Today the BBC Trust publishes its findings into an investigation of the funding arrangements for certain programmes broadcast on our international commercial television news channel, BBC World News.
The Trust has concluded that 15 programmes broadcast in our weekend schedule breached the BBC’s editorial or sponsorship guidelines.
The programmes concerned were acquired by the channel at low or nominal cost, and around half of them were funded or partly funded by charities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or other similar groups.
The Trust found breaches of guidelines in seven programmes relating to conflict of interest; the promotion of a sponsor’s activities; the prohibition of sponsorship for current affairs programming; and the way in which funding was credited to ensure transparency for viewers.
The remaining breaches concerned programmes made for the BBC by an independent production company, which failed to disclose to us that it had a financial relationship with the Malaysian government, while producing programmes with a “heavy focus” on Malaysia.
The Trust classifies this as “serious breaches” of its guidelines, and BBC World News fully accepts their findings. We share the Trust’s view that the integrity and independence of the BBC’s editorial decisions is of paramount importance. We welcome their conclusion that none of the programmes breached requirements for impartiality. But nevertheless, we are determined to learn the lessons from what has gone wrong.
So how did it happen? There is no single, or simple answer. The cases involving Malaysia were serious because we transmitted programmes without being made aware of a conflict of interest by the supplying production company. Eight programmes were broadcast between 2009 and July 2011, with references to Malaysia. Following reports in the Independent newspaper, the production company admitted to the BBC that it represented the Malaysian government through another division of its activities. We didn’t know this at the time, and we have now terminated our relationship with this company.
A second conflict of interest arose in another programme about carbon trading, where an association was found between an organisation featured in the programme, and a company which funded the programme production. This conflict was not declared to us at the time of transmission – had we known, we would not have broadcast it.
In the remaining cases examined by the Trust, the issues were primarily related to how we interpreted editorial or sponsorship guidelines. This, again, is something we take very seriously, and today we are announcing new procedures which take full account of the findings.
The Trust did say that no BBC staff had intended to breach guidelines, but there seemed to be a lack of knowledge or genuine confusion about the relevant guidance. Clearly we need to tighten our procedures so that it doesn’t happen again.
As a result, we are taking steps to tighten our list of supplying production companies, and to put in place a more rigorous process to approve programme commissions – including further checks on any potential conflicts of interest. We have also undertaken no longer to commission or acquire programmes sponsored by non-commercial organisations, and have stopped taking programmes at low nominal cost. We have re-affirmed that sponsored programming will only be allowed in non-news and current affairs genres, and we will act on the Trust’s guidance to take a “strictly prudential view” of what amounts to sponsorship.
These are complex cases, but the principles underlying them are simple. We must not damage the audience’s trust in what we broadcast. We know we have some hard work to do to make up for this, but we are determined to do so.
Richard Porter is controller of English at BBC Global News.