When spinning misleads: The Times and the Equality Bill

The question of pay audits has been one of the big areas of contention within the Government ahead of the publication this week of the Equality Bill. Should firms be required to carry out an audit to see if they are paying men and women the same rate for equivalent jobs? Should small firms be exempted? How small is small? Should there be an initial voluntary phase? And so on. At various times, different camps seem to have had the upper hand in this debate, with Peter Mandelson pushing for very little on this front and Harriet Harman pushing for comprehensive measures.

Last Friday, details of the Bill were given to the media, ahead of it being published in Parliament. As a result, one of the stories published was in The Times:

Companies will be forced by law to disclose how much they pay men compared with women in a surprise government move to narrow the pay gap.

Compulsory “gender pay audits” will seek to shame employers who routinely pay women less, and spur more women to demand pay rises.

The measure, to be announced on Monday in the Equalities Bill, comes almost 40 years after the first Equal Pay Act became law. That has failed to close the divide, which still stands at 17.1 per cent.

Last night business leaders said that they were shocked to learn that the idea would be included in the Bill.They had been reassured that they would face no new regulations during the recession so they could focus on retaining staff and preparing for the recovery.

There’s one problem with that story: it’s wrong. You see, the Bill – which the rest of us can now see – says something very different (see page 15 here). It says mandatory audits will not be introduced before 2013, and even then the Bill only says they might be introduced subject to further decisions. So unless anyone is predicting the recession to last for another four years, it’s just wrong to say that these are “new regulations during the recession”.

Had there not be the placing of this information with the media on Friday, and instead the story run when the Bill was published for us all to see, of course this error would have been obvious. Instead we got an inaccurate story.

As for the motivation for this all? If you believe in conspiracy theories, conclude that someone deliberate tried to wreck the proposals by getting the media to report it wrongly (and so in a much more critical way). If you believe in cock-up instead, conclude that it’s an amusing example of how over-enthusiastic spinning can self-destruct.

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