LONDON — This week, after a multi-year investigation, a prominent British media watchdog accused multiple TV networks of improperly accepting sponsorship money in return for broadcasting foreign propaganda.
The Office of Communications, often shortened to Ofcom, is an independent regulatory body charged with monitoring many forms of communication in the United Kingdom, from smartphones to television. Their investigation, which began in 2011, found that the BBC broadcast programs which had been paid for by foreign governments or organizations, without properly disclosing that sponsorship to viewers.
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The scandal first emerged in 2011, when The Independent revealed that FBC Media, a corporation funded by the Malaysian government, created documentaries on Malaysia for the BBC:
“[E]ntries in the Malaysian government’s Supplementary Budget 2010 show that FBC Media (UK) was allocated 28.35m Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) – nearly £6m – for work on a ‘Global Strategic Communications Campaign’ ordered by the Malaysian government in 2009. A similar sum (MYR29.34m) was designated to the company the previous year. Concerns over the arrangements have been raised in the Malaysian parliament.”
The incident became known as the “£1 programme scandal,” in reference to the token fees the BBC paid to FBC Media for the rights to the documentaries. According to a BBC spokesperson quoted on Tuesday by Sputnik International, the network has already responded sufficiently to the allegations:
“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.”
However, the report from Ofcom found a conflict of interest in more than just a handful of programs, according to The Independent’s Ian Burrell:
“The BBC was found to have breached Ofcom’s code on sponsorship 20 times on its World News channel, where it featured programmes underwritten by funders ranging from the Aga Khan Foundation to the International Diabetes Foundation and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. BBC World News, the broadcaster’s 24-hour global news channel, handed Ofcom details of 186 programmes supplied to it for no cost or a nominal sum (typically £1).”
In one instance, the BBC accepted sponsorship from the Aga Khan Foundation, a nonprofit development foundation established by one of the world’s wealthiest men. The program he sponsored prominently mentioned the “Aga Khan Award for Architecture,” calling it “widely recognised as the most prestigious in its field.”
In addition to the BBC, CNN and CNBC are also accused of having improper ties to the media firm:
“Ofcom also found CNN in breach of impartiality rules over a 2009 interview by Defterios with Gamal Mubarak, son of the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian government’s investment authority, Gafi, was another FBC client.”
Sputnik reported that Ofcom is considering further measures to prevent similar conflicts of interest in the future:
“[T]he regulator is planning to assess whether the existing measures requires further clarity to ensure editorial independence, sponsorship and due impartiality. An industry-wide meeting with broadcasters that transmit factual and news content will be held to help develop best practice.”