, smug and condescending.”