Wednesday, November 22, 2006

BBC's Cash Bonus for Journalists probing Cash for Honours

How stupid can people get??

It has been reported that the UK Labour party has hit out at a move by the BBC to offer its journalists a £100 bonus every time they generated stories on the cash-for-honours inquiry, saying the scheme called into question the broadcaster's impartiality.

In a letter to Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General, Peter Watt, Labour's general secretary, said that such a bonus scheme "cannot do anything other than distort the news judgment of your journalists".

Watt noted that BBC guidelines made clear that the corporation's news judgments must be influenced "neither by political or commercial pressures, nor by any personal interests".

Labour is asking the BBC for full details of when the offer was put out to its staff, whether payments were made and what disciplinary action was taken.

The BBC said it had withdrawn a memo sent to reporters offering an incentive for stories on the cash-for-honours row.

The corporation said that no disciplinary action had been taken against the news editor understood to be working in the BBC's political news division. The corporation said that the offer of a cash bonus was a one-off.

It added: "We recognise that all journalists want to be first with any story.

"However this e-mail with the offer of an incentive was wholly inappropriate which we have unreservedly withdrawn."

After the Hutton inquiry surrounding the death of David Kelly, the UK government's weapon's inspector, the BBC questioned whether its journalists should be trying to break scoops. It has since reverted to competing for stories against its rivals.

Don Foster, the Culture Spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, has said that the BBC was "barking mad to pursue a bounty system", adding that he was "glad that common sense had prevailed".

He added: "It would have been a bung given to journalists to write about potential bungs.

"It would have affected the sense of impartiality of BBC journalists on [the cash-for-honours] issue and would have caused incredulity among licence fee payers" at a time when it was negotiating its funding with the government.

Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens wrote the following earlier this year:

The strongest argument for public service broadcasting lies in its role in nurturing democracy - in acting as an unbiased and informed mediator between elected politicians in all their guises and citizens. Yet in its daily output of news and current affairs, the BBC is at its weakest.

The mission to probe and explain has given way to a breathless superficiality which takes its cue from the tabloid press. What remains of the challenging journalism that once sustained the BBC's reputation has been shunted to the edges of the television schedules.

Respect for, and knowledge of, politics has made way for the early morning sneer. Laziness and arrogance sit side by side. Public policy - as opposed to endless gossip from the febrile world of Westminster - has all but vanished from the television schedules.

Radio 4 is much better than the rest, but even on the best of the BBC the tendency to sensationalise too often overwhelms the duty to analyse.

Perversely, the BBC seems to have convinced itself that it is the victim of the Iraq furore. Never mind all those viewers and listeners misled, or politicians and officials falsely traduced. How dare anyone attack the integrity of the BBC?

Therein lies the problem and the challenge for the corporation's new leaders: a producer mindset that elevates the amour propre of the BBC above the interests of those it serves.

Mr Thompson (Director-General) has a reputation as a strategic thinker. That will be useful in the charter negotiations. Not as important, though, as the less cerebral task of rebuilding BBC journalism.