Pick of the news

Why an inquiry into BBC practice is long overdue…

Here is a typical email that we regularly receive from the BBC about Featureworld interviewees… ‘Hello there
I’m trying to get in touch with XXXX who you interviewed last week. Unfortunately I’ve drawn a blank so far, would you consider giving me her details?’ Pick of the news

Notice the word ‘giving’, a word that pops up regularly in their requests … And so we duly email back that we do not divulge any interviewee’s personal contact details without their written consent. As we are also a business – which expects to be paid for our time and our interviewees have come to our ‘sell my story’ website – we also ask is there any payment?

I might point out we are often talking about small sums of money here – sometimes less than £100 – but frequently the reply comes back that the BBC has ‘no budget’ to pay anyone.

Ok – well, we are committed anyway to helping our interviewees as best we can and there are many reasons why people contact Featureworld to ‘sell’ their story. Money, of course is one reason. However, a great many people simply want publicity to get their story out there – often they are raising money for charity or they want to promote a book. They might be happy to go on the programme for no money but for their greater cause…

So our next question to the researcher is, can they mention the charity they are running the marathon for or the book they’ve written? To which there is a gasp of astonishment. Surprisingly – given that everyone else we send interviewees to is happy to mention that person’s chosen bona-fide charity for example – the answer is no. This is because, we’re told, the BBC editorial policy is to only mention it’s own charity, Children In Need. Anything else – even if it is a children’s charity – simply cannot be mentioned.

Which leads us to ask the final question – why should that interviewee go on the programme? If there is no money, no mention of their cause, then there seems little reason to go on. This often stumps the researcher. Yet you can almost hear the researcher thinking, ‘but we are the wonderful BBC … how can anyone possibly turn us down?’

In their defence the BBC will say that under broadcasting guidelines they have to beware of paying people to go on TV. However, that does not exonerate them and the various TV production companies they commission on their behalf, from continually expecting Featureworld (and presumably other journalists, agencies and contributors) to simply ‘give’ them peoples’ contact details without any payment. And also for expecting interviewees to give up their time – take time off their work for example – to fill their hours of good TV.

I’m recounting this because in the light of the Jimmy Savile nightmare and also in the light of the other recent controversy – paying some ‘staff’ through service companies to avoid tax – I am truly hoping the organisation will take a good look at itself as a whole.

I happen to love lots about the BBC. Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Dragon’s Den and feel that some of their documentaries – I recently praised Midwives – are superb. But whether you watch the programmes or not, we all pay a licence fee. And therefore they are accountable to all of us.

And on this note in my experience there seems to be far too much thought about what they ‘want’ rather than what they can give to others. There is too much ‘expectation’ that interviewees will want to go on their shows and that agencies like myself – and people like myself who are not on a BBC salary – will just ‘give’ them freebies.

My views won’t be news to any of these researchers who’ve contacted me. In fact, it won’t surprise anyone to know that frequently the BBC now appears to try contact Featureworld interviewees directly in the hope they can flatter them into giving up weeks of time to make some intrusive documentary that it can repeat endlessly around the world. So often these interviewees are contacted via their personal Facebook account – something I (and interviewees) also find unprofessional – although of course it’s pointless anyway as my interviewees simply tell us as they want our advice anyway!

The whole corporation needs to become more accountable to its licence fee payers. It needs to be kinder, more considerate and more thoughtful. It needs to move into modern times. At Featureworld we deal with TV worldwide and there is no comparison. It’s not just about money – although I can’t think of anyone else who expects journalists to supply them with stories for free. It’s also about considering what you as a company can do for others, saying thank you and being grateful.

Alison Smith-Squire

Alison Smith-Squire is a writer, journalist and media agent selling exclusive real life stories to newspapers, magazines and TV. She owns the sell my story website Featureworld.co.uk, which was set up to help ordinary people sell their stories to the press.

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