New Culture Secretary Matt Hancock has suggested the BBC could follow the public sector and cap staff salaries at the same level as the Prime Minister.
Mr Hancock said the corporation had “missed a chance” to bring in similar measures, as he contrasted the salaries of BBC foreign editors with those of ambassadors.
He also warned against measures passed by peers last week for tougher media regulation, calling them “the death knell of democracy”.
Mr Hancock’s comments come in the midst of a row over Carrie Gracie, who has resigned as the BBC’s China editor in a row over unequal pay.
In a BBC pay disclosure last year, North America editor Jon Sopel was listed as having a salary of between £200,000 and £249,999, while Gracie revealed she had been earning £135,000 before the BBC offered her a £45,000 rise, which she rejected.
John Humphrys, who has been criticised after a leaked tape showed him joking with Mr Sopel about the matter, was listed as having a salary of between £600,000 and £649,999, making him the BBC’s highest-paid news presenter.
“Making sure we have equal pay isn’t just about levelling up women’s pay in the BBC, it’s about equal pay and a reasonable level,” Mr Hancock told ITV’s Peston On Sunday.
“Across the rest of the public sector, we brought in rules to say that except in exceptional circumstances, people who are paid for by taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be paid more than the Prime Minister.
“The BBC, of course, are responsible for their own pay, and I think that they missed a chance to bring in that kind of rule when we brought it in for the rest of public sector a few years ago.
“So now it has to go through a special process to pay somebody more than the Prime Minister.
“Of course, there’s sometimes circumstances where that’s necessary, but if you think about it this way.
“In a country around the world where people are paid for by the taxpayer, who should we be paying the most to. Is it the BBC editor, or is it the ambassador?
“The generals have also made a very good point, that people in the armed services put their life on the line and yet they abide by the public sector pay norms, which is not to have excessive pay and where the Prime Minister’s pay is seen as a guide at the top.”
Mr Hancock added that he would be discussing the issue with BBC director-general Lord Hall in the next few weeks.
“The BBC is funded by licence fee payers and the licence fee is effectively a tax,” Mr Hancock said.
“And if you think about it, we’ve got to have equal pay for equal jobs, and I think the BBC has a special responsibility to lead and to be a beacon, because this issue is broader than the BBC.”
In the same interview Mr Hancock said the local press particularly faced “enormous challenges” as he warned against the measures passed in the House of Lords.
Peers passed two amendments to tackle alleged media abuses and backed the launch of the second phase of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.
“Finding a way to have a robust democracy, based on a decent discussion based on fact, is incredibly difficult and incredibly important,” said Mr Hancock.
“I don’t think the amendments passed by the House of Lords last week would have helped at all to get there.
“In fact the amendments, by putting more pressure on local press in particular, I think would be the death knell of democracy if they were brought in at a local level.”