BBC's China editor Carrie Gracie speaks to the media outside BBC Broadcasting House in London, Monday Jan. 8, 2018. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP

London - Less than a month after she sensationally resigned her post as the BBC's China editor, journalist Carrie Gracie appeared before British lawmakers Wednesday and explained the circumstances that led to her departure in protest over unequal pay.

In more than two hours of testimony that was by turns emotional and excoriating, Gracie said she was "shocked" to discover that her male peers earned "at least 50 percent" more than she did. 

"My case is just an example of a bigger problem," she told a parliamentary select committee investigating pay equality at the BBC. "If the BBC can't sort it out for me - for me, a senior person of 55, in a powerful position - how can it sort it out for more vulnerable people who don't have a public profile?"

Tony Hall, the BBC's director general, described Gracie as a "first rate" editor and said he admired the stance she was taking on pay. However, he said that the corporation did not discriminate based on gender and that there were differences in "scope and the scale" between jobs such as China editor and North America editor.

The BBC, the largest and arguably best-known public broadcaster in the world, has been rocked by a months-long controversy over its pay culture.

The BBC is woven into the fabric of British life - some call it simply "Auntie" or "the Beeb." It's also publicly funded, financed largely through an annual $208 (about R2500) license fee paid by television users, and it is subject to bouts of political scrutiny and self-flagellation.

On Tuesday, the BBC published an audit of salaries paid to employees who appear on the air, carried out by Pricewaterhouse-Coopers. The auditors found a 6.8 percent pay gap between men and women but reported that there was "no gender bias" regarding pay decisions.

The report added that there were "anomalies that need addressing" at the BBC, including a lack of transparency over how it pays its staff.

A group of BBC women who have been campaigning for equal pay dismissed the report as a whitewash. "This report has reached the conclusion the BBC wanted it to reach," said Jane Garvey, one of the broadcaster's leading presenters.

A furor over pay inequality at the BBC has been raging since last summer, when the corporation reluctantly revealed the salaries of stars who earned more than 150 000 pounds (R2.5 million). Two-thirds of the people on that list were men. Since then, 230 people have filed pay grievances against the corporation.

There is a large-scale push in Britain to tackle pay inequality. Last year, the government introduced new requirements that made reporting on gender pay gaps mandatory for all private- and public-sector companies with more than 250 employees. Companies must file by April 2018.

In October, the BBC published its gender-pay-gap data for all of its staff - those who work on and off the air - and found that men earned 9.3 percent more than women. In response to Tuesday's report, the BBC said there would be "substantial" pay reductions for some men and pay increases for some men and women. The corporation said it has identified nearly 200 people - men and women - who will probably receive raises.

Disclosing the pay discrepancies marks an "important new beginning at the BBC," but it also "highlights a situation which really can be said to exist in many different places," said Alice Enders, research director at Enders Analysis, a London-based media research firm.

She also noted that some employers in Britain want to avoid admitting fault, in part because they are concerned they will be hit by claims for backdated pay to compensate for years of underpayment.

"This will disproportionately improve pay for women, as it is more common to find women in roles at the lower end of the current pay ranges," it said.

Last week, the corporation announced that six male presenters - John Humphrys, Jeremy Vine, Huw Edwards, Nicky Campbell, Jon Sopel and Nick Robinson - agreed to take pay cuts. Their new salaries were not disclosed.

Ahead of Wednesday's hearing, a group representing 170 women at the BBC said in written testimony submitted to Parliament that some women had received "veiled threats" when they raised the subject of equal pay.

Gracie, a senior BBC journalist who speaks Mandarin fluently and has a degree in Chinese, left her post as China editor after she discovered that her male colleagues were being paid substantially more than she was.

Gracie said the BBC told her she was paid less than her peers because she was "in development" during the first years of her posting in China. She described that as "an insult to add to the original injury," noting that she led China coverage for four years and that it carried "significant risks."

Before her China posting, Gracie told the parliamentary committee, she thought there was an issue of unequal pay in the newsroom but did not bring it up for several reasons - she was a single parent, her daughter had leukemia, she had breast cancer twice, and "frankly I had enough just getting on with life," she said. But when she was in discussions about the China job in 2013, she demanded pay parity. She was offered 130 000 pounds (about R2.2 million).

She later discovered that the BBC's North America editor, Jon Sopel, was making between 200 000 (about R3.3 million) and 249 999 pounds (about R4.2 million) and the Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen between 150 000 and 199 999 pounds.

Now the corporation has offered her about 100 000 pounds (R1.7 million) in back pay, Gracie said.

"They are trying to throw money at me to resolve the problem," she said. "This will not resolve my problem. My problem will be resolved by an acknowledgment that my work was of equal value to the men whom I served alongside."