The BBC Business Unit and the public interest

The BBC's reporting of issues from NHS reform, welfare reform and the looming EU US trade deal can be better understood by looking at the BBC's Business Unit. A narrow and questionable 'business perspective' drives more coverage than viewers may think.

Linda Kaucher
17 June 2013

If people want to understand why the BBC reports as it does and gain a clearer view of the ‘bias’ debate, they should start with the Business Unit – what is its perspective and over how much coverage is this lens applied? My experience suggests the Business Unit has limited knowledge of, or interest in, either the health reforms of 2012 or the wider framework of the international trade agenda. It clearly suffers, too, from a significant degree of corporate-capture. The adherence of the BBC, and especially its central Business Unit, to a government agenda - including on the secrecy of trade deals - is diametrically opposed to its public interest brief to inform the license fee paying UK public.

The BBC’s ‘Business Unit’ controls all matters economic passing through BBC news and current affairs. This article builds on Oliver Huitson’s research last year on the BBC’s failure to properly report the passage of the essentially economic Health and Social Care Act. The report focuses on the BBC generally but because ‘economic issues’, including trade, are always filtered through the BBC’s Business Unit; it is this heavyweight part of the BBC that is my focus here. With the potential of the EU-US free trade deal causing significant long term consequences for the new English health market, the public should consider the BBC’s related failure to report on the wider economic framework: the international trade agenda. 

Huitson shows how the BBC failed the public on its (online) coverage of the passage of the Health and Social Care Act by excluding discussion of the central role of private companies, by ignoring major events questioning the Act, and by giving voice overwhelmingly to those supporting the privatising/liberalising nature of the Act while excluding informed critical voices. While the reporting outcomes are definitive, the reasons for the reporting failures are speculative.

The NHS changes in the H&SC Act are at core economic and so should, according to the BBC's pattern, have been filtered through the BBC’s ‘Business Unit’. Thus the nature and quality of reporting on the Act was in all likelihood influenced by the Business Unit – it would certainly explain a lot.

My field of interest is international trade agreements and especially how they affect the UK. These international trade agreements are the wider framework into which UK’s domestic policy, and its input on EU economic issues, should be considered. They are negotiated by the EU Trade Commission on our behalf but most strongly promoted by the transnational financial services industry based in the City of London. Yet there is little or no reporting on them despite the City of London connection. Once again, as ‘trade’ is ‘economic’, this is a BBC Business Unit responsibility (and failure).

There is a strong correlation between these inadequately reported areas. The Health and Social Care Act and its S75 regulations impose privatisation and liberalisation on the NHS which ‘harmonise’ the NHS with the US corporate health provision model. A US/EU free trade agreement, formally called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), in which the essential process is ‘harmonising regulation’ between the US and the EU, will be formally launched at the G8 meeting on the 17/18 June.  Although not yet formally launched it has been in train for some time, certainly during the preparation of the Health and Social Care Act. The agreement, when finalised, will have the effect of making the NHS changes in the H&SC Act largely irreversible. 

My experience with the BBC business Unit, in particular in communicating and meeting with the Head of the Unit, Jon Zilkha, and in briefing sessions with Business Unit staff, shows a lack of knowledge among the staff of the lobbying structures of the financial services industry based in the City of London. This is exacerbated by a disinterest in the fundamental agenda of international trade agreements and a refusal to report from perspectives other than those of business.

I have communicated with the Head of the Business Unit, Jon Zilkha, since early summer 2012. While he has acknowledged the importance of the international trade agenda and the lack of expertise within the BBC on the topic, this has not translated into significant action to address the issue. There is still very little reporting, connections are not made between UK economic policy and this wider international agenda or the role of the City of London in it, and there is still no evidence of any attempt to improve the knowledge of those who the UK public pay to supply them with real information – license fee payers.

On the other hand, the Unit appears to make itself very accessible to lobbying by business. An online video of a breakfast meeting in which the Head of the Business Unit, Jon Zilkha, and BBC ‘senior economics reporter’, Hugh Pym, address a group of business public relations representatives shows how ready the  Business Unit is to receive lobbying information. Senior BBC Business Unit staff are seen openly advising the PR people present how best to provide it.

It might be expected that the BBC unit in Brussels, closely associated with the Business Unit and with a lot of staff crossover, would be reporting on the legalised trade deals that provide the umbrella framework for UK national laws and economic policy. Yet trade agreement developments are not reported from there either.

When I have urged BBC Brussels staff to report on these issues, insisting on their importance, they have gone to the Vice Chair of the European Parliament’s International Trade committee for information on the EU trade agenda. However Conservative MEP Robert Sturdy (UK Eastern Region), who holds that position, has been named by the City of London financial services lobby group on trade as ‘their man’ on that Committee, so this is an unsatisfactory source for information on secretive trade deals or for critique of the trade agenda from any viewpoint other than that of the transnational financial services industry.

It is problematic that the Business Unit has a monopoly on all economic reporting[i] while reporting generally only from business perspective and without recognition of the wider frameworks.

As well as information on the wider perspectives, and in particular the international trade agenda, further analysis is needed of what trade deals and other business developments  mean for the UK public and UK workers. ‘Business’ issues affect us all, as entrepreneurs and employers, but also as workers, as consumers (including of public services), as citizens, as savers etc. If there were other units of equal weight to that afforded to the Business Unit, then the Business Unit’s narrowness on economic issues would be justified, but there aren’t.

Under these circumstances, it is vital that the BBC Business Unit really meets its brief in the round and this includes having the expertise to report fully on important issues, and ensuring that it is not overwhelmingly influenced by easy content from business PR execs.

On trade agreements it is usually only the finalising that is reported, with no explanation of the implications, and the reporters’ lack of knowledge is without doubt a factor. This leaves little room for due democratic process, which primarily requires information.

Good information on trade agreements matters because ‘trade agreements’ are not ‘trade’, and are not primarily about tariffs on goods. Via trade-in-services, they are actually about increasing the rights of  transnational corporations, especially of the transnational financial service corporations, while the rights of governments to control corporations in a democratic manner are correspondingly reduced.

My dealings with the Business Unit strongly suggest a culture that is actually resistant to presenting a more rounded view or providing real information on international trade agreement issues. In October 2012, the Head of the Business Unit, Jon Zilkha, arranged for me to meet with Simon Hamer, the business editor of the Today Program and Simon Jake, the program’s business presenter, plus another BBC business journalist. In the meeting, which those who work on the Today Program were clearly attending under duress, I gave them a sheet of main issues that were not being covered.

These were:

- The EU/India free trade agreement, negotiated for 5 years, due to be signed up any time, and from the Indian side, all about the supply of unlimited cheap temporary skilled labour into the EU, but primarily into the UK

- The new EU Public Procurement regulation forcing all member states to open all their public procurement (all government spending) bidding, to the world.

- How most trade is now trade-in-services, the key role of the City Of London’s lobbying structure, TheCityUK[ii], in this, and how this feeds into Brussels lobbying in the form of the European Services Forum.

- How the 2005 EU shift from WTO trade negotiating to bilateral trade deals means much more secrecy, avoiding any public reaction 

- How EU trade deals will now be enforced through the introduction of ‘investor protection’ in all EU trade deals, allowing corporations to sue governments directly if there is any possibility of loss of future profits from any government action such as social or environmental legislating.

Simon Jacks immediate response to the first was that, because he works here on a US passport, he is never going to talk about labour migration. None of the Business Unit staff appeared to be aware that TheCityUK, the City of London Corporation’s lobbying structure, existed. Nor did Hugh Pym, judging from several briefing meetings with him.

Overall there was a lack of interest, an avoidance of taking on any of these issues and a desire to tell me that what I had to say didn’t matter and that I had no evidence.

On its own, my experience could just indicate bad judgement on the part of the Head of the Business Unit and its key staff. But combined with the strategic promotion of the government’s Health and Social Care Act and the exclusion of the very widespread public resistance to it, the lack of reporting on the international trade agenda suggests that acquiescence to the government is the norm rather than the exception. Add in the video evidence of senior Business Unit staff pandering to business public relations representatives and there are clearly issues for concern.

Being let down by a trusted source is in many ways worse than not having any trusted source. Indeed when EU public broadcasting models get ‘harmonised’ with that of the US, we may have a much diminished BBC. The BBC has a choice to make between the government that ultimately legislates for the BBC framework and its duty to provide real information to those who pay for it, the UK public. The evidence is that it is currently choosing the former.



[i] Jon Zilkha emphasises that this is the case in the videoed breakfast meeting with Public Relations representatives.

[ii] TheCityUK was set up in June 2010, a joining of International Financial Services London (IFSL) and the City of London Corporation. The existence of a third partner, the government’s UK Trade and Industry unit, was quickly dropped from the website.

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