Firm in BBC news-fixing row targeted poverty guru

Earth Institute director denies he occupied an 'ambassador' role with palm oil producer

The London-based television company being investigated by Ofcom over a global news fixing row tried to “cultivate” a world-famous environmental economist and other leading opinion formers in the green movement for the documentaries it made for the BBC and other news broadcasters.

FBC Media claims in its promotional literature that it targeted Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, to be an “ambassador” for its corporate client on programmes it made about the controversial palm oil industry in Malaysia.

Mr Sachs, a special adviser to United Nations secretary general Ban-Ki Moon, was a prominent interviewee on a BBC World “Third Eye” documentary about Malaysia which was produced by FBC. The Independent has established that FBC was paid £17m by the Malaysian government to work on a “global strategic communications campaign”. The documentary was one of eight FBC programmes made for the BBC found to have been in “serious” breach of corporation editorial guidelines in a report issued yesterday by the BBC Trust.

FBC also worked for Sime Darby, the world’s biggest palm oil producer, and in a report for the Malaysian company gives a series of “campaign highlights”, among which is the “cultivation of influential ‘ambassadors’ such as the Earth Institute’s Jeffrey Sachs”. It refers to Sime Darby “champions”, among whom Mr Sachs is listed.

In a statement, the Earth Institute said Professor Sachs was “surprised and dismayed to see this completely inaccurate and utterly absurd portrayal of him”. It said: “He is not an ambassador or anything else for this company (Sime Darby). He has absolutely no personal relationship with the company and has never, indeed would never, serve as an ‘ambassador’ or ‘champion’ to any corporation.”

The Institute said Sachs had been “mischaracterized” in a way that was “quite troubling”.

A spokesman for Professor Sachs said that he had visited Sime Darby’s plantations but only for the purposes of research for the University of Malaya and that he had raised concerns about the deforestation that he saw. He also held meetings with Malaysian government and Sime Darby officials at which those officials expressed determination to pursue sustainable development approaches to palm oil production.

When Mr Sachs featured in the BBC’s “Third Eye”, he said: “The way that Malaysia, for example, developed palm oil with smallholders who were working in larger areas and often with government leadership…has been exemplary.” The author of New York Times best-sellers The End of Poverty and Common Wealth , he also contributed an authored piece to an advertising supplement in the International Herald Tribune which FBC featured under the heading “sophisticated corporate messaging within an editorial framework” in a slide show of FBC corporate case studies for 2007-2008.

“Some promising steps have been taken by Malaysia in recent years, which may set a powerful example for the rest of Asia,” Sachs wrote. “The government is working closely with leading companies, such as the palm oil giant Sime Darby, which have recognised that long-term environmental sustainability is vital to the business interests of serious, law-abiding companies with long-time horizons.” Sime Darby is a major donor of the Earth Institute. In a 2010 report, the Institute says: “Sime Darby, a multinational corporation based in Malaysia, bolstered our Tropical Agriculture and China 2049 programs with a $500,000 gift. The company created an international advisory panel to enhance its sustainability initiatives across its core business operations worldwide, and it became a member of the Earth Institute’s Corporate Circle.”

The Earth Institute said $250,000 had been spent on research on sustainable development in China and on a digital soil mapping initiative led by the Institute.

Mr Sachs was also featured as an expert on “World Business”, a programme that FBC made each week for the global business channel CNBC, which has been suspended the programme indefinitely following The Independent ’s revelations.

FBC set out its television production methods in a documentary proposal made to the Malaysian Palm Oil Council as recently as April. The London company said it would include in the proposed documentary interviews with leading figures from the Malaysian palm oil industry, “complemented by supporting interviews with Malaysian government officials, industry leaders and Western third party champions”. The proposed documentary would “put a particular focus on small farm holders” in order to minimize the idea that the industry was dominated by “large corporate interests”. FBC has recently gone into administration.

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