The Independent reports today that BBC news reporters have been given a new task: making money. According to the Independent, Peter Horrocks, the Director of BBC Global News, has written to journalists saying: “I would like each of you to contribute to the delivery of these objectives, with the income objective, let us know if you have any ideas on how we can strengthen our commercial focus and grow income”. Horrocks, says the paper, made it clear that this will form a key part of their job appraisal.
BBC users may have been doubly surprise by the news. As far as they are aware, they all pay for the BBC by coughing up an annual licence fee of £140.50 per household. The least they expect for in return is a news producing outlet which is concerned only with providing the news as it breaks and maintaining the BBC’s brand as arguably the best broadcasting service in the world.
Another question is how is this money-generating news-making to be exercised, exactly?
The BBC’s World News channel, it transpires, generates money from advertising and from deals with international broadcasters, hotel chains and other distributors. The urge to financially justify itself makes it vulnerable to pressure to focus its coverage on potentially profitable areas of the world. The BBC international website (BBC.com) also carries advertising outside of the UK.
What would be rendered legitimate in order to grow this revenue line? One wouldn’t be as heretic as to suggest that BBC watchers, even those subjected to the BBC World News version, might be made to live on a diet of light news about hotel chains opening branches in exotic places and similar forms of advertisements dressed up as news. It is hard to believe that anybody in the ‘beeb’ would compromise the most obvious asset of the organisation, its credibility as a news provider, for another ‘bob’ from an advertiser.
At the same time, asking journalists to consider how the material they gather could be packaged to best address the special interests of the audience of a fellow international broadcaster who may, intern, be interested in purchasing this content, is completely kosher by any stretch of the imagination. Conducting some extra research in order to cover an aspect of a story that could intrigue audiences in a specific part of the world is not something to be condemned.
Due to the lack of clarification as to the exact objective of this new directive, however, no wonder many, in the BBC and outside of it, see this as a worrying development.
The BBC has been between a rock and a hard place for many years. Over the last decade it has been under current pressure to “justify” its existence as a national broadcasting corporation of international appeal. What does it do, wondered its critics, that commercial news providers don’t do? And if it is so great, why can’t it make itself marketable enough to play by the market rules?
But what makes the BBC such a huge brand name, known literally in most households across the world, is exactly its commitment to cover news whether advertisers want it to be broadcast or no, and whether the public wants to be exposed to it or not. It addresses not only our right to know, but to an extent also imposes our duty, as citizens of the world, to learn unpleasant facts, some of which might spoil our dinners.
There are still, living among us, people who remember listening to the BBC secretly, on the “wireless”, behind the frontiers of the Second World War, behind the Iron curtain of the cold war, out of locked cupboards and hidden basements under constant fear in some of the worst dictatorships in history. There are still, living among us behind the visible and invisible wars of the world’s most oppressive regimes, some who still do. This is a huge heritage to carry. It is probably the greatest cultural gift Britain has given the world. It has also, together with other veteran pioneering news organisations, set the benchmark to how we consider and judge news reporting.
It is this benchmark that now binds commercial news providers too. The ethos which news providers look up to and expect is that of transparency and impartiality. When a commercial is dished up to us we want it to be delivered under a different title and we have learned to identify commercial content that is being infiltrated into our news and sneer at it.
Those standards are hard to maintain in a world where the business of news is competitive; where the pond seems to be getting smaller and smaller and the news sharks are hungry and large. But journalism is founded on two forms of separation: between fact and opinion, as well as between news providers and advertisement buyers. Keeping those separations strictly in place is not only the ethical thing to do; it is also the only way to maintain the trust of the public, which is the only safeguard of revenues.
All this is not to say that the BBC cannot use its real assets – namely its vast collection of savvy journalism and trusted information and analysis – in order to gather some additional revenue, both for the organisation as such and for its journalists. The BBC can easily and with relatively little investment and substantial potential rewards, can create a wire service, a venture which it has surprisingly avoided so far.
There is also nothing to stop the BBC from enabling its correspondents to moonlight for other carefully chosen news organisations under the BBC’s brand name, as long as those undertakings do not clash with the reporters commitments to their home organisations. There are endless opportunities to change, modernise and even make profit without compromising the BBC’s ethos, ethics and reputation. But those avenues should be carefully thought through without making the journalists and audiences, feel they are being sold out.