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BBC broke Ofcom rules by broadcasting documentaries secretly funded by special interests

By Dominic Ponsford

The BBC has broadcast nearly 200 documentaries provided at no cost with many secretly funded by special interests, Ofcom has found.

The Ofcom report follows a wide-reaching inquiry which was begun in 2011 after an investigation by The Independent.

Ofcom looked at over 1,000 programmes broadcast by the BBC World News (the corporation’s commercial independent channel), CNBC and CNN.

Ofcom said it “identified a number of practices which took place in the period under review that were at odds with the Code”. But it also said “we did not find evidence that the way programmes were funded compromised the broadcasters’ editorial independence”.

It warned that “complex funding arrangements involving third-party party funders carry inherent risk to independence and editorial integrity.”

The regulator is arranging an industry-wide meeting of broadcasters to discuss new guidelines to better safeguard the independence of factual programmes.

In August 2011, The Independent reported that the Malaysian government had paid FactBased Communications (FBC) almost £12 million over two years to promote Malaysia in factual and current affairs TV programmes.

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Ofcom considered 186 programmes transmitted bvetween 7 February 2009 and 3 September 2011 by BBC World News that had been supplied to it at no cost or for a nominal sum and that had not carried sponsor credits.

Of these those produced by FBC were:

  • Develop or Die? Series 1, Episode 2, 14 February 2009
  • Develop or Die? Series 2, Episode 1, 15 May 2010
  • Develop or Die? Series 2, Episode 2, 22 May  2010
  • Develop or Die? Series 3, Episode 5, 4 June 2011
  • One Square Mile – Sarawak, 12 February 2011
  • One Square Mile – Kuala Lumpur, 9 July 2011
  • Third Eye – Egypt, 12 March 2011
  • Third Eye – Asian Food, 2 July 2011

Each was around 30 minutes long, supplied at not cost and with no reference made to sponsorship.

Much of the content related to Malaysia.

BBC World News told Ofcom:  “We now know that FBC had a PR relationship with Malaysian clients and as such we fully accept that it was not an appropriate producer of the programmes it  produced for BBCWN and which are now under investigation by Ofcom.

“We  acknowledge that a conflict of interest existed here, in breach of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, and that this relationship could have undermined our editorial independence.

“However despite undertaking due diligence and making appropriate enquiries of FBC prior to entering into a contractual relationship, we were not aware of this relationship when the content was broadcast.

“We sought to maintain independent editorial control over the content of each programme, through our usual editorial and compliance procedures. We therefore accept that this lack of knowledge may have given rise to the potential for BBCWN’s independence of editorial control over the content to be undermined.”

Ofcom also looked at a number of programmes supplied by not-for-profit companies at no cost to the BBC.

One, Architects on the Frontline, was paid for by the Aga Khan Foundation and included the boast that the “Aga Khan Award for Architecture was “widely recognised as the most prestigious in its field”.

Stealing the Past, about antiquity smuggling, was paid for by Unesco and featured an interview with that body’s director general.

The BBC Trust said in a statement: " “We welcome Ofcom's findings which follow those of the Trust four years ago, which found a number of these programmes to have been in serious breach of editorial and sponsorship guidelines. At that time the Trust required BBC World News to broadcast a series of apologies to international audiences and also required the BBC to tighten its compliance processes. As a result, no similar programmes have been commissioned since the Trust published its finding."

A BBC spokesperson said: "The BBC Trust investigated these issues in 2011 and we apologised to viewers on air in February 2012.  We introduced a number of changes to our procedures to strengthen the protection of our editorial integrity at the time and a subsequent audit concluded that the measures were robust and working well. We accept Ofcom’s findings and wish to re-iterate our commitment to the highest standards of broadcasting. We are pleased that Ofcom welcomes the steps we originally took, and continue to apply, to prevent further issues and we in turn look forward to working with Ofcom and the other broadcasters involved to develop best practice guidelines to help maintain compliance with these aspects of the Code in this complex area.”

Ofcom also examined World Business, a series produced by Factbased Communications for CNBC.

According to Ofcom, between 2008 and 2011 FBC paid CNBC an annual seven figure (US Dollars) fee to broadcast the series.

Ofcom found that CNN brokes its code dozens of times and noted that CNN business presenter John Defterios was a director and president of FBC from 2007 to 2011.

It found that CNN coverage  featuring FBC clients breached impartiality rules.

CNBC similarly breached impartiality rules through its close links with FBC.

Read the full Ofcom report here (from page 30).

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