Earlier this month, Britain’s The Independent noted that the BBC was broadcasting a television apology to 74 million of its viewers around the world. The BBC, touted by many Americans who consider themselves media literate as the antidote to our spin-filled and corporate-controlled media, was forced to admit to its fans that it had fallen into the same trap as the U.S. news networks. It decided to swap journalism for corporate-created “news.”
In this case, as The Independent pointed out in its investigation, the BBC bought programs from a U.K.-based public relations firm, FBC Media, and passed them off as documentaries. The BBC bought eight film programs from the company that highlighted the benefits of palm oil production in Malaysia, without looking into the fact that the same company had been paid nearly $27 million by the Malaysian government for what it called “global strategic communications.” Some of these films were bought by the BBC for as little as one British pound.
Watch the BBC’s piece on Malaysia (also, please see below) and it’s not immediately clear that the documentary was produced by a third party. Nor is it obvious that the Malaysian government footed the bill. In the first few minutes it seems to be about “greenwashing” and looks like it’s going to tell a story about how the marketing of palm oil as a sustainable biofuel is a smokescreen to cover massive deforestation. Several minutes into the movie, however, it reveals itself to be the opposite. The movie relies almost entirely on sources that agree with the Malaysian government’s line on promoting the palm oil harvesting, raising environmentalists’ concerns only to dismiss them.
What’s more, another one of FBC’s former clients is a man who has received a lot of media attention lately — former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak. The BBC contracted FBC to produce a film for its Third Eye series that portrayed Egypt as a “liberal and open” society besieged by Islamic fundamentalists. Last November, when the British press came out with revelations about the ties between FBC and Mubarak, the BBC responded that it would “no longer buy news programs at low or nominal cost.” It stopped short of saying that it would no longer buy news programs produced by PR agencies.
There are a lot of questions that this all raises. Just how many of the “documentaries” that news organizations stamp their seal on are actually produced by these PR firms? Didn’t anyone in the BBC’s financial department find it odd that they were purchasing films for the cost of a cup of coffee? And why hasn’t the U.S. media, for all of the noise that they made about Rupert Murdoch’s phone hacking shenanigans, picked up on this story?
The BBC’s role in passing along disinformation from the now defunct FBC Media (which, ironically stands for FactBased Communications) shouldn’t be surprising for anyone that has followed the British network’s history of playing fast and loose with the facts. Some of this has been serious, like the 2003 “sexing up” of intelligence that proved Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Other instances have been ridiculous, such as the 2011 flap that ensued after it turned out that “arctic” scenes of polar bears from its documentary series Frozen Planet were actually shot in a zoo (For more on Frozen Planet, please see: “Reprogramming Frozen Planet: Dodging the Climate Debate Hot Zone.”) But the issue of palm oil producers forcing indigenous Malaysians from their lands is far more serious. Recent protests have seen hundreds of demonstrators gather to denounce the large palm oil refineries, which locals say are illegally evicting them with the help of local police to make room for more palm tree plantations.
Not wanting to be outdone by the British, CNBC has also muscled its way up to the PR trough in recent years. Last August, it quickly cancelled its World Business program after bloggers revealed its ties to the same nexus of FBC Media folks and Malaysian politicians. This only goes to show that the divide between, American and foreign and public and private media may be narrower than we all imagine. When Americans tire of one news network and start seeking out new sources of information those same PR firms will be waiting. They’ll happily sell us an alternative.
(The photo is by Kyle Cheung of San Francisco, California via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see the BBC report discussed in this piece, please check below.)