BBC trust attacks coverage of anti-poverty action in entertainment shows

By staff writers
June 18, 2007

A report to be published by the new BBC trust today (18 Jun 2007) is critical of some of its own programmes for allowing celebrity-backed campaigning groups to have too high a profile in its schedules, reports James Robinson for The Observer newspaper.

But campaigners say it is wrong and unfair that ordinary people’s concerns with these issues should somehow be excluded altogether from entertainment strands – or that the BBC’s involvement in promoting wealth through gambling via the National Lottery should be regarded as “non-political”, whereas anti-poverty concerns are deemed “political”.

According to a draft seen by The Observer, the new report’s findings reflect concerns at senior levels of the BBC about the risk of allowing “special interest groups”, such as Make Poverty History and the Drop the Debt campaign, to get their messages through entertainment shows rather than news programmes.

A special Christmas episode of The Vicar of Dibley, a popular sitcom starring Dawn French, has been singled out for particular criticism in the past – and this example is understood to be repeated in the new BBC report, in spite of contrary points raised by charities and members of the public.

The programme showed parishioners being urged to support the Make Poverty History campaign – something which happened not just in churches, but in non-religious community groups and other faith groups across the country.

While the BBC reports global anti-poverty initiatives, its coverage is usually limited to headline events.

The vast majority of entertainment shows and soap operas make no mention of global poverty issues.

The Observer says the report was commissioned by the BBC board of governors and carried out in consultation with senior management. It is being published by the trust that replaced the governors in January 2007.

The report includes 12 new guidelines for programme-makers designed to ensure the BBC preserves a reputation for impartiality.

Under the terms of the corporation's royal charter, the trust – an unelected body – is responsible for guaranteeing the independence and editorial integrity of the BBC.

The BBC says: “The purpose of the BBC Trust is to work on behalf of licence fee payers, ensuring the BBC provides high quality output and good value for all UK citizens, and it protects the independence of the BBC. To achieve this, the Trustees must keep in close contact with licence fee payers, being aware of and understanding their expectations of the BBC.”

Writing in The Observer, BBC trust member Richard Tait, a former editor-in-chief of ITN and one of the new report's authors, declared: “The BBC cannot allow its output to be taken over by campaigning groups any more than by political parties.”

However the report does not appear to regard the BBC’s relationship with business organizations as constituting any kind of questionable influence.

Another target of the anti-charity and cause lobby is likely to be action on global warming, which has attracted huge public support – but will be seen as “political” for questioning the behaviour of governments and corporations.

As well as being a professor of broadcasting at Cardiff University, Mr Tait holds shares in British Telecom. His wife is in regular employment with the BBC and he has served on a Foreign Office advisory panel. His list of interests does not mention any involvement in global poverty concerns.

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