The BBC has owned up to a “nominal fee” programming scandal in which viewers of 15 editorial programmes were hoodwinked by “serious” conflicts of interest of programme makers and a failure to declare that documentaries had outside sponsors.
The programmes were made for “low or nominal cost” but many were heavyweight documentaries on controversial environmental issues and the BBC Trust, the corporation’s governing body, said today it was “deeply concerned” by the findings. Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, has ordered the organisation to tighten its systems for commissioning current affairs programmes. The broadcasting regulator Ofcom announced today that it was launching an investigation into the affair.
Eight of the breaches relate to FBC Media (UK), a London-based production company whose working practices have been uncovered in a long-running investigation by The Independent. FBC produced programmes for the BBC about Malaysia without declaring that it had been allocated £17m by the Malaysian government to carry out a global strategic communications campaign.
The company produced seven BBC programmes on Malaysia, four of them for the series “Develop or Die”.
The BBC also found that FBC had breached programme guidelines on a programme it made on the subject of Egypt this March during the Arab Spring uprisings. The Independent has established that FBC has worked for the regime of the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The findings uncover a disturbing culture of broadcasting documentaries - for which the BBC had paid next to nothing - on the corporation’s international channel BBC World. The BBC was also found to have made programmes with “inappropriate” sponsorship funding from international organisations including UNESCO, UNEP, UNDP and UNFAO, in breach of the corporation’s guidelines.
The Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee warned that documentary makers may have been unduly influenced by their financial backers. “There was a suggestion that commercial, financial or other interests may have influenced the editorial judgments in these programmes,” it concluded.
Richard Ayre, who chaired the meeting of the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee said: "International audiences must be able to rely on the same integrity and independence in the BBC's editorial decisions as audiences in the UK.
"We have found that several programmes shown on the BBC's World News channel had been inappropriately sponsored, and in the case of one of the independent producers, FBC Media (UK) Ltd, there was at least a suggestion that the company had a conflict of interest of which the BBC had been unaware.
"The Trust is deeply concerned at this and we very much regret that these programmes failed to live up to the editorial standards we set for the BBC.”
An audit of BBC World programmes uncovered a series of current affairs programmes that – in breach of guidelines – had been funded by corporate sponsorship, which was often not declared.
One of the programmes in breach of guidelines was “Taking the Credit” made by for BBC World on the subject of Africa and climate change by the award-winning British production company Rockhopper television. The Trust found that the programme had effectively been sponsored by the Envirotrade organisation, despite the fact that current affairs programmes are prohibited from using sponsorship. Envirotrade was featured in a positive light in the programme but “viewers were unaware that there was a funding arrangement in place,” said the Trust report.
A BBC World News spokesperson said: “We accept the BBC Trust’s findings. We are committed to the highest standards of broadcasting and our editorial independence must always remain protected. There were breaches of BBC guidelines though we note that the Trust report found no breaches of impartiality in any of the programmes. We are determined to learn any lessons from this process .That is why we have set out a robust action plan which has been endorsed by the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC). We are now committed to bringing in a series of changes to tighten our systems and strengthen the protection of our editorial independence.”
A BBC World News spokesperson said that the BBC had “terminated” its dealings with FBC, which continues to operate internationally but has gone into administration in the UK. “With regards to FBC, we immediately suspended the broadcast of programming from FBC when we became aware of these issues and FBC has subsequently admitted to the BBC that it has worked for the Malaysian government,” said the spokesperson. “That information was not disclosed to the BBC as it should have been when the BBC contracted programming from FBC, and we have now terminated our relationship with the company.”