The Media Column: 'If the BBC's new deal with Coca-Cola sounds nuts, that's because it is'

I haven't seen Blue Peter since the day Janet Ellis was forced to quit the programme after being caught by Biddy Baxter, the show's notoriously strict editor. Janet had done a very naughty thing, children. I won't remind you what it was - the details are too sordid for a family newspaper - but suffice to say it involved a double bed and a naked man... and (most crucially) it did not involve a wedding ring.

In the late Eighties, Blue Peter presenters were not allowed to get pregnant without getting married first. (Actually, they weren't allowed to have sex without getting married, but Biddy's budget did not stretch to bugging equipment or chastity belts.)

Even Blue Peter has moved with the times. Biddy has gone, and the no-sex-before-marriage law has probably been repealed. It was most likely scrapped at about the same time as viewers were given permission to throw away their milk-bottle tops instead of being bullied into sending them to Lesley or Peter or Valerie.

But one Blue Peter regulation remains in place: the rule that when the presenters show viewers how to make gifts out of washing-up-liquid bottles and sticky tape, the children are not allowed to know that the bottles were made by Fairy and the tape came from the Sellotape factory. To this day, brand-names are obscured with masking tape and felt tip. The BBC's producer guidelines forbid such advertising. Children, in particular, ought to be given a space away from commercial pressures. That is one of the things the BBC is for.

Well, sort of. This week, it emerged that the BBC's music charts are to be sponsored by Coca-Cola. In a deal said to be worth about £1m over two years, the soft-drinks company is to receive two namechecks every week on the Radio 1 chart show and one in the credits of Top of The Pops.

How does the BBC square those commercial references with its public-service obligation to avoid such things? Its guidelines allow it to mention the name of sponsors of outside events. It claims that the reading of the chart rundown is just such an event, akin to a Barclaycard Premiership football match. Thus, from the new year, we will now hear that "the official chart is compiled by the Official UK Charts Company and is supported by Coca-Cola".

That is because, bizarrely, the BBC does not own its charts. They belong instead to the Official UK Charts Company, which is in turn owned jointly by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the body that represents the record companies, and Bard, the British Association of Record Dealers.

So, the BBC pays over licence-fee cash to the record industry in exchange for permission to broadcast a chart that gives publicity to the record industry. And, now, publicity also to a fizzy drink. It sounds nuts, because it is.

In fact, we have been here before, though you are unlikely to remember. Four years ago, the chart was sponsored by a website called worldpop.com, which received all the namechecks that Coke will shortly be getting. (The deal did not last long: worldpop.com went out of business.)

At the time, the Official UK Charts Company told the BBC that if the corporation did not accept the arrival of a sponsor, it would take the "official" chart to commercial radio and to ITV. Wise voices at the BBC, including Trevor Dann, then head of music, argued that the Beeb should not give in to such tactics. Dann's argument was that any chart broadcast by the BBC would de facto become the "official" chart merely by virtue of being broadcast on Radio 1 and Top of the Pops. But Dann was overruled, and the precedent was set.

Of course, there is only one reason Coca-Cola - which just the other day made great play of how it will no longer aim its ads at the under-12s - is handing over its cash. How else would it have been able to buy ad space in such an uncluttered marketplace as the BBC?

* A new trend could be emerging, and very jolly it is, too. For years, Private Eye has run letters from companies and individuals complaining about coverage in the magazine. The magazine publishes them - thus fulfilling its moral duty of providing a right of reply - but slaps on a headline that shows what it really thinks: something along the lines of: "A whinger writes". A few weeks ago, the magazine went one better: a lawyer representing the company that makes Portakabins wrote in to complain that the magazine had been misusing the trade name. Consequently, every other letter on the page was headlined: "Portakabin".

Now, Fleet Street appears to be getting in on the act. At the weekend, Sally Osman, the BBC's head of communications, wrote to The Sunday Telegraph to complain that a recent story printed in the paper was "based on pure speculation".

But she did not go quite as far as to say that The Sunday Telegraph story was nonsense. The headline: "A non-denial denial".

v.graff@independent.co.uk

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