BBC tightens rules on sponsorship after 15 breaches

A plantation worker plucks off oil palm bunches from trees on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur (file photo) Investigations into Malaysia's palm oil industry were found to be in breach of guidelines

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The BBC is to impose tougher rules on sponsored programmes broadcast by its commercial channels, after 15 shows were found to have breached guidelines.

The programmes were all shown on BBC World News available outside the UK.

Among those found in breach were shows about Malaysia, produced by FBC, a UK firm that had an "apparent financial relationship" with the government.

However, the BBC Editorial Standards Committee said none of the programmes breached guidelines on impartiality.

Nonetheless, the committee regarded the policy breaches as "serious editorial failings" and said they "risked undermining the editorial integrity of [the BBC's] output".

Richard Porter, head of English at BBC Global News, said staff would pay heed to the findings.

"We must not damage the audience's trust in what we broadcast," he wrote in a public blog post. "We know we have some hard work to do to make up for this, but we are determined to do so."

Meanwhile, broadcasting watchdog Ofcom has confirmed it is launching its own investigation into the programmes.

Conflict of interest

The alarm was initially raised by a freelance journalist last year, who had concerns about a programme called Taking the Credit, broadcast on 23 October 2009.

It was an investigation into carbon trading, which had been made by an independent production company, Rockhopper TV, and acquired by BBC World News.

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The BBC should be transparent when accepting financial assistance with programming and should not transmit programmes where there is any suggestion that a conflict of interest might arise”

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The journalist alleged that the programme's funder, the Africa Carbon Livelihood Trust, had a Managing Director who was also the chief executive officer of Envirotrade, a company featured in the programme.

In May, the Editorial Standards Committee found the programme to be in breach of BBC guidelines.

It said an "inextricable link between the funder organisation and a project featured in the programme" led to a conflict of interest.

Furthermore, "the programme portrayed the work of Envirotrade in a positive way" breaching a requirement that sponsor's activities should not be promoted in BBC shows.

Rockhopper TV, which was not involved in any of the other incidents, has previously apologised for the error and continues to make programmes for the BBC.

However, as a result of this programme, the BBC launched an audit of all documentary or feature programmes broadcast, commissioned or acquired by BBC World between 28 February and 7 August 2011.

Shortly afterwards, the Independent newspaper published allegations that the UK-based production company FBC, which had made documentaries on controversial issues in Malaysia - such as the palm oil industry, had received "millions of pounds in payments from the government of Malaysia".

The paper alleged FBC had been paid to promote the country's policies globally.

The BBC suspended all programming from the company in August, pending a review of their relationship.

In total, the committee identified eight shows produced in whole or in part by FBC that could raise conflict of interest issues.

It concluded that it "could not be adequately confident" that the relationship between the production company and the Malaysian Government "had not affected the content of BBC output".

It added that no one programme had breached guidelines on impartiality, but in certain cases the segments "only just did enough" to comply with BBC policy.

The committee was particularly concerned by a statement on FBC's website, which read: "FBC regularly creates one off productions as well as series of documentaries that investigate our clients' issues and subtly position them in a positive space within their target markets".

As a result of the internal audit, five further programmes - produced either by One Planet Pictures or TVE - were flagged up for review. Each had received funding from international bodies such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. In one case, funding came from a commercial organisation.

Two of these shows, both part of the Nature Inc series produced by One Planet Pictures, were found to be in breach of a prohibition on sponsorship of news and current affairs shows.

Others were found to be inappropriate, because they focused on the activities of the sponsors.

As a result of the committee's findings, the BBC is to implement new rules, including the following:

  • BBC World News will no longer commission or acquire programmes which are sponsored by non-commercial organisations (such as charitable foundations or non-aligned international bodies such as UN agencies)
  • BBC World News will not commission or acquire programming at nominal cost, but will instead buy shows on a transparent commercial basis.
  • BBC World News will only commission or acquire sponsored programmes in non-news and current affairs genres including sport, culture, history, travel and lifestyle.
  • BBC World News will introduce tighter approval procedures for programming containing funding from third parties.
  • A follow-up audit will be commissioned to confirm the effectiveness of the new controls.

"International audiences must be able to rely on the same integrity and independence in the BBC's editorial decisions as audiences in the UK," said Richard Ayre, who chaired the meeting of the Editorial Standards Committee.

In a statement, a spokesperson for BBC World News said the channel accepted the findings.

"We are committed to the highest standards of broadcasting and our editorial independence must always remain protected," the statement read.

"We are determined to learn any lessons from this process. That is why we have set out a robust action plan... to tighten our systems and strengthen the protection of our editorial independence."

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