Last week’s report criticising the BBC’s business coverage as ‘dumbed down’ and favouring populist, anti-corporate angles has received a mixed reaction from the PR community.
Commissioned by the BBC Trust, the body that has a responsibility to ensure the corporation’s impartiality, the report is particularly negative about BBC2’s The Money Programme (see below).
The programme’s series producer, Michael Tuft, declined to comment because the BBC is taking time to consider the findings before it makes an official response. PROs who have worked with the show, however, are quick to share their divided opinions.
The Fairtrade Foundation’s experience of working with the programme certainly chimes with the study’s findings. The episode, ‘Not So Fair Trade’, aired in March last year and focused on the inflated prices that British consumers have to pay for these products.
Worked to a set agenda
The foundation’s press officer, Martine Julseth, believes that from the outset the producers worked to a set agenda, around which they strove to shoehorn interviewees’ quotes.
Nevertheless, the foundation agreed to take part in the hope that during the course of their research the producers would form a more balanced view. They did not. They refused Julseth’s suggestion to interview a Third World farmer to explore the benefits of Fairtrade on developing communities. Instead, Julseth claims they ‘very unscientifically’ compared the prices of a British supermarket basket of Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade products.
‘We were very disappointed that the programme took such a narrow perspective,’ says Julseth. ‘We felt the final outcome was unfair and were surprised they didn’t want to find out about the more burning issues around Fairtrade.’
Diana Soltmann, chief executive of Flagship Consulting, reports a similarly miserable PR experience, describing one programme as ‘the most horrendously sensational, uninformative, tabloid-type piece’ she had ever seen about tax. She put her tax consultant client forward because the producers said they were taking a serious look at the issue of people living outside tax areas. He was asked to saunter into a room with a pool table and explain his commentary by using different coloured balls to represent tax havens. ‘At that point I thought, oh God, how dumbed down can you get?’ says Soltmann.
In the end, to her relief, her client was cut from the footage because, she says, he did not fit in with the other ‘flash Harry’ interviewees in the piece. If she ever deals with The Money Programme again Soltmann plans to have ‘a frank conversation’ with the producers about the intended end product and to discover what backdrop and setting the programme will be using.
‘In PR we sometimes forget to think of the pictures in broadcast and think too much about the content. If I’d known they were going to tell my client to play with a pool table, that would have raised alarm bells,’ she says.
While there are plenty more disgruntled PROs who can vent about The Money Programme, there are also a great deal who admire and applaud the show’s high level of journalism. Gay Collins, managing director of Penrose Financial, describes the coverage as ‘gutsy’, ‘not at all dumbed down’ and ‘a good opportunity for business stories with a strong consumer angle’.
Dirk Singer, founder of Cow PR, says he found the show’s research to be ‘far, far more than what you would get from a national newspaper features journalist’. And Peter Gray, account executive at Lewis PR, working on the Second Life account which was featured last week, says show representatives were ‘on top of everything, easy to get hold of and very open from the start’.
Treading a fine line
One of the reasons opinions are so split over the criticisms of The Money Programme is that it treads the fine line between being accessible and dumbing down. As it airs on Friday nights at 7pm, the programme needs to have broad appeal. Producers tend to go for colourful, big ideas that bring business to life for the viewers.
A good example was ‘Chewing Gum War’, a programme hooked around Trident gum challenging UK leader Wrigley’s. After meeting with the production team, Tony Bilsborough, head of external communications at Trident’s parent company, Cadbury, decided to co-operate fully. But he took a philosophical approach.
‘When working with the BBC you know it will not be a bed of roses, but we tried to think of ways to liven up coverage in our favour. So we supplied footage of our gum innovation centre and our ads cleared for broadcast,’ he says. Be warned, however, that the research phase tends to be fairly lengthy. Producers prefer to work with clients rather than PR agencies and interviewees agree that the show is not particularly receptive to pitches, preferring to generate its own angles.
As Bilsborough says, The Money Programme is a gamble for a PRO and, although he was pleased with the outcome, he was prepared for the worst. Andrew Robinson, head of corporate at Biss Lancaster, agrees with this view, but adds: ‘In my opinion, it does not dumb down business; it puts it in a popular context.’
Criticisms of coverage...
1. At times the BBC can be unconsciously partial and unbalanced in its business coverage
2. This impartiality arises mainly from a lack of awareness of the commercial world – as many BBC journalists have never worked in business – and from a preoccupation with taking the consumer perspective
3. A lack of specialist knowledge or interest from some mainstream programme editors can result in missed stories or angles; important angles often overlooked include the role of business in society, international context and the workplace
4. Some researchers display a poor level of knowledge when contacting businesses
5. The range and quality of the experts used on many business stories is not of a sufficiently high standard
6. Audiences are well served in their identity as consumers but neither in their role as workers nor as direct or indirect shareholders
7. The trend towards ‘dumbing down’ was particularly noted in The Money Programme. The report focuses on the episode – ‘Bank Robbery!’ – screened last December that highlighted bank charges. It concluded that producers were wrong to actively intervene in the campaign they were reporting on by arranging for an activist to address a meeting. The BBC’s website also sought to influence events by providing a sample letter of complaint to the banks.
Source: BBC Trust