Puppet Show

Amazingly, the BBC seems happy to be exploited by covert corporate lobbyists.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 12th December 2013.

I expected the BBC to wriggle. I didn’t expect this flat refusal to uphold its own editorial guidelines.

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article explaining how the BBC routinely flouts its professed commitment to impartiality and transparency, by allowing people who appear to be little more than corporate lobbyists to pose as independent pundits.

I used the example of an interview with Mark Littlewood on the Today programme. He was introduced by Mishal Husain as “the director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and a smoker himself”.

What we were not told is that the institute, which calls itself a thinktank, has for many years been funded by the tobacco industry.

This funding has been repeatedly exposed: for example in the archive of documents the tobacco companies were forced to make public as part of their class action settlement in the US, through leaks and in an article in the Observer earlier this year.

I pointed out that this is one of many cases in which groups that call themselves thinktanks often look and sound more like lobbyists for corporations. Usually we have no idea who is funding them, because most refuse to declare their interests. But in this case it is well established.

This is important because the BBC is considered by many listeners to be an impartial source of information which, unlike many other media outlets, has not been captured by corporate interests. If it is being exploited by controversial companies using covert channels to try to sway public opinion, you might have expected the BBC to take an interest.

I encouraged readers to complain. Many did. They have all received the same response from the BBC Complaints Unit. Here’s what it says:

“We raised your concerns with ‘Today’, who responded as follows:

“’We don’t believe it was appropriate or necessary in this case to include details about where the Institute of Economic Affairs gets its funding, information which the IEA does not publish.

“’The introduction described Mark Littlewood as a ‘smoker’, which indicated to the audience his likely approach to the subject. Furthermore, we mentioned his official position as the Director of the IEA.

“That said, we accept it would have been better if we had followed our usual practice and described the Institute as a ‘free-market’ think-tank. This would have clarified the ideological as well as personal background to his arguments.’”

I find this response extraordinary. Does the BBC really believe that listeners should not be told that someone arguing against the tougher regulation of cigarettes is funded by the tobacco industry? Who cares whether or not it says the IEA is a free market thinktank? This conveys little useful information. The issue here is on whose behalf it might be speaking.

Would the BBC allow an acknowledged public relations firm, such as Burson-Marsteller or Hill and Knowlton, to speak about proposed regulations without revealing whether or not it is paid by the businesses trying to stymie those regulations? I am sure it would not. So what’s the difference?

But most interesting is the excuse it uses: it won’t mention the IEA’s funders because the IEA refuses to disclose them. Surely a lack of candour should encourage more scrutiny, not less?

What makes this even more striking is that it’s the opposite excuse to the one that Newsnight used when challenged on the same issue. A viewer complained that when the MP Peter Lilley was interviewed about climate change (he argued against taking major action), the programme did not disclose that he’s the vice-chairman of an oil company. In this case the BBC responded:

“It is a matter of public record that Mr Lilley is Vice Chairman and Senior Independent Non-Executive Director of Tethys Petroleum – it appears in Parliament’s register of members interests.”

So the BBC won’t reveal who is paying its contributors on the grounds that they haven’t declared their interests, and it won’t reveal who is paying its contributors on the grounds that they have declared their interests. It’s a perfect Morton’s Fork, which means that the BBC can allow anyone to pose as an independent expert, even if he is up to his neck in corporate money.

One or two of the people who received this pathetic response have complained a second time. Here’s the answer the BBC gave them:

“We forwarded your further concerns to Dominic Groves, one of the output editors of the Today programme who explained in response that:

“’All we have to go on are newspaper reports. In the absence of any independent verification therefore, it remains an allegation that the IEA receives funding from tobacco companies. But that is not the central point here.

“’The BBC guidelines require us to ‘provide the credentials’ of contributors. Our argument is that indicating Mark Littlewood’s status as a smoker, and the ‘free-market’ leanings of his think tank, would have been sufficient for the purposes of this piece to allow audiences to judge his status.

“’We are sorry the script did not include the latter but don’t believe anything beyond that was necessary.’”

It remains an allegation? Well I suppose you could call it that, but it’s an allegation the tobacco companies have confirmed. Here’s what they told the Observer:

Philip Morris International said: “We confirm that we are a member of the Institute of Economic Affairs, but cannot provide you with any further details.”

Japan Tobacco International said “We believe the contributions of organisations like the ASI [the Adam Smith Institute] and the IEA are very valuable in an open and free society. We respect their work and share their views on many issues”


“We work with the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute as their economic and behavioural expertise help us better understand which tobacco regulation measures will work and which will not.”

And as for “the absence of any independent verification”, what better verification could you have than the internal documents of the tobacco companies revealed by the class action disclosure? Not only does Dominic Groves appear happy to trample on the BBC’s guidelines, but he also seems unaware of the vast body of material supporting the case he so lightly dismisses. You might have expected the Today programme to have done a little research before responding to this complaint. You would, it seems, have been wrong.

On the issue of providing the credentials of its contributors, is the audience supposed to deduce from the fact that Littlewood is a smoker that he works for a body funded by the tobacco industry? Or does the BBC believe that this information is irrelevant?

One of the people fobbed off in this manner has now gone to what the BBC calls “Stage 2 of the complaints process”: which means a letter to the Editorial Complaints Unit. If you have received a response you consider inadequate, I would urge you to do the same. Its email address is ecu@bbc.co.uk

I have also just launched a petition at change.org, calling on the BBC to “disclose the financial interests of the people you interview in the issues they are discussing.” Please sign it.

On Friday 13th, the BBC’s consultation on its news and current affairs output closes. Please have your say while you can.

I should emphasise that I have no problem with the IEA or any other group being allowed to speak as often as the BBC might wish – if their interests are disclosed. Let anyone speak, as long as it’s done with transparency and accountability.

It’s hard to understand how the BBC can sustain its bizarre position, unless it’s content for people to see it as an organisation incapable of upholding the most basic standards of journalism. Eventually, if enough people complain, and pursue those complaints, I believe it will have to change its policy: the gulf between its editorial guidelines and editorial practice is just too great.

So unless you are content for the BBC to be used as a covert propaganda outlet by tobacco, fossil fuel and other controversial companies, please don’t give up. It’s time the BBC stopped collaborating in the deception of its listeners.