‘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

Safe Bottle Lamp: Life-saving bright idea wins World Challenge 2009

Dr Wijaya Godakumbura holding his invention - Photo courtesy Rolex Awards/Tomas Bertelsen

It’s easy to curse the darkness, and many among us regularly do. Only a few actually try to light even a small candle to fight it. Dr Wijaya Godakumbura of Sri Lanka is one of them – he literally lights lamps, thousands of them, against the darkness of ignorance and poverty.

But his lamps are different, and a great deal safer compared to normal lamps and kerosene, which can start fires risking life and property of users. The design is simple yet effective, inspired in part by the Marmite bottle known the world over: it’s small and squat, with two flat sides – equipped with a safe metal screw cap to hold the wick. It’s quite stable and hard to topple.

Surgeon turned inventor and social activist, Dr Godakumbura founded and runs the Safe Bottle Lamp Foundation which distributes safe, virtually unbreakable kerosene lamps to those who can’t afford electricity. For these untiring efforts that have saved hundreds of lives, the good doctor and his organisation have just been selected the overall global winner in the 5th annual World Challenge awards conducted jointly by BBC World News and Newsweek, together with Shell.

The Safe Bottle Lamp Foundation received a $20,000 grant from Shell to invest in the future of the project. The winner and runners-up were felicitated at an awards ceremony in the City of The Hague on 1 December 2009.

Now in its fifth year, World Challenge 2009 is a global competition aimed at finding projects or small businesses from around the world that have shown enterprise and innovation at a grass roots level. World Challenge is brought to you by BBC World News and Newsweek, in association with Shell, and is about championing and rewarding projects and business which really make a difference.

A record breaking 900 plus nominations were received this year and from these, twelve finalists were chosen by a panel of expert judges. BBC World News viewers and Newsweek readers then selected their favourite from these dozen unique and inspiring entries by casting more than 127,800 votes at http://www.theworldchallenge.co.uk.

Watch short film featuring the Safe Bottle Lamp when it emerged a finalist this year:

Dr Godakumbura and his foundation have been recognised many times before. Notable among these honours is the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1998. Read Rolex profile about him and his continuing work.

BBC/Shell World Challenge series producer is my former colleague Robert Lamb, who has blazed many new trails in broadcast television and development communication. He specialises in telling complex environmental stories in engaging terms using moving images, and now runs his own independent film production company One Planet Pictures in the UK.

At the beginning of the World Challenge 2009 process, Robert wrote in the producer’s blog: “World Challenge is now in its fifth year. Over that time we have received thousands of nominations. Sadly, we have only been able to film a small selection. But it’s enough to know that there are millions of points of light out there. Watching the news is easy to forget that the vast majority of people go about their lives peacefully and productively.

“Our aim In World Challenge is briefly to bring stories of modest scale sustainable enterprise to the screens. Every year has thrown up big surprises. The diverse ways that ordinary people go about making a living without taxing the Earth’s resources is uplifting. This year we feature the most diverse crop of stories yet…And the really good news is that they are still going strong and proving that ‘sustainable’ is a term with a lot of meaning.”

Read Dr Wiyaya Godakumbura biography

Inventor Godakumbura promotes his safe bottle lamp

Sheri Liao: From ‘Time for Environment’ to TIME Hero of the Environment 2009

Sheri Liao photographed for TIME by Elisa Haberer

Sheri Liao photographed for TIME by Elisa Haberer

Copyright infringement – or piracy – in video, film and software is a highly contentious issue. I have good friends on both sides of the divide: film maker friends who insist on protecting all their rights to their creations, and open source advocates who want everything to be free and accessible in the public domain.

I can appreciate both points of view, but my own attitude to anyone copying any video films I have helped make or am distributing is: just sit back and enjoy it! After all, the kind of films I make and/or distribute through TVE Asia Pacific are all issue-based and in the public interest. If anyone pirates them, that can only peddle our content and messages to more people…

It’s a pragmatic response to a reality that I can do little to change anyway. Five of the world’s top 10 countries for video piracy are found in the Asia Pacific region, with China at No 2 and India at No 5. If you can’t beat ’em, cheer ’em — and even join ’em!

That’s just what I did in mid 1996, when we received first reports of a Chinese TV presenter making unauthorised use of environmental programming being broadcast on BBC World, the global TV channel. I was then the head of Asia Pacific programme for the non-profit foundation producing Earth Report series, which first aired on BBC and then offered to other TV channels and networks around the world.

Further investigations revealed that the person involved was a woman named Sheri (Xiaoyi) Liao, a former researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who had formed an environmental group called Global Village of Bejing, and was presenting a weekly TV show called ‘Time for Environment’. To bring environmental news and views from other parts of the world, she was using Chinese dubbed extracts of Earth Reports recorded straight off the BBC World satellite channel.

By happy coincidence, I was visiting Beijing – for the first time – for a few days in October 1996, to participate in an international conference of rocket scientists (not my usual orbit, but fortuitous in this instance!). I managed to contact Sheri Liao, and one evening I escaped from the conference to meet this woman who was fast becoming the environmental face of Chinese television.

L to R Dr Li Hao, Nalaka Gunawardene & Sheri Liao, Beijing Oct 1996

L to R Dr Li Hao, Nalaka Gunawardene & Sheri Liao, Beijing Oct 1996

Sheri Liao came to meet me with Dr Li Hao, a Chinese biologist who had recently returned from Germany and teamed up with Global Village in its quest to raise environmental awareness in China.

In a long chat over drinks and dinner, I found out Sheri had been a visiting scholar on International Environmental Politics at the University of North Carolina, but returned to her homeland to found the Global Village of Beijing earlier that year. She was keen to introduce responsible environmental conduct by Chinese citizens at every level. And early on, she realised the massive power of broadcast television to reach China’s one billion plus people. She approached her work with an obsession bordering on missionary zeal: in that process, she was even willing to ‘pirate’ foreign TV content – all for a good cause.

Soon after that encounter, I negotiated for Sheri Liao to make authorised use of Earth Report films in China. Instead of catching it off the airwaves, she soon started receiving proper master tapes and scripts, so a more professional versioning into Chinese could be done. My then British colleagues, who were initially peeved that a Chinese woman was pirating their programmes, soon became her ardent supporters.

That was also the beginning of many years of my engagement with environmental education and communication work in China. (Li Hao later left Global Village to establish her own non-profit, Beijing Earthview Environment Education and Research Centre).

All this is a long way of saying how delighted I am to see Sheri Liao being named as a Hero of the Environment by TIME Magazine earlier this month. She is one of several Asian leaders, researchers and activists included in this year’s roll call of men and women who are fighting on behalf of our beleaguered plant. Read full list here.

Sheri Liao: Greening the Airwaves of China...

Sheri Liao: Greening the Airwaves of China...

Chronicling her close association with China’s rising levels of environmental awareness and activism, TIME noted: “Liao was helped by the fact that the birth of GVB coincided with China’s economic takeoff in the mid-’90s. The group became active in Beijing neighborhoods, raising environmental awareness on the local level. But in recent years it has expanded its work across the country, and it is now involved in everything from promoting plastic-recycling to encouraging building managers to reduce electricity consumption.”

Our paths have crossed a few times since that first meeting in the Fall of 1996. We have been in workshops and conferences together, where I saw Sheri in action – always intense, with a sense of urgency and resolve.

She has been recognised before. In 2002, she was awarded one of the ‘Ten Outstanding Women in China’ by the magazine Chinese Women. She was also honored as the ‘Green Guide’ by China National Planting Tree Committee in 2003 and became one of the ‘Ten National Outstanding Women’ in 2004. In 2005, she won the ‘Annual Economic Figure Social Commonwealth Award’ by China Central Television (CCTV). In 2006, she was honored Green Chinese Annual Figure.

Sheri also continues to be an unofficial bridge between China and the rest of the world. She works with UN agencies, foreign universities and charities like the Clinton Global Initiative – which honoured her with one of its Global Citizen Awards 2008.

China’s road to environmental salvation is a long and hard one. As TIME noted, “Environmental groups continue to run afoul of the Chinese government, which is wary of any power not concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party. But Liao is well connected — she served as an environmental adviser on the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2008 Olympic Games — and in China’s tricky political landscape, those who walk a prudent line often travel furthest.”