By Mariam Mokhtar
You knew it, and I knew it! The content of the programmes aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was incorrect, or according to the critics were “pure lies”, and there was nothing anyone could do to dispute the findings.
Malaysians, especially those who were in the know, were horrified that the eight, sponsored current affairs programmes on Malaysia had breached the BBC’s rules and compromised its integrity.
The disputed programmes had been broadcast on the BBC World News between February 2009 and July 2011 and all of these had painted a rosy and inaccurate picture of the country’s treatment of its indigenous peoples, its environmental destruction and its portrayal of the Malaysian oil palm industry.
In other words, there was a whitewash of the many issues that Malaysians, especially the Sarawakians had been vocal about.
A statement issued by BBC said, “These rules ensure that programmes are free, and are seen to be free, from commercial or other outside pressures.”
Details about the programmes were sketchy but the suggestion of a financial relationship between the programme makers and the Malaysian government was clear.
“This meant there was a potential conflict of interest, though BBC was not aware of it when the programmes were broadcast.”
BBC was not altogether truthful because it did not reveal anything about the London-based PR firm, FBC Media Ltd, the company which had produced these programmes.
Why is this?
The scandal was first highlighted when Clare Rewcastle-Brown of The Sarawak Report discovered that FBC had been paid millions by both Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud to spruce-up their images overseas.
The allocation of RM29.34 million in 2008 and a further RM28.35 million in 2009 for FBC is evident in Sarawak government’s Supplementary Budget 2010.
Unsurprisingly, after the revelation of the FBC exposé, another international news broadcaster, CNBC, announced the axing of its flagship business show World Business.
This initial investigative work was followed by further revelations by The Independent and The Guardian newspapers in the UK.
BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) warned about the conflict of interest between documentary makers and their financial backers.
“We have found that several programmes shown on BBC’s World News channel had been inappropriately sponsored, and in the case of one of the independent producers, FBC Media, there was at least a suggestion that the company had a conflict of interest of which BBC had been unaware.
“The Trust is deeply concerned at this and we very much regret that these programmes failed to live up to the editorial standards we set for the BBC.”
Despite this revelation of wrongdoing by FBC, the de facto law minister Nazri Abdul Aziz defended the company, saying that the country’s image had to be restored because opposition politicians had made negative comments about Malaysia. He justified the payment of RM84 million by Najib, saying that leaders in the west were more receptive to the PM.
“If they do not bad mouth the government by feeding lies to the international media, we do not have to pay any money to repair our image. This may be an offence of UK broadcasting and ethic guidelines but they did not commit any criminal offence during our engagement.”
Sorry no cure
However, many critics question if the BBC apology was good enough.
One said, “How many people would actually tune in to listen to the apology?”
Another asked how would those who did not have the facility to receive BBC broadcast would actually be aware of the apology?
More questions were raised than answered.
One political pundit said, “Do you remember the hard-hitting BBC series called HardTalk which cancelled Raja Petra Kamarudin’s interview? Now this. What is happening at the BBC?”
HardTalk is a flagship BBC programme with a large global audience. No satisfactory explanation was given for cancelling Raja Petra’s interview. Speculation was that the BBC came under pressure from above.
The anger caused by the misreporting of BBC has not abated. There is deep resentment of the PM and his Cabinet for spending millions of taxpayers’ money on their image rather than on the issues that plague the country. There is also a lack of confidence in BBC because an institution which has been trusted for ages has allowed itself to be compromised in this manner.
One BBC fan said, “How could the BBC not be aware of FBC and its true intentions. Surely BBC is not so naïve as to think it was into charity work?”
Another person said, “Sorry is no cure. How do we know that the message has reached those people who saw the original programmes which we now know to be lies?
“The least BBC can do is to rectify the problem and correct the lies that it helped spread. BBC must commission a series of programmes, with the help of the local people and NGOs on the ground.
“This time, they must tell the truth. We do not want another whitewash or a flippant apology to cover their mistakes.”
Mariam Mokhtar is a FMT columnist.