‘Cheque-book development’: BBC World News editorial air time being sold to development agencies?

The BBC Trust – an independent body which safeguards the values of the publicly funded British Broadcasting Corporation – recently faulted the BBC Panorama series for faking child labour footage in India, apologised to the corporate house falsely implicated, and returned a prestigious TV award won by the 2008 programme concerned.

This was certainly a welcome move. But there is much more that the guardian of BBC values can and should investigate, among them the conduct of the BBC’s global TV broadcasting arm currently branded as BBC World News (earlier called BBC World TV). In this context, I want to draw attention to an op-ed essay I wrote in August 2007 that flagged an on-going practice where publicity-hungry development agencies were paying intermediaries who are apparently selling editorial coverage on BBC World. This is unethical and possibly illegal. I called it ‘Cheque-book development’.

The essay originally appeared in MediaChannel.org, an outspoken media-watch website produced from New York by the highly respected ‘News Dissector’ and media activist Danny Schechter. MediaChannel.org has since experienced funding difficulties and their online archive is currently not accessible. My op-ed also appeared, in full, at Asia Media Forum where it is still available.

Excerpts of the essay were featured in my blog post of 15 August 2007: ‘Cheque-book Development’: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos

I am reproducing the full text of my op-ed essay without any changes so it is more widely available. Despite expressions of dismay from fellow media watchers, there was no reaction of any kind from the BBC at the time. Let us hope the BBC Trust will now consider it worth looking into.

‘Cheque-book development’ corrupting the media?

By Nalaka Gunawardene (August 2007)

BLURB: In their ceaseless efforts to keep their organisations in the media spotlight, spin doctors of development agencies are distorting news values and corrupting the media, turning issue-based communication products into ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.

There is a new kind of ‘tout’ accosting development and humanitarian agency officials at international meetings.

These smart and well-heeled persons are not looking for a supply contract. In the age of spin, they are offering agencies ‘product placement’ – in the globalised news media.

“I can get your agency on BBC World,” is a common claim. In some quarters now, Al Jazeera International (AJI) is also being mentioned.

This is not an over-enthusiastic journalist looking for a scoop. These intermediaries are peddling the jealously-guarded access to highly visible news and current affairs TV channels.

Some are freelancers or stringers, while others are film production company executives. Their media access is hard earned: they all have track records of producing TV news features or documentaries to international broadcast standards.

There is only one problem: they are not supposed to sell this media access to the highest bidder.

But it happens more frequently than we suspect.

I have personally witnessed this kind of offer being made. Worryingly, the development community does not find anything ethically or morally wrong with this practice.

One possible reason: the competition among development and humanitarian organisations for public recognition has intensified in the past decade. Their communication officers are under tremendous pressure to raise the profile of their organisations -– and in some cases, of egotistic bosses.

So when a cash-for-media coverage opportunity comes along, it is too good to be missed.

The obvious question is hardly raised: how come access to a trusted news outlet is being marketed? Instead, many development professionals simply ask: how much?

The answer depends on how many precious seconds of air time, on which broadcast outlet and for what kind of story. But we are not talking about small change: some of these deals involve fifty or hundred thousand US dollars.

And those funds are drawn from the already tight communication budgets of development and humanitarian agencies.

At Asia Media Summit 2006 in Kuala Lumpur, the regional communication chief of a leading UN agency told me how she’d worked with such an ‘access peddler’ to get a post-tsunami story on BBC World TV. The few minutes of coverage almost drained her budget – but the agency management was highly pleased with their ‘few minutes of fame’.

I found that it was not a BBC staffer but a freelancer who was involved. Money had exchanged hands, though I didn’t find out how much, or on what kind of contractual arrangement it was done.

This is not an isolated incident. As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.

Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ’embedded journalists’ – all at agency expense.

In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.

The access peddlers know this weakness very well, and have turned it into a veritable cottage industry.

It’s not just the development sector’s vanity that fuels this process. Many 24/7 news channels are struggling to fill their hours inexpensively. Some turn a blind eye to ethical sourcing as long as they can have a steady supply of subsidised content.

Some media outlets are harder to penetrate than others. CNN International regulations prevent access peddling by its staff or intermediaries. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the United States does not allow interviews with representatives of any entity sponsoring the production or broadcast of a programme.

Sadly, not every broadcaster is as careful.

This practice is wrong on two counts. One, allowing intermediaries to sell access to the airwaves is a form of corruption. Two, every time this happens, it siphons off tax-payer supported development funds intended for combating poverty and suffering in the majority world.

It is the reverse of cheque-book journalism, where some media organisations pay celebrity or other sources for exclusive access to their stories. When development agencies are paying sections of the media to get promotional or favourable stories aired, we must call it ‘cheque-book development’.

Some practitioners might argue that the end justifies the means. But beyond narcissism, the development benefit of logo-delivery media coverage is highly debatable.

Journalistic stories, whether on development, humanitarian or any other topic, must earn their place in the media on their intrinsic value. Despite greater corporatisation of the media, a good story can still stand up on its own.

Attaching cash to a development story seriously distorts those news values, making it harder for other development players to get rightful media coverage for their stories.

The origins of this unhealthy trend dates back to at least the 1970s, when the World Bank and some UN agencies started buying air time on public television networks to broadcast promotional films. Throwing money was a lot easier than working with producers to generate sustained coverage on issues of public interest. This spoilt the chances for others who were not willing or able to buy airtime but had public interest content to offer.

Paradoxically, the same development agencies take to the moral high ground on transparency and corruption in the global south. But as they broker more cash-for-media coverage deals behind the scenes, we are left gasping at the hypocrisy of it all.

Nalaka Gunawardene writes on media, development and society. The views in this essay are entirely his own. He can be reached on and he blogs at https://movingimages.wordpress.com

Encounters with Mediasaurus: Telling media tycoons what is missing in their media!

I have just been very lucky. I addressed a select gathering of media owners, publishers, editors and senior journalists — almost all of them working in the mainstream print or broadcast media in Sri Lanka — and virtually called them dinosaurs, and compared their industry to the supposedly unsinkable Titanic.

The nice people they all were, they actually let me get away with it! The occasion was the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009, held at the now-renovated Galle Face Hotel in Colombo.

Shining a light at a spot rarely probed...

Shining a light at a spot rarely probed...

Coordinated, produced and published by the Asia Media Forum with the assistance of Actionaid, the report is a quick survey of the state of media in 20 Asian countries, written mostly by working journalists and broadcasters. It focuses on how the media throughout Asia reports on marginalised people and communities in their respective societies, from the very poorest countries to the richest.

‘Missing in the Media’ is the theme of Asia Media Report 2009, and I used this as the point of departure for my talk, illustrated with many cartoons some of which have appeared on this blog. I fully agreed with the editor and contributors of the report – six of whom I know – that there are many elements missing or lacking in Asia’s mainstream media today. But instead of adding to that list, I asked a more fundamental question: at a time when the mass media as we know it is under threat of mass extinction, how do we save and nurture at least a few good things that we hold dear?

In that process, I had to do some plain speaking and tell my audience that they cannot continue business as usual and expect to remain relevant, or even solvent for too long. I referred to the famous mediasaurus essay by Michael Crichton, and traced what happened since its appearance in 1993. I also compared the media’s arrogance to that of the Titanic‘s builders, who believed the ship was unsinkable.

I will be sharing highlights of my talk in the coming days through one or more blogposts. For now, I’m still grateful that my remarks were received with good grace and cordiality. (For more, read post on ICT revolution, and post on greater collaboration between mainstream media and citizen journalism.)

I don’t do this kind of big picture talk too often, and mind my own business most of the time (which is a hands full these days). In fact, the last two occasions I spoke my mind to assorted worthies of the Sri Lankan media, the reaction was much harsher.

The Coming Ka-Boom? L to R: Vijitha Yapa and Sharmini Boyle seem to be amused as Nalaka Gunawardene speaks

The Coming Ka-Boom? L to R: Vijitha Yapa and Sharmini Boyle seem to be amused as Nalaka Gunawardene speaks

First was when I talked about the press freedom in the digital age to large gathering of Sri Lankan journalists and editors was the World Press Freedom Day Colombo observance in 2001. When I referred to the potential of new communications technologies – especially the (then still emergent) Internet and mobile phones – for safeguarding media freedoms, I was practically shouted down by a section of the audience. They felt I was talking about ‘western trends’ and ‘concerns too far removed from their bread-and-butter issues and survival issues’. Yet, the past few years have amply proved that if anything, I was too conservative in what I anticipated as technology’s role in promoting media freedom.

The second occasion was in mid 2004, when I was asked to speak at a Colombo meeting to mark the launch of a scholarly volume (in Sinhala) looking back at the first 25 years of television broadcasting in Sri Lanka. I was one of two dozen contributors, from diverse backgrounds of culture, science and journalism, who were brought together by the Catholic Media Centre of Sri Lanka which has a (secular) media monitoring programme. Having expressed my reflective views in the book chapter, in my speech I discussed my aspirations for the next 25 years — hoping there would be greater innovation and experimentation in an industry that seemed to be running short of both. This irked a certain local pioneer of television, who spoke after me and spent half of his given time attacking me personally and ideologically. Talk about pioneer’s syndrome. That definitely was a mediasaurus breathing fire, and I don’t want to meet one of these beasts on a dark night…

On both occasions, the event organisers apologised to me for the hostile reactions, but I was cool. By now, I’m used to reactions of all kinds in the public sphere. Given this history, yesterday’s encounter was far more reassuring that there still are good people even in an industry that is under siege in more ways than one.

I’m so fortunate to be welcomed by both media practitioners and media researchers across Asia. I’m no longer a card-carrying member of either group (if I ever was!), but I have great fun hobnobbing with both, occasionally telling them some home truths. This is what Irish journalist-cum-academic Conor Cruise O’Brien once called ‘having a foot in both graves’!