Whose BBC?

The present author well remembers a discussion that took place in a London home in 2005. The topic was bias in the British media and whether it could not perhaps affect the British public’s perception of international matters such as the Iraq War or the Middle East conflict. The conversation had already become somewhat heated when my host — a longtime Labor Party activist and advisor to the British government — suddenly exclaimed: “We have our BBC!” The objectivity of “our” BBC being apparently beyond doubt and my interlocutor, in a similarly proprietary spirit, having only shortly before reminded me that I was also seated on her couch, the discussion came to a stop there.

The supposition that the BBC is beholden to no one but the British taxpayer has, however, become increasingly untenable in light of mounting evidence of its dependence upon EU financing. Thus, as reported in the Times of London, BBC Finance Director Zarin Patel recently admitted that the BBC has taken out some £141million — or €188million — in “soft” loans from the EU-backed European Investment Bank (EIB) since 2003. As Richard North of the EU Referendum blog rightfully points out, the BBC’s reliance on the low cost loans will not be news to readers of EU Referendum, since he called attention to the practice, citing British parliamentary records, in an article from June 2004. As North pointed out then and as the Times of London does now, the express purpose of the EIB is to promote European integration and EU policies: making the acceptance of such funds by the BBC obviously incompatible with its claim to impartiality. As the EIB home page explains: “The task of the Bank is to contribute towards the integration, balanced development and economic and social cohesion of the EU Member States. The EIB raises substantial volumes of funds on the capital markets which it lends on favourable terms to projects furthering EU policy objectives.”

But if cheap money is one thing, free money is still another. Inspection of EU grant data for 2003-2006 reveals that the BBC World Service Trust received nearly €5 million in EU support in six separate grants for the period covered. The data concerns just a single EU funding program: The European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights.

In response to the 2004 parliamentary query cited by Richard North, a British government spokesman identified the BBC World Service Trust as “an independent charity which is not a division of the BBC” — a description that obviously begs the question of why he included it in his tally of EU funding for the BBC at all. But, as indicated in the World Service Trust’s financial report for 2006-2007, the “sole member” of the trust is the BBC itself. This will help to explain, among other things, why the Trust is housed in the BBC World Service’s London headquarters, why its Web site is part of the BBC Web site and why the BBC logo appears on its video productions. Moreover, a perusal of the Trust’s activities reveals that they serve, among other things, to produce programming that is broadcast by the World Service proper: thus making the World Service, in effect, a beneficiary of its own ostensibly “charitable” endeavors.

It is interesting to note that the BBC World Service Trust has recently either backed out of or turned down grants from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). To fund a project in Iraq, for example, the Trust preferred to take funding from Sheikhs Mohammad and Abdalla Bin Zayed of Abu-Dhabi rather than from USAID. (See the remarks of project director Abir Awad here.) The fastidiousness of the Trust about accepting U.S. funding is presumably to be explained by concerns that it could be seen as compromising the Trust’s “independence.” But if taking money from the United States is compromising, why is taking money from the EU not so?