The eagle-eyed people over at Heat Street website noticed at the weekend that the BBC overseas website was running very prominent ‘remain’ banner ads, targeted at the 2 million ex pats in Europe, from the Britain Stronger in Europe group. They contained the highly misleading Project Fear message from Chancellor George Osborne that exiting the EU would cost every British family £4,300 a year – a claim that BBC home editor Mark Easton was busy debunking on the Today programme as the ads ran. The BBC took the ads down as soon as they were challenged about them by Heat Street. A BBC spokesman said they had been run ’in error’. The statement in full was:
“This advert appeared outside the UK as the result of a third party error and was blocked as soon as we were alerted to it. We are investigating how this happened and we are taking steps to prevent this happening in the future.”
There was no further information, leaving unanswered how long the ads ran, how many page impressions they generated, and thus the extent of their overall impact. And it also remains a mystery how they ever saw the light of day. Surprise, surprise, the BBC slipped up in exactly the direction that its editorial output so strongly favours. Important here is the background. BBC services in overseas areas (primarily BBC World News) are allowed to take ads, and they raise substantial revenues, a total of £72m from around the world.
This being the BBC, however, the precise information on revenue is not available. Efforts in the past have been made to get at the exact figure through freedom of information requests, but the Corporation has resisted on grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity’. The only information in the public domain is that around £20m of revenues was generated by relevant European operations in 2011. The proportion of that from website advertising, as opposed to on television output, would almost certainly, of course, have been relatively small, but nevertheless significant.
The second important point, this being the BBC, is that advertising and sponsorship is regulated by a 28-page publication called Advertising and Sponsorship Guidelines for Commercial Services, last updated in 2015. One look at it makes it very clear that the appearance of the BSE ad was a jaw-dropping breach of the codes. Why? Well first of all, the main purpose is to ban very firmly numerous categories of commercials and to emphasise that any transgressions will be viewed very seriously. Paragraph 1.4 says (in bold red):
Any proposal to step outside these guidelines must be editorially justified. It must be discussed and agreed in advance with a senior editorial figure. BBC Director Editorial Policy and Standards must also be consulted.
It goes on (2.3):
Advertising must not jeopardise the good reputation of the BBC or the value of the BBC Brand. It should: a) be suitable for the target audience; b) meet consumer expectations of the BBC brand; c) not bring the BBC into disrepute d) not give rise to doubts about the editorial integrity and independence or impartiality of the BBC.
And 2.9 is this:
Advertisements in the following categories must be approved by a senior editorial figure before they can be accepted for broadcast or publication: a) political advertising (on services where this is allowed); b) advertising by governments and government agencies (except tourism boards and trade or investment boards); c) advertising by lobby groups; d) advertising for infant formula or baby milk; e) advertising for any product or service which shares a name or trademark with a prohibited product or service, sometimes referred to as ‘Surrogate advertising’.
And then there is 2.13 (also in red):
Any advertisements that deal with a controversial issue of public policy, or which raise doubts about the BBC’s editorial integrity, must be referred to a senior editorial figure.
Every page is filled with similarly strong warnings and prescription. What this boils down to is that whatever happened over the BSE advert, it was a major breach of the advertising code and a clear failure of management procedures at a particularly sensitive period when the EU referendum was underway. Almost certainly, there was also a breach of the BBC’s (separate) specially-devised EU referendum coverage guidelines.
The BBC blamed a ‘third party error’ for the breach. But how on earth was supervision allowed to be so lax during the referendum campaign? This was a gaff on a gargantuan scale. To blame a third party when the codes make it clear that decisions in this arena are of central importance to the reputation of the BBC is a total disgrace. But, then, at the very top (the BBC Executive Board) has got extensive form in blaming the wrong parties for its own mistakes.
Finally, an issue here is that it is impossible to gauge the likely impact of this breach on the referendum. How many ex pats and British holidaymakers did it actually reach? All the signs are that the poll remains on a knife-edge and overseas votes could well be crucial in determining the outcome. Tellingly, the ‘error’ was in favour of the pro-EU side, in line with much of the BBC’s other referendum output.
image: Peter Thompson, Heat Street