GMG Calls for Transparency Over BBC Commercial Operations

Guardian Media Group has called for greater transparency over the funding arrangements of the BBC’s commercial operations outside the UK and questioned its publication of soft content in overseas markets. 

Giving evidence to a Culture, Media and Sport select committee hearing on the BBC Charter Review yesterday, Matt Rogerson, GMG head of public policy, told MPs that the publisher was “exceptionally supportive” of the BBC but that at times it could be “the gorilla on your shoulder.”

Matt said one of GMG’s diversification strategies was to create set editions in countries outside the UK. He added: “We’ve made those investments on the basis that we’ll get a commercial return on those and what we didn’t expect to see was the BBC, as the gorilla on your shoulder if you like, coming in behind the Guardian and other British news brands and setting up commercial news operations in developed markets, in Australia and the US.”

Matt said that the BBC operated a commercial subsidiary called Global News Limited which bought content created by the UK public service arms of the BBC and published it on the BBC’s global news website, then commercialising that content through advertising and sponsorship.

Matt added: “So the issue that we have really is around the transfer pricing that Global News Limited operates with public service news, and the lack of transparency around the rate that Global News pays for the content that it receives from the public service.

“And it’s not just the content, it’s also the resources, people and assets that are transferred from the BBC public service side   through to the commercial global news side which now competes for advertising and sponsorship with the Guardian.

Matt continued: “Then on top of that it also creates new content in areas like Australia which focus not on hard news that you would expect of world service but on cookery, autos, culture and areas where there’s no market failure in Australia.

“It is kind of ironic that the one organisation in the world that has guaranteed funding to produce hard news is then moving into soft news as well which is traditionally how newspapers have been able to gain advertising and sponsorship to fund hard news provision.  

“There’s a general sense amongst the printed media in the UK as it was, news media brands as they now are, that there’s been a lack of oversight of the reach of the BBC website in the UK. I think we as an organisation are exceptionally supportive of the BBC, of the licence fee, and the ability of the BBC as a news organisation to produce timely, comprehensive world class news.

“Our position is around fairness and achieving best public value so in terms of fairness I think we need to be absolutely clear that the passage of content, assets, people and resources from the public service side of the BBC is on fair and reasonable terms. That’s not a Guardian Media Group thing, that’s a state aid question.”

“I think they have their eyes on a different prize to working with news brands in the UK I think they see themselves competing with Google and Facebook and they see attention time on Google and Facebook as the primary drivers of their concern and if you do that then the incentive to either by more collaborative with UK news providers that dissolves away and you become more focused on keeping people on your own website and not necessarily partnering in a collaborative way.”