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BBC has struggled with “confusion” over charity appeal impartiality – study

Professor Suzanne Franks analysed documents from the BBC archives as part of her research

by Ed Grover (Senior Communications Officer)

The BBC has faced internal confusion over its impartiality when running major charity events, a study from City, University of London has found.

An analysis of documents from the BBC archive shows that fundraisers like the 2005 Live 8 concert went ahead despite ongoing concerns from senior figures within the corporation.

Professor Suzanne Franks, of the Department of Journalism at City, found the BBC’s relationship with charities has changed dramatically since its first appeal 95 years ago.

But her study revealed there were often “tensions and difficulties” inside the BBC as debates persisted over its duty to stay impartial while providing what was effectively free advertising to a range of charitable causes.

Describing the Live 8 concert, Professor Franks said: “The BBC found itself at the logistical heart of the operation as soon as it was broached, but once again there seemed some confusion about whether it was staging the event and thereby endorsing the political message that entailed, or whether it was simply facilitating television coverage of an event which others had devised.”

The study, published in the November 2018 print edition of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, tells the story of the BBC’s promotion of good causes since its first radio appeal on 17th February 1923. The same programme – now called the Radio 4 Appeal – still continues every week, raising money for a wide range of charities.

From the start, the corporation wanted to be careful which charitable causes it selected and to give audiences enough information to allow them to make an informed decision. This prompted the establishment of the Central Appeals Advisory Committee (CAAC).

In 1927, the BBC launched its annual Children in Need appeal. This gradually expanded with the help of television and in 1980 it became an annual telethon. UK broadcasters and the major aid charities collaborated to establish the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) in 1963 to discuss urgent fundraising appeals.

Dilemmas then arose with crises caused by political upheaval. BBC documents show it decided to broadcast a DEC appeal during the 1982 El Salvador civil war “after a great deal of agonising”, with the same kinds of discussions occurring over the Lebanese war later that year.

However, the line was drawn during the 2009 Gaza war. The Director-General intervened and the BBC refused to broadcast an appeal on grounds of impartiality and the effect on news coverage.

The impact of Live Aid

Professor Franks found the Live Aid concerts, which raised £100 million worldwide for famine-hit Ethiopia in July 1985, showed the power of television but highlighted the way the BBC did not always question its own impartiality as much as it could have.

“At this point in the 1980s, there were few concerns about whether the BBC should be effectively promoting and masterminding a fundraising concert for a charitable cause,” she said.

An internal BBC report later suggested Live Aid “called into question and in some cases contravened the BBC guidelines on appeals”. There were also concerns about the huge growth and change in emphasis which such events involved. Instead of providing carefully curated information on individual charitable causes, donations were sought linked to a high-profile rock music concert. The report questioned how the BBC could maintain impartiality while being “intimately bound up” in the events.

Despite this, Comic Relief was launched in 1985 with “very little questioning that a public service broadcaster might be straying into territory that could be construed as campaigning”, according to Professor Franks. Sport Relief was launched in 2002.

The broadcast of Live 8 later fed into an investigation into impartiality and the way the BBC should approach high-profile fundraising and campaigning events.

And controversy particularly arose when the BBC broadcast a concert as part of the 2007 Live Earth series, which highlighted climate change, but subsequently scrapped the 2008 follow-up, Planet Relief.

This was a decision which Professor Franks argues was influenced by impartiality concerns and appeared to indicate that BBC involvement in good causes would from that point face greater scrutiny.

She concludes: “The BBC has had to find ways of navigating this changing landscape of charitable causes and audience engagement, ensuring that the outcomes were consistent with it purposes as a public service broadcaster funded by the UK licence fee payers. This has at times led to tensions and difficulties within the corporation.”

Professor Franks argues it is likely there will be “ongoing tensions” with the way the BBC handles charity appeals as the scale and nature of such appeals continues to evolve.

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