Ian Burrell: A profound threat to the values that underpin the BBC's journalism

The corporation is treading a dangerous path. It could damage its editorial reputation

Ian Burrell@iburrell
Monday 25 June 2012 09:10

It is hard to imagine that any journalist joined the BBC with ambitions of making money through entrepreneurial schemes. Their dream would surely have been to work for the world's most respected news organisation, breaking stories and holding the powerful to account in an atmosphere that allowed them unique freedom from commercial imperatives.

The British public too, might expect that its hefty licence fee payments – made in a changing media environment where some complain they rarely use BBC services – were sufficient to fund the broadcaster's news output without the need for its journalists to be spending their working time thinking up extra ways of making cash.

But sadly no. Instructions sent to every member of the BBC's Global News department demand that they concentrate on fresh "objectives" which include the need to "strengthen our commercial focus and grow income".

It is true that parts of the BBC's international output – its BBC World News channel and the BBC.com global website – have a commercial approach which the domestic audience does not see. A frozen licence fee has put pressure on the BBC to maximise revenue from selling its content overseas – which means hawking journalism as well as programmes such as Top Gear.

But the orders to make money were issued to editorial as well as non-editorial staff, which is why journalists are unhappy. Even staff on the World Service, which does not carry advertising, are being asked to take part. Not only that but they are required to present their money-making ideas as part of their career appraisals.

The BBC argues that its editorial values come before all else and that an "income objective" is not going to change that. But the organisation is treading a dangerous path. Last year The Independent revealed how BBC World News had been broadcasting editorial programmes about countries such as Malaysia and Egypt made by a London-based company that had PR contracts with the rulers of those states. The BBC, which had acquired the programmes at minimal cost, made a global apology for the breaches of its own editorial guidelines, but the matter is still under investigation by the media regulator Ofcom.

The BBC's editorial reputation is its currency. If it damages it by turning its journalists into commercial animals then it may find that it has nothing left to sell.

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