Tuesday, 31 May 2011

How the BBC spends Britain's international aid

A little-known charity run by the BBC is spending more than £15 million from the UK taxpayer on “international aid” projects including “educating” Africa on climate change and a “romantic” soap opera for Indian radio. 


The charity, the BBC World Service Trust, employs nearly 600 staff based in London and around the world. It gets a further £800,000 a year in financial backing from the BBC, as well as funding from other sources.
Last year it spent more than £28 million on “changing lives through media and communication”. It also produces foreign sex education films, including one staring an Asian beauty queen emerging from a bath and seductively encouraging men to use a condom.
The revelation comes in the wake of the row over the Government’s decision to protect Britain’s overseas aid budget while imposing huge cuts on defence and other public spending.
On Saturday the disclosure was condemned by MPs who questioned why taxpayers’ money was being spent in this way and whether the Trust’s relationship with Whitehall departments, business donors and foreign governments damaged the BBC’s independence.
“You imagine that our foreign aid budget is being spent to save lives by pumping fresh water to a drought-ridden village, not to make soap operas,” said Philip Davies, a Tory member of the Commons culture committee.
In recent years the Trust has spent millions of pounds from the taxpayer including:
  • £2.6 million on “Sanglap” a satellite television and radio programme in Bangladesh which is described as “Question Time-style ... enabling audiences to hold politicians to account”.
  • £2 million on a radio soap opera, “Mandalay Road”, about health care and Aids in Burma
  • Daily reports from the war crimes trial of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian leader, with the BBC sending experienced correspondents to mentor African reporters covering the case
  • £2.5 million on a project highlighting “the importance of Information and Communications for Development”.
The BBC Trust gets additional public money from the Foreign Office-funded British Council, the European Union and the United Nations, as well as cash from Microsoft founder Bill Gates’s charitable foundation.
The charity is separate from the Foreign Office-funded BBC World Service, which runs the Corporation’s long-established foreign language stations around the world, and which broadcasts some of the Trust’s programmes.
Whilst the World Service is facing massive budget cuts, the Trust appears to have been unaffected so far by the economy drive. It has seen its budget grow tenfold since it was set up in 1999, including spending more than £5 million a year on salaries.
Caroline Nursey, its executive director and a former senior official at Oxfam, earns between £90,000 and £99,000 a year. At least three other executives are paid more than £80,000.
Its board of trustees is headed by Peter Horrocks, the director of the BBC World Service, and includes George Alagiah, the presenter of the Six O’clock News on BBC One.
Despite its rapid growth, the Trust is currently carrying out a “rebranding” exercise to raise awareness of its work within the BBC. Last year the charity sent a “sensory tent” with “a soundscape featuring ... voices by Sir David Attenbourgh (sic)” on a tour of the Corporation’s regional offices.
Formerly known as the BBC World Service Training Trust, the charity started out funding journalist training in the Third World. It has now grown to be one of Britain’s largest international aid charities, although it is still dwarfed by more established organisations like Oxfam which spends ten times the Trust’s budget.
The revelations about the BBC Trust come after Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, challenged David Cameron’s plan to enshrine the government’s overseas aid spending targets in law.
In a leaked letter last week he said: “I cannot support the proposal in its current form.”
He said putting the commitment on the statute books “could limit HM government’s ability to change its mind about the pace at which it reaches the target in order to direct more resources toward other activities or programmes rather than aid”.
Last night critics of the Government’s aid spending policy said the new disclosures added weight to the Defence Secretary’s warning. Mr Davies said: “I’m genuinely concerned that lots of the overseas aid budget is wasted and before the Government starts spraying even more money around you would think they would check that the money already allocated was being wisely spent – this would indicate that it probably isn’t.”
In a letter to the all-party international development committee, Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, indicated that his department would be keeping a closer watch on the Trust’s work.
The letter, released last week, said he intended to place DfID’s relationship with the Trust “on a longer term and more strategic basis” and would be prepared to offer it “an accountable grant”.
He added: “All initiatives funded under such a strategic relationship would be focused on the international development priorities the Coalition Government has set out, and be subject to the same value for money, impact and results tests that apply across the whole of the DfID programme.”
On Saturday Mr Mitchell told The Sunday Telegraph: “The BBC World Service Trust uses media to help people in poor countries, hold their leaders to account and live safer, healthier lives.
“Media is a powerful and cost effective way of reaching large numbers of people. From using radio soaps to combat HIV to hosting TV and radio debates promoting democracy – the BBC World Service Trust helps some of the very poorest people in the world.”
Peter Horrocks, the Trust’s chairman and the director of BBC Global News, said: “The BBC is proud of the work of the Trust that reached 250 million people last year around the world. Funded mainly by grants and donations from a range of donors including Gates Foundation and DfID, the Trust ascribes to the BBC’s editorial values and works to inform and educate people in the developing world.”
Caroline Nursey, the Trust’s director, added that, as a charity, “the Trust is able to go one step further than the journalists of the BBC and provide people in developing and transitional countries with timely, useful information and opportunities for discussion”.
She said that how and where it got its funding had “no bearing on the news output on the BBC whatsoever”.
Some of the Trust’s high-profile projects like Hindi soap Life Gulmohar Style and the Condom Condom project were not funded by the BBC or the UK taxpayer but from other sources, she said. She added that the sex education films had been funded by the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates’s charity, as part of its remit to combat Aids, while Bollywood stars, including Ekta Choudhry, gave their time for free.
Explaining the BBC’s funding of the charity, she added: “The Trust shares accommodation with the World Service in its historic home, Bush House, to facilitate partnership between the two organisations. This accommodation is a gift in kind valued at £594,000. While this is valued for accounting purposes, this has no real cost to the BBC because it is unlikely that the space could be used for any other purpose.
“In addition, the World Service makes a financial contribution of £150,000 per year and benefits from programming made by Trust which it broadcasts. The World Service is not licence fee-funded.”
Asked about the Trust’s staff costs and her own salary, she added: “The emoluments of nine members of staff are greater than £60,000. These costs are in line with those of other similar charities.”
The Trust’s annual report features a list of its “achievements” during the last financial year and highlights some of the projects it funded with the help of the British taxpayer. These include:
Safe Sex in India
In India it is running the “Condom Condom” safe sex campaign, including setting up a website and making a series of advertisements encouraging men to wear a condom.
Hindi Soap Opera
Also in India, where DFID’s role has been questioned because the nation is now the world’s tenth-largest economy, the BBC Trust has funded a 156-part Hindi-language radio drama called Life Gulmohar Style.
Broadcast on Indian FM Rainbow stations, owned by the Indian government, it features five young people “in search of their destiny”.
Described as “funny, romantic, and serious” its characters include: Revant Capoor (“a handsome and attractive DJ”) and Chanchal (“one naughty parrot who’s never short of wit and quotes … maybe this is due to her degree in English literature”).
The plot for one recent episode was described by the BBC blurb as: “Revant is in a romantic mood but Chanchal is quite clear ... nothing doing without protection. After the pregnancy scare, she doesn’t want to take any chances and isn’t protection the responsibility of both the partners?”
Climate Change In Africa
It runs an educational programme on climate change across Africa, including “Africa Talks Climate Change”. It says: “Climate change is one of the most important issues on the global political and economic agenda ... African citizens’ response to climate change is hampered by a fundamental shortage of relevant useful information ...”
A document prepared by the BBC Trust and the British Council adds: “African citizens are the least responsible for generating the greenhouse gases that are contributing to global climate change ... For many, understanding of human-induced global climate change is limited.”
It spent more than £500,000 on the climate change project last year.
Iraq and Afghanistan
The Trust has spent millions of pound on starting up the “Al Mirbad” radio station in Iraq. The station has, according to the Trust, “become one of the most recognised and listened-to radio stations across the south of the country”. The station is now being handed over to Iraqi control.
In Afghanistan it makes a radio soap opera, “New Home, New Life”, which, it says, has 14 million listeners. Characters address problems on the ground in the war-torn country. For example, one leading figure, Jandad, loses a leg in a landmine explosion and his family are forced to work together to buy him an artificial limb.