The BBC will today apologise to an estimated 74 million people around the world for a news fixing scandal, exposed by The Independent, in which it broadcast documentaries made by a London TV company that was earning millions of pounds from PR clients which it featured in its programming.
BBC World News viewers from Kuala Lumpur to Khartoum and Bangkok to Buenos Aires will watch the remarkable broadcast, available in 295 million homes, 1.7 million hotel rooms, 81 cruise ships, 46 airlines and on 35 mobile phone platforms, at four different times, staged in order to reach audiences in different time zones. The BBC will apologise for breaking "rules aimed at protecting our editorial integrity".
The Independent exposed last year in an investigation into the global television news industry how the BBC paid nominal fees of as little as £1 for programmes made by FBC Media (UK), whose PR client list included foreign governments and multinational companies. The company made eight pieces for the BBC about Malaysia while failing to declare it was paid £17m by the Malaysian government for "global strategic communications". The programmes included positive coverage of Malaysia's controversial palm oil industry.
The BBC also used FBC to make a documentary about the spring uprising in Egypt without knowing the firm was paid to do PR work for the regime of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The BBC Trust's Editorial Standards Committee carried out an investigation into BBC World News which reported in November it had uncovered 15 breaches of editorial guidelines. Eight of the breaches were in respect of FBC programmes made about Malaysia. The trust also identified other breaches of rules on sponsorship in programmes shown by BBC World News, which is a commercial entity and carries advertising. In its apology, the BBC will say: "A small number of programmes broadcast on BBC World News between February 2009 and July 2011 broke BBC rules aimed at protecting our editorial integrity. These rules ensure that programmes are free, and are seen to be free, from commercial or other outside pressures."
Making a direct reference to the FBC documentaries, it will say: "In the case of eight other programmes, all of which featured Malaysia, we found that the production company which made the programmes appeared to have a financial relationship with the Malaysian government. This meant there was a potential conflict of interest, though the BBC was not aware of it when the programmes were broadcast."
It concludes: "Editorial integrity is the highest priority for BBC World News, which is why we apologise for these breaches of our normal standards."
The Independent has revealed FBC, which was run by the former Financial Times journalist Alan Friedman and the CNN presenter John Defterios, was also making editorial programmes that featured FBC clients for the global business broadcaster CNBC, which suspended its FBC-made show World Business. Other FBC clients included the governments of Greece and Kazakhstan and companies like Microsoft. FBC also tried to suggest in its promotional literature it had "cultivated" key opinion formers, such as economist Jeffrey Sachs, as "ambassadors". Sachs totally rejected the claim.
When The Independent published its investigations into FBC the firm said it had kept strict divisions between its editorial and PR operations. FBC closed its London offices and went into administration in October. Broadcasting regulator Ofcom is investigating FBC.
Bad practice: The stories
As Egypt was in the throes of a revolution, the BBC commissioned FBC to make a documentary on the country. But the firm had a commercial relationship to promote Egypt as "liberal and open". The programme, Third Eye: Egypt, warned of the threat of takeover by Islamic fundamentalists.
The BBC director general has ordered an end to the practice of acquiring news programmes for "low or nominal cost" after the BBC admitted 15 breaches of its editorial guidelines and buying documentaries for "nominal" fees as little as £1 from a company that was working to promote foreign governments.
Since 2009 FBC has made at least four BBC documentaries dealing with Malaysia and controversial issues such as the country's palm-oil industry and its treatment of rainforests and indigenous people. The company has received millions of pounds in payments from the government of Malaysia for a "global strategic communications campaign".