BBC Scotland was last night embroiled in a major row over its impartiality amid concerns it flouted its own editorial and commercial guidelines by allowing a Better Together cinema advertisement to be filmed at its headquarters using the corporation’s in-house crew.
The Scotsman can reveal that the advert – shown on screens nationwide as part of the pro-Union group’s campaign ahead of the independence referendum – was produced at a studio in the BBC’s Pacific Quay base in Glasgow normally used for quiz shows.
The filming, described by Better Together as a “commercial arrangement” between a sub-contracted production company and the BBC, appears to fall foul of a number of the broadcaster’s internal guidelines.
The rules warn of damage to the corporation’s standing if it is seen to be associated with “inappropriate” third parties such as political parties and lobbying organisations.
Any commercial activity with such groups that could “potentially undermine the BBC’s editorial integrity” must be referred, in advance, to its editorial policy department, the guidelines add.
BBC Scotland last night insisted there has been “no breach” of its guidelines, stating that political parties are allowed to use the corporation’s facilities on a “commercial basis.” But veteran former BBC broadcaster Derek Bateman warned management at Pacific Quay were operating in a “grey zone” and said the public perception of the advert’s production would be that “the BBC is working hand in glove with Better Together”.
He said: “The BBC seem unable to define what’s appropriate behaviour and what isn’t.”
The Scotsman has learned that Rob Shorthouse, director of communications at Better Together, was among those present in the BBC Scotland studio when the minute-long advertisement was being made.
It was filmed at the beginning of April in Pacific Quay’s studio B, used to film popular BBC network programmes such as The Weakest Link and Eggheads. The high-profile advert featured testimonies from five young Better Together supporters.
Under the BBC’s fair trading guidelines – designed to ensure the corporation’s commercial activities do not impinge on its wider reputation and values – there are explicit procedures set out for dealing with politically affiliated bodies.
Guideline 4.64 warns that “the value and reputation of the BBC brand may be damaged if any part of the BBC is seen to be associated with inappropriate third parties”.
Guideline 4.65 adds: “Any activity involving a third party that could potentially undermine the BBC’s editorial integrity must be referred, in advance, to the editorial policy department. Examples of such organisations include: political parties, government departments and foreign governments; lobbying organisations…”
The process of creating the advert saw Better Together hire BD Network, a Glasgow-founded creative agency with offices in Shoreditch and Melbourne. BD Network then sub-contracted the job to Early, a production firm co-founded by Martyn Smith, a former executive producer at BBC Entertainment, who recruited participants and booked the Pacific Quay studio.
The corporation declined to reveal how much it received, citing commercial sensitivities, but it is understood the hire fees amounted to between £5,000 to £7,000.
The ad spot proved divisive when it was screened across scores of cinemas last month. Amid growing unease over similar adverts from Yes Scotland, major cinema chains including Odeon, Cineworld and Vue took a collective decision to ban all referendum advertising from their venues.
Mr Shorthouse told The Scotsman that Better Together became aware the BBC Scotland was being used for the advert “pretty early” in the project’s development, adding: “I decided that I wanted it made in Scotland, not London – so I knew pretty early on in the process that the only option was the studios at the BBC.”
Asked if Better Together had misgivings about using the state-funded broadcaster’s facilities for the advert, he said: “No. This was a commercial arrangement between a production company and the BBC.”
Mr Bateman, the former BBC Scotland broadcaster, said: “The BBC helps parties make party political broadcasts at election times which is legitimate, but in a case like this, as with the CBI row, they’re walking a pretty tightrope. Anybody reading about it in the heat of the referendum debate will think the BBC is working hand in glove with Better Together. What on earth do they think the public are going to think about it?”
SNP MP Pete Wishart said: “I really do hope that the BBC pay clear attention to its own particular guidelines when it comes to this kind of production and that they are able to justify absolutely that they have not breached any of their guidelines.
“I am aware that Pacific Quay, as part of value for money arrangements, makes itself available to outside organisations and they have to always be careful about how this kind of arrangement looks to the public.”
Blair Jenkins, chief executive of Yes Scotland and a former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, said: “It is incumbent on all public service broadcasters – of which the BBC is one – to remain impartial in all matters relating to the referendum, the most important constitutional vote in Scotland in hundreds of years.”
Asked if the film was referred to and cleared by the BBC’s editorial policy department, a Pacific Quay spokesman said BBC Scotland “knew what the production was for and editorial policy were aware of it”.
He went on: “There has been no breach of editorial guidelines as BBC facilities are made available to organisations and businesses who want to use them, including political parties, on a commercial basis.
“During the 2012 local election campaign, the SNP produced a party election broadcast in our Dumbarton studios. Again, that was hired out in accordance with our fair trading policy and there was no editorial association with the BBC in the broadcast.”
A spokeswoman for the BBC Trust said: “We note BBC Scotland’s statement that there has been no breach of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and correct policy was followed. The trust has no plans to investigate this.”