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Adverts on the BBC News website

A briefing from NUJ members 

(Scroll to bottom if you want to know what you can do) 

On 26 May 2006, 151 BBC staff sent a letter to top management figures urging them to abandon plans to put adverts on the BBC News website, on sections visible to overseas readers. The signatories included editors, reporters, designers, developers and technical support staff on the website, and senior correspondents who are regular contributors to it. Since its establishment in 1997, the BBC News website has become one of the leading platforms for BBC content. It registers about 30 million unique users (individual readers) a month, a figure that has showed consistent strong growth. In 2006, for the second year in a row it received two Webby awards - the "online equivalent of the Oscars" - in the category of News. The plans to commercialise the website are largely driven by the BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, which senses an opportunity to use the website to generate revenue. Some senior BBC managers have also leapt aboard the plan, hopeful that they could use such revenue elsewhere to fund developments in the BBC, including on the organisation's cash-strapped commercial global news channel, BBC World. We do not all necessarily oppose the introduction of a commercial element into some of the BBC's operations, as we are aware there are pressures to extract some sort of financial return from the growing number of overseas consumers of its website who do not pay the licence fee. But extreme caution is required. The BBC is a public service broadcaster. The value of its appeal as a space free of ads and accompanying pressures to mould editorial judgements to commercial requirements must not be underestimated. It must maintain this distinctive character - the more it encroaches on the territory of its competitors, the more it begins to resemble them, and the more it undermines its very raison d'etre.

Editorial

Carrying corporate advertising on a page that may include coverage of that corporation or related issues may invite speculation about the prominence, or lack thereof, of that coverage. Once advertising is established, we are likely to find that in time pressures build to invest more in sections of the site deemed to be more commercially lucrative - and concomitant pressures to reduce investment in other areas - irrespective of editorial judgements. Architects of this scheme insist there will be a strict dividing line between editorial and commercial departments; we question whether this division will be maintained should revenue fall short of expectations. In addition, we fear pressure to attract advertisers will lead to ever more intrusive and inappropriate advertising.

Distinctiveness

The BBC is internationally known for its impartiality and trustworthiness. This website has worked to enhance and extend the reach of this reputation for nearly a decade. Carrying commercial advertising would compromise it. One of the BBC News website's unique selling-points is its clean, clutter-free look. Advertisements will inevitably act as an irritant to audiences, and will impair the clarity of our reporting. Philip Graf, in his DCMS review of the BBC's online services, stressed the BBC must maintain the distinctiveness of its output to justify the continuation of the licence fee. We feel this scheme goes against this requirement.

Funding and revenue

We have prospered with the guarantee of grant-in-aid money from the Foreign Office. That is likely to be withdrawn under a commercial model, which makes us as vulnerable to the peaks and troughs of advertising as all our rivals. We are also concerned that once this shortfall created by the likely withdrawal of grant-in-aid (which amounts to almost half the website's annual budget) is made up for, and once development and operational costs of introducing ads are paid for, the money remaining to be ploughed back into the BBC may be negligible and not worth the risks of the scheme.

Audience and staff response

Surveys of overseas users and a Have Your Say page inviting comments from readers on the suggested changes found the vast majority were opposed to the introduction of ads. Many UK readers appear to oppose them, despite being licence fee payers. We are constantly reminded to listen to our audiences, yet in this case management propose to ignore them - and their staff, who have spoken out in opposition.

Technical considerations

The technological challenges of carrying ads on one view of the website (international), and maintaining an ad-free space on the other (domestic), should not be underestimated. Even proponents of this scheme admit these challenges are far from being overcome. In addition, ads place significant extra pressure on web servers, slow download times, and may present problems for disabled users.

BBC culture

The BBC can offer neither experience nor expertise in competing for advertising with commercial rivals and withstanding commercial pressures on editorial processes. This makes predictions of the outcome of this project, both in revenue and impact on editorial processes, extremely unreliable. BBC World TV, a commercial venture, has disappointed expectations of revenue and there is some evidence commercial considerations have impacted editorial decision-making there. The channel is held up by proponents of this scheme as the model we should aspire to - and yet one of the very attractions of putting ads on the BBC News website is to provide more funding to BBC World, which cannot manage on its own! In sum, we remain entirely unconvinced that this proposal is good sense, extremely sceptical of the projected revenues, and dismayed that the BBC brand is seen merely as a chance to make some quick cash. This project, once implemented, would be almost impossible to undo. We feel there are clearly too many unknowns to justify this enormous risk.

What can I do?

If you want to express your opposition to this scheme, e-mail
BBC DG Mark Thompson: MarkThompsonandPA at bbc.co.uk
Deputy DG Mark Byford: Mark.Byford at bbc.co.uk
Richard Sambrook, Director of the BBC’s Global News Division:
Richard.Sambrook at bbc.co.uk
Send copies of protests to no.to.ads at googlemail.com

 
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