Entertainment & Arts

News channels broke sponsorship rules, Ofcom says

A palm oil plantation in Malaysia Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Malaysia's palm oil industry was one of the subjects covered in a BBC World programme

Global news channels BBC World News and CNN International broke UK broadcasting rules by airing shows funded by foreign governments, charities and other bodies, media watchdog Ofcom has ruled.

BBC World News acquired some programmes for low or nominal fees and viewers were not told it was sponsored content.

The four-year inquiry examined hundreds of hours of footage broadcast from 2009 to 2011 and found almost 50 breaches.

But Ofcom said the broadcasters had not "compromised" editorial independence.

The regulator said the "complex funding arrangements" often involved governments, charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) supplying programmes to broadcasters for small fees.

The deals carried an "inherent risk to independence and editorial integrity", Ofcom said.

Ofcom's inquiry followed a 2011 investigation by The Independent newspaper, which found London-based media company FBC had been paid millions of pounds by the Malaysian government for PR work while also making programmes about Malaysia for BBC World News.

Impartiality 'called into question'

At the time the BBC said FBC had not disclosed the relationship before making programmes about such controversial issues as the palm oil industry. A BBC spokesperson said BBC World News had apologised to viewers on air in February 2012 following a BBC Trust investigation in 2011.

Ofcom also examined the World Business programme on CNBC, which was produced and funded by FBC. It also found CNN had failed to declare on air that its presenter John Defterios was a director and president of FBC.

The watchdog said his role "called into question the due impartiality" of some interviews, including one with the Malaysian prime minister for CNN's Marketplace Middle East.

While CNN admitted it's strict conflict of interest policies "were not fully adhered to", it said in a statement that "at no time was our editorial output compromised".

The broadcaster added: "We do however recognise and accept that a very small portion of our sponsored content fell under what Ofcom categorises as current affairs, which under UK regulations may not be sponsored."

Best practice

Examples of BBC World News programmes found in breach of sponsorship rules include 2010's Kill or Cure - Bittersweet, which reported on diabetes in Kenya and India and was funded by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF).

The series Architects on the Frontline, funded by the Aga Khan Foundation, covered various projects competing for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and described the award as "the most prestigious in its field".

Ofcom said it was now working with the broadcasters to develop new guidelines.

A BBC spokesperson said: "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."

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