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
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.