The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has urged the BBC Trust to reverse what it has called a “dangerous” decision to begin allowing the World Service to carry advertising and sponsored content.
Peter Horrocks, director of the World Service, told staff in a letter that the change would take effect from April, sparking condemnation from the union.
He wrote: “The BBC Trust has agreed that, subject to clearance from government, the World Service can broadcast a limited amount of advertising and sponsored content that is not news and current affairs, from 1 April. This decision is outlined in the Trust’s board minutes which were published yesterday.
“Yesterday I was questioned by the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons. Throughout the session it was clear that the committee continue to place a very high value on the World Service. We discussed the future of the World Service, including commercial funding, and I was clear that this would only ever constitute a small percentage of our overall budget.
“This top-up funding will enable us to make new investments and reach even more people around the world. However, maintaining our editorial integrity, and our commitment to broadcast impartial and independent news, will always take precedence over commercial goals.”
However, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet warned that the introduction of advertising was the wrong route for the World Service.
“NUJ members at the BBC believe that any advertising or sponsored content in World Service radio will devalue the brand and threaten the impartiality of BBC World Service programmes,” she said. “We call on the BBC Trust to reverse this extremely foolish and dangerous decision. Given that the BBC is able to waste £100m on a failed IT project, there should be no question of this proposal going ahead.”
The change coincides with the end of the World Service’s current stream of funding from the Foreign Office. From April, the service’s £245m budget will instead come from the licence fee.
Writing in the Independent on Monday, BBC director general Tony Hall said that commercial funding will “never get in the way” of the BBC’s output and said the move was necessary.
“Over the past 80 years, we have built a global news service that is respected and relied upon by a quarter of a billion people,” he wrote. “The World Service has now been given permission to seek extra funds from both commercial and non-commercial sources, where appropriate, by the BBC Trust.
“This is an economic necessity, but let me stress – its future is safe in our hands. Advertisements will never get in the way of our output nor be a dominant part of it. Commercial activity will remain a small part of our funding and there will be no advertising in the UK. The BBC’s reputation for providing impartial and independent news will always take precedence.”