WHO would have guessed a Commons select committee could make edge-of-the seat, compulsive viewing? But then how many times is a witness as smart and searingly honest as the BBC’s former China editor, in the Westminster hot seat?

I have never heard anyone reveal so much factual detail or give so much emotional reaction to a very public debate about her own worth in the full glare of TV and radio. Carrie Gracie was giving evidence to the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee about her battle for equal pay with Auntie. Carrie is actually a Scots lass – her father was a Scottish oil executive and though she was born in Bahrain while he was on assignment there, she was educated in Aberdeenshire and Glasgow before studying at Edinburgh University. In 1985, long before it was fashionable, she went to teach in China, learned to speak fluent Mandarin, took a Chinese degree, worked in the BBC World Service soon becoming a correspondent and presenter and – not surprisingly -- was the only applicant when the China editor post was created: “I knew I would do the job as well as any man. I insisted on equal pay. That’s why I got such a shock when I discovered two men foreign editors were paid at least 50 per cent more.”

Now I realise some will dismiss Carrie Gracie as a “poor little rich girl” – earning £130k but greedily asking for more. They should study the video of yesterday’s session in which Gracie revealed that the BBC had finally acknowledged she was “inadvertently” underpaid from 2014-17 and offered her a lump sum of almost £100k – which she refused. “I don’t want more money. I want equality for other women. If the BBC can’t sort if for me – a senior editor – how will they sort it for more vulnerable staff?”

This is the fairness-bomb exploding within the BBC which will soon detonate within every other public and private employer as government legislation requires publication of all their gender pay gaps. Thanks to yesterday’s Digital, Media, Sports and Culture Committee performance, we now know how big employers will try to defend themselves against accusations of gender bias in pay. They will try to suggest the women are in junior, less pressurised roles than men and that’s why they are on half their pay.

The BBC’s director general actually defended the pay structure for senior editors, which means Europe editor Katya Adler and China editor Carrie Gracie are on half the pay of North America editor Jon Sopel and way below Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen. Tony Hall said “there is a difference in the scope and scale between these jobs”. His colleague Fran Unsworth, director of BBC News, said Sopel had hardly been off air since Donald Trump was elected. Now it’s hard to believe Brexit has produced any less work for Europe editor Katya Adler, yet the North America editor earns twice her salary.

One MP pointed out that two-thirds of BBC employees listed as earning more than £150k are men. How can that possibly be explained without a gender pay gap?

The panel of BBC high heid-uns did answer but their opaque management speak – “clear-path frameworks” and “programme level evaluations” – meant all but parliamentary stalwarts lost the will to listen. At least it has provided mountains of new material for Auntie’s own seditious TV satire, W1A. But it’s clear Auntie’s strategy for combatting inequality seems to be crossing fingers, having lots of meetings and hoping men will agree to cut their own pay so the Beeb can meet its targets.

Unfortunately Gracie has proved to be Auntie’s perfect adversary – articulate, clear-eyed and intelligent. She’s not just angry about the way her own value has been calculated but has also taken aim at BBC procedures and managers who have departed from the core values of the corporation.

“They are not the BBC. They are BBC management. This is a caste system. BBC women and men are smart – we will help them get out of this hole. We are not producing toothpaste or tyres – our business is the truth. I’ve been taught for 30 years to report the facts. I faced down intimidation in China because I had a moral compass. If they [managers] take that away, I don’t know who I am.”

Select committee member and Labour MP Julie Elliott was as feisty and focused as Gracie. She told the BBC director general: “This is not an oversight, this is an illegal pay structure in your organisation.” And then talking about the Price Waterhouse Cooper report commissioned by Auntie and hastily published this week, finding no equal pay problem in the BBC: “I would be ashamed of this report.”

I realise many independence supporters will struggle to find any aspect of BBC behaviour significant for Scots. And yet Gracie’s battle is against a British institution that can’t recognise or admit its many biases. Ring any bells?

AS a former BBC presenter, it was also quite emotional to hear the former China editor admit she had never asked for a pay rise. She recalled BBC boss James Harding asking: “How do you deliver so much and ask for so little?” Was that a hint? If so, it was a hint about playing the system Carrie Gracie didn’t get, just like thousands of other female journalists, including myself. I remember in the 1980s when I worked in the BBC Scotland Radio and TV newsrooms, male colleagues went in to see the boss every year, threatening to leave for “the other side” (meaning STV or London) if they didn’t get a pay rise.

Most of the women preferred to play it by the very complicated book.

The pre-Birtian BBC was like a Soviet Republic because of the labyrinthine grading structures that dictated annual increments and pay levels. But men with enough chutzpah simply ignored this framework, whilst women with quite considerable amounts of chutzpah didn’t. Now I imagine there are those who feel that in the dog-eats-dog, “Life-on-Mars” type of world we all inhabited in 80s Scotland, any journalist unwilling to participate in muscular bidding wars deserved to be left behind.

This is the nub of the whole equal pay debate. “Big beasts” got paid more because they demanded more and BBC bosses took them more seriously – they still do.

I remember a debate about pay amongst Scottish women journalists in the 1990s when the few who had asked for a raise revealed they had been refused and told the men had families to support, whilst many of them were single – effectively married to their job. Of course, women with children and a family presented others reason to deny equal pay – they would doubtless be unreliable, off when their children were sick, and liable to get pregnant again. And let’s be honest. Mums were a lot less able to take the risk involved in responding to that by leaving to look for better respect and equal pay.

That’s still the case. Carrie Gracie was a single mother of two children recovering from breast cancer when she went for the China job. She could hardly afford the disruption of trying to seek out a new employer.

There’s more.

When John Birt became director general in the 90s, he introduced a ludicrous “internal market” structure inside the BBC which meant programme-makers had to pay to hire their own studios and use the “gram” library. These “reforms” meant Edinburgh’s unaffordable Studio Two was effectively moth-balled and producers were regular visitors to the Fopp shop in Glasgow’s Byres Road because buying new singles was cheaper than using their own music library. Anyway, BBC staff members doing presenting work – like myself – were told we could no longer be staff because Auntie wanted the ability to fire us if we started swearing uncontrollably, or ran out of steam as broadcasters. There was no option but to set up “personal service companies” to avoid constant run-ins with the tax authorities because we had been made to sign contracts promising no work for other broadcasters and that meant we weren’t genuine freelancers. As NUJ president Michelle Stanistreet pointed out to select committee members, quitting the security of staff status was doubly difficult for women who then lacked the protection of maternity, sick and holiday pay plus pensions contributions for the rest of their career. As Stanistreet said: “This whole wild-west approach to pay disadvantaged women.”

None of these issues has ever been discussed in public – nor would they have been without Carrie Gracie’s pernickety adherence to values like fairness, transparency and truth.

Oprah Winfrey was nominated as a future US president after a 20-minute speech.

Perhaps the BBC has just found the ideal candidate for its first female director general in one afternoon at Westminster.