BBC accused of intrusion after ordering staff to register political and financial ties

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The Independent Online

The BBC was accused yesterday of Orwellian intrusion after it contacted its staff of about 25,000 to demand that they register details of their political and financial interests on an internal website.

The broadcasting union Bectu has urged its members to boycott the new electronic "conflict of interest" system, saying the website might be insecure and, therefore, breach the Data Protection Act.

All BBC workers have been sent an e-mail asking them to declare any active political involvement that they, their family or "close personal contacts" have. Employees have also been told to disclose financial holdings in media companies and in any companies where they own more than a 5 per cent stake. They must also declare business relationships with BBC customers or suppliers.

Tony Lennon, the president of Bectu, told Broadcast magazine that the registration requirement was "an astonishing invasion into the privacy of people who don't have any editorial or strategic role".

The "register of interests" used to apply only to senior editorial staff and managers able to sign purchase orders. But Mr Lennon said that although the union had agreed some changes with the BBC, it had not agreed to such far-reaching questions, or their extension to all staff members.

Bectu staff also allege that the internal website that has replaced the paper-based forms, which required a signature, can potentially be hacked by anyone who knows a BBC employee name and staff number. That would let others view the information and even change it.

The BBC denies this, saying it does meet data protection requirements, which state that personal data should be retained in a "secure" environment. "Details of outside interests will be held on a system which only human resources will have access to," a BBC spokesman said.

Luke Crawley, Bectu's BBC supervisory official, called the online form intrusive. He said: "We recognise that it is necessary in some cases, but not for all staff." The union is now urging staff not to fill in the forms. It wants to discuss them with BBC managers at a meeting next Thursday.

A spokesman for the BBC said the forms were part of a stricter regime introduced last year that required presenters to clear any articles they wrote for outside publications with their managers.

"We're not asking for any personal details, just potential conflicts of interest," a BBC spokesman said. "It's better to be above board about these things in a public-service broadcaster, where high standards are required." Filling in the form - which must be revised annually - would be "a useful reminder to staff that these things matter", he said.