The row over EU funding for the BBC rolls on.
This week's European Scrutiny Committee questioning of the BBC's Tony Hall, James Harding and David Jordan contained several mentions of the BBC's Media Action unit, such as this from the BBC's head of editorial policy and standards (Mr Jordan):
The BBC, as a public service broadcaster, does not take money from the EU. The organisation to which you were referring that takes money from the EU is an organisation called Media Action, and that is an independent part of the BBC, with independent trustees, whose job is to do something very different from broadcasting to the UK. The job of Media Action—it is engaged in a number of current projects funded through the EU—is, for example, in Afghanistan, to work with the Afghan media sector to develop its news and other programme-making skills, including the adoption of public service broadcasting values. In Bangladesh, it is to work on disaster preparedness. In Syria, it is to build on the achievements of an FCO-funded socially responsible media platforms programme, which has successfully established a web-based training facility for journalists and bloggers. In Iraq, it is to help to contribute to the development of an open media environment through improving legal and regulatory freedoms, and then it has a project on governance, which is about holding decision makers and media leaders to account in Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories, Syria and Tunisia. You would probably agree that those sorts of projects are desperately needed in those countries. That is very separate from making programmes for the BBC.
Today's Sunday Telegraph, however, claims that the BBC's Media Action isn't just a democracy-spreading, pro-media freedom charity working in the Arab World and South Asia, uninfluenced by its EU funding (and, therefore, also uninfluenced by the EU's contractual demands on those who receive funding from it that it won't say or do anything to harm the interests of the EU).
The Telegraph makes the explosive-sounding charge that BBC Media Action was "paid to deliver key parts of the EU’s political strategy in countries on the fringes of Europe":
BBC Media Action received £9.3million between 2011 and 2014, much of it to deliver the EU’s “European Neighbourhood Policy”. European Union officials have described this as “a broad political strategy” designed to strengthen the “prosperity, stability and security of Europe’s neighbourhood in order to avoid any dividing lines between the enlarged EU and its direct neighbours”.
As part of this work, BBC Media Action led the consortium of media companies that delivered a three-year project called Media Neighbourhood, which provided training for hundreds of journalists in 17 countries on the outskirts of Europe.
Reporters taking part in the scheme attended “study tours to the EU in Brussels” during which they were able to interview “top EU policy makers” in the European Commission and the European Parliament.
I have to say that I still found that puzzling. The article is a bit too vague and lacks a smoking gun.
The second paragraph there sounds as if Media Neighbourhood is merely the application of the unit's usual democracy-spreading media action, just as David Jordan was saying - albeit in countries closer to the EU than Mr Jordan was suggesting. Is it really seeking to enhance the EU's cause too, as the Telegraph alleges?
Checking out the BBC's Media Neighbourhood website, those countries are: Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, Palestine (sic), The Russian Federation, Syria, Tunisia and Ukraine.
It is interesting that David Jordan's list to MPs - which appears from his description to relate to this specific project - only consisted of "Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories, Syria and Tunisia". He omitted to mention Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, The Russian Federation and Ukraine. Wonder why he did that?
The BBC Media Action/EU joint project has two stated aims, according to its website. The first is the one that David Jordan was happy to acknowledge to parliament:
To strengthen the professional capacity of journalists across the ENPI region, particularly in the areas of media independence and online media.
The second, however, is something he most definitely did not mention:
To enable the public in the ENPI countries to have a more informed and objective understanding of EU social, economic and political issues and cooperation with the ENPI beneficiary countries.
So, yes, the BBC Media Action project does have an explicit role in promoting the EU's cause, doesn't it?
It's not just about helping journalists (public broadcasters, bloggers, etc) in various countries after all, apparently. It's also about "enabling the public" in those countries "to have a more informed and objective understanding" of the EU and their countries' relationship with the EU...
Now - unless I'm missing something - that really does seem like a smoking gun.
What on earth is this BBC-owned project doing helping the EU to influence public opinion towards the EU in 17 countries close to the EU's borders - especially in those that used to belong to the Soviet empire (like Ukraine)?
Maybe a few letters to MPs on the European Scrutiny Committee are needed, asking them to try to get to the bottom of this. (Rona Fairhead is due to appear before them soon. Maybe they could ask her.)