John Humphrys

BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys has defended his off-air comments about the gender pay gap at the corporation, calling it a “jokey” exchange.

The Today programme host told ITV News he had “consistently” spoken out in favour of pay equality.

Humphrys and North America editor Jon Sopel were recorded discussing Carrie Gracie, who had quit as China editor over “pay discrimination”.

The BBC was “deeply unimpressed” with the off-air chat, a BBC source said.

During the exchange before Monday’s show, the pair reportedly joked about “handing over” pay to keep Gracie in the role.

Gracie had just quit because of pay inequality with her male counterparts – including Sopel – who were earning more than her £135,000-a-year salary.

After the conversation became public, BBC Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey tweeted: “The Humphrys-Sopel exchange reveals, very neatly, what we’re up against.”

Asked whether his off-air comments showed he did not support equal pay, Humphrys told ITV News: “That’s complete rubbish, obviously that’s complete rubbish.”

Humphrys said his chat with his “old friend” Sopel took place at 04:00 GMT ahead of a pre-recorded interview for Monday morning’s edition of Today.

“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,” he said.

“If people took a different message from it, it could only be because they didn’t appreciate that it was a joke.”

He added: “It has 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.”

Humphrys said he had no idea the conversation was being recorded and the subsequent leak, first reported in the Sun and the Times newspapers, was “mildly annoying”.

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Media captionCarrie Gracie explains why she resigned as the BBC’s China editor

In an open letter about her resignation, Gracie accused the corporation of having a “secretive and illegal pay culture”.

Last year the BBC listed all the salaries of all employees earning more than £150,000 a year, which revealed Humphrys, who has presented the Today programme since 1987, had a salary of £600,000-£649,000.

It showed Sopel, the US editor, earned £200,000-£249,999, while Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen earned £150,000-£199,999.

At the time his salary was revealed, Humphrys said it was hard to justify, telling the BBC that the lower pay earned by his female colleagues on Today was not right and he was “not happy” about it.

‘Back-slapping entitled males’

In their exchange, Humphrys reportedly asked Sopel about “how much of your salary you are prepared to hand over to Carrie Gracie to keep her”.

He then referred to “other men who are earning too much” at the BBC.

Sopel is understood to have replied that “if we are talking about the scope for the greatest redistribution I’ll have to come back and say well yes Mr Humphrys”.

A BBC spokeswoman said: “This was an ill-advised off-air conversation which the presenter regrets.”

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.”

Miriam O’Reilly, who won an ageism case against the BBC in 2011 after being dropped from Countryfile, described the exchange as “base, smug and condescending”.

Claiming to have heard a recording of the chat, O’Reilly said it represented the attitude of “back-slapping entitled males”.

Following Gracie’s resignation, the UK’s equality watchdog said it was is to write to the corporation “requiring them to provide us with information on their pay policy and the facts”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said would consider whether further action is required based on the corporation’s response.

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