Consumer Affairs: PR takes sides as war on Watchdog hots up - An alliance of top companies in the UK is taking on the BBC’s Watchdog programme. But there could be a high price to pay for being seen to challenge the consumers’ champion

Major companies often team up for commercial reasons, but rarely to make common cause against a TV programme.

Major companies often team up for commercial reasons, but rarely to

make common cause against a TV programme.

Yet such an alliance made the headlines last week after Ford instigated

a meeting to address concerns related to the BBC’s consumer programme

Watchdog and its offshoots. Among companies to attend were Airtours,

Dixons, Procter and Gamble, Thomson Holidays, BT, Vauxhall and the

Automobile Association.

Watchdog’s particular brand of investigative journalism has proved very

successful in supporting consumers with genuine grievances at the

treatment they have received from big business. But at the same time its

methods, and on more than one occasion the accuracy of its reporting,

have come under fire from corporations who feel they have been


Since 1 April 1997, the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) has

published 11 adjudications on complaints about Watchdog. Eight of these

were either fully or partly upheld. This is not to mention a flood of

further complaints directed at the BBC’s Programme Complaints Unit or

Watchdog production staff.

The BBC has mounted a robust defence of one of its flagship programmes.

A spokeswoman last week described the attack as led by big companies

using huge resources, PR firms and expensive lawyers.

By contrast, the BBC is positioning itself as the consumers’ champion,

speaking up for those that cannot afford lawyers and PR firms. BBC media

relations manager Mike Gardner says: ’Watchdog is the sort of programme

that will attract criticism. It is the last resort for consumers and is

contacted by over 5,000 people every week.’

A PR war is brewing and creating an anti-Watchdog alliance could

backfire as it could be perceived as big business trying to intimidate

the consumers’ champion. Mindful of this, the companies involved are

using the tactic of making it absolutely plain that they are not against

shows like Watchdog in principle, arguing they merely want fair


Even so, some companies have doubts about the wisdom of an alliance.

British Airways was invited to the meeting but declined to attend

because, says its media relations manager Jamie Bowden: ’Our view is

that we have to create a working relationship with them.’

As an impartial industry observer, Neil Hedges, chief executive of

corporate agency Fishburn Hedges, says: ’I’ve always been sceptical of

the real intent of broadcast consumer programmes: the balance between

entertainment and education is suspect.

’Of course there are dangers in taking on Watchdog, but it needs to be

done. If challenging the might of such programmes is too much for single

companies, a collective action is the only alternative.’

The seriousness with which the companies view the problem is illustrated

by the fact that the meeting was at the behest of Ford chairman and

managing director Ian McAllister and was attended by equally senior


Misgivings about the programme are deeply felt. AA media relations

manager Richard Freeman slams an unacceptable ’degree of

editorialising’; Thomson Holidays’ consumer affairs manager Nicola

McShane voices concern about the way Watchdog ’covers the travel

industry in general and the insufficient time given to respond to

specific complaints;’ another interested party attacks the ’funny

kangaroo polls’ in which consumers are encouraged to vote on companies’

actions ’without getting the full facts’.

The fact that it can take up to 18 months from a complaint to an

adjudication by the BSC, which can compel the BBC to broadcast a

retraction, also disturbs the companies. In the intervening period, they

argue, uncorrected stories can do untold damage to their precious

corporate or brand reputations.

The participants agreed to keep the details of last week’s meeting

private. However, it is known that one of the paths they wish to take is

a meeting with the BBC’s governors.

’Our aim is to get the governors to recognise that there is a problem

and to make sure that they enforce their obligations under the BBC

charter to ensure impartiality and fairness,’ says John Stonborough and

Co managing director John Stonborough, who is advising Airtours. ’It

isn’t just the excess of Watchdog. It’s about the whole complaints

procedure when the BBC gets it wrong.’

Clearly corporate antipathy has been growing for some time. In 1996,

Hill and Knowlton was involved in trying to bring together companies to

address the Watchdog situation on behalf of its client Procter and


Now it is Ford and its in-house team leading the charge. Hardly

surprising given that the company was criticised in six episodes of

Watchdog aired between October 1996 and January 1997 - five of which

focused on reported steering problems in some Mondeos - and had a

complaint to the BSC upheld in part.

The BBC has vehemently denied that it plans changes to Watchdog’s

editorial policy. With attitudes hardening on both sides, this is an

issue that will run and run. It is ironic that Watchdog’s watchword to

its viewers is ’complain’. Ford and its cohorts have taken the

opportunity to do just that.

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