LEADING ARTICLE:The probity of the people's voice

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When the public tunes in to Today or Newsnight, or any other part of the BBC's news and current affairs output, it needs to know that no favours are owed. Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys, Jim Naughtie, Peter Sissons and Nick Ross are more than journalists asking questions. They are, as the most prominent faces in a publicly financed organisation, in some sense the people's voice.

But would most people think it right that some of those asking the hard questions of British Telecom, ICI, Nuclear Electric, government departments or Marks and Spencer are the same people who undertake well-paid freelance work for these same institutions?

It is important to be clear about where the concern lies. No one is suggesting that as a result of their outside activities presenters have bent their questions or softened their stance. There is no evidence on which to make such a charge, and plenty of evidence the other way.

Nor is it wrong for freelance presenters on the BBC to have outside earnings. The life of a big-name presenter has always been part-showbusiness, part- journalism. No one should object if presenters use their skills or their fame in non-BBC time to earn money from sources that do not conflict with the duties on which their reputations rest. The size of the sums earned is also not an issue - the life of a top-flight presenter may be sweet, but it can also be short.

But there are limits to the type of outside work that established BBC presenters should undertake. For example, when it comes to helping top business executives to prepare themselves for the hard question and the persistent interview, BBC presenters should recognise that they cannot properly be on both sides of the fence. As the BBC's own guidelines state: "No BBC presenter or editorial person regularly involved in news and current affairs or topical programmes should coach people in how to be interviewed. We must not be party to the training of potential interviewees in how to present themselves in the best light." This guidelines appears to have been breached.

The issue of promotional work is more complex. Is a presenter compromised if he or she opens a supermarket for Tesco, knowing that the boss of Tesco might one day be in the studio answering charges about some issue of consumer concern? Borderline; the answer might depend upon the scale of the work undertaken and its value. What about advertising? Definitely off-limits.

The guidelines say that journalists, including freelance presenters, should not accept appearances "when they might compromise public trust in the integrity of programmes or those who make them". That is necessarily subjective and to be effective requires strong management, not afraid to insist upon standards even from the organisation's most marketable stars.

The issue has arisen at a time when the public demand for transparency in such matters is growing - from the call for MPs to declare the scale of their outside interests, to the recommendations expected this week from Greenbury on directors' pay and perks. For the BBC, a parliamentary- style register of broadcasters' interests, said to be under consideration, may not be the answer. Freelance work, by its very nature, comes and goes and it would be difficult to keep track. Nor is a register much help to the viewer or listener, who is hardly in a position to check to see if a presenter has worked for BT before he starts an interview with its chairman.

The answer, surely, is to enforce visibly and firmly the BBC's "conflicts of interest" guidelines. Viewers need that assurance; the BBC's reputation needs that assurance; and the star presenters themselves need that assurance, for the best way to protect their own reputation for impartiality is to tackle any potential conflict of interest before it occurs.