The outrage was immediate when BBC journalist Edward Lawrence was seized and assaulted by Chinese authorities last month during anti-lockdown demonstrations.
The occurrences, according to the BBC, are “very concerning.” It was referred to as “very troubling” by the foreign secretary of the UK. Peers of Lawrence flocked to Twitter to express dismay at an authoritarian government stifling press freedoms.
Richard Pattinson, senior vice president of a little-known BBC commercial division, was one of those who shared the news.
Former BBC News correspondent Pattinson has an interest in China. He has written a number of pessimistic pieces on the Communist powerhouse, not the least of which being an editorial in the Financial Times from August urging readers to “wake up” to the dangers of China amid tensions over Taiwan.
What Pattinson hasn’t told his Twitter followers is that the commercial division he runs, BBC StoryWorks, has had long-standing relations to China and generates revenue by creating sponsored material for the government’s propaganda apparatus and the biggest businesses there.
For the first time, Deadline can go into detail on StoryWorks’ connections to China. We can disclose that:
Since its debut in 2015, BBC StoryWorks has collaborated with at least 18 Chinese clients, including nine state-affiliated organisations.
In addition to collaborating with China Global Television Network (CGTN) after it was forbidden from broadcasting in the UK, StoryWorks has created tourism marketing for state-owned media outlets.
Despite Huawei being blacklisted by U.S. and UK authorities over concerns about national security, StoryWorks remains a steadfast supporter of the tech company.
Senior BBC journalists have pleaded with bosses directly to cut off StoryWorks’ connections to China, but they claim their requests have been ignored.
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Contracts with Chinese official media do not prevent journalists from covering the nation “without fear or favour,” according to the BBC, which said that StoryWorks is “completely distinct” from its news gathering operations.
Our research reveals what some perceive to be an unsettling relationship between Britain’s publicly-funded broadcaster and spokespeople for a conservative dictatorship with a dubious human rights record, despite the BBC’s insistence that StoryWorks has acted legally.
Anxiety over the BBC doing business with state media outlets that have criticised British journalism has been expressed by sources close to the BBC newsroom. They worry that the BBC will be accused of having a conflict of interest when reporting on China because of the commercial links.
StoryWorks was founded in 2015 and prides itself on having “newsroom values” in its commercial material. Within BBC Studios, it creates sponsored content for companies and promotes it on social media, BBC.com, the World News channel, and other ad-funded BBC services.
Site for BBC StoryWorks
StoryWorks depends on BBC News’ neutrality and dependability in order to attract new clients, thus its partners receive a light dusting of the organization’s legitimacy in relation to the content they have paid for.
In a 2017 interview with the Native Advertising Institute, Pattinson stated as follows: “In an era of so-called false news… we are creating the safest possible environment for the companies. We as a company take great care to maintain our reputation, which also extends to the businesses we partner with.
The BBC doesn’t release the financial results of StoryWorks, and the business division has never been included in the broadcaster’s annual report. Insiders emphasised that StoryWorks’ income was only a minor percentage of the entire £294 million ($360 million) in advertising revenue generated by BBC Studios in 2022. How much money StoryWorks earns from its contracts in China was withheld by the BBC.
Global juggernauts like Microsoft, Amazon, FedEx, Samsung, and The World Wildlife Fund have used StoryWorks to communicate their story. Over the past five years, StoryWorks has created promotional campaigns for organisations with headquarters in more than thirty different countries, according to a review of the company’s social media posts.
According to our social media analysis, StoryWorks has earned contracts from at least 18 Chinese enterprises. This number excludes any deals that have not been made public. China was StoryWorks’ third-largest territory by customer count, after the US and the UK, based solely on social media engagement. The BBC refuted this and asserted that just a small part of their patrons are from China.
Alibaba, China’s version of Amazon, Lenovo, the world’s largest maker of consumer goods, the telecom firm Tecno Mobile, and the manufacturer of robot vacuum cleaners Roborock are some of the Chinese companies that have worked with StoryWorks.
Huawei: A Reliable BBC Client
However, just one other Chinese business is devoted to StoryWorks. Since 2016, the BBC Commercial Unit has produced multiple campaigns for Huawei, one of the company’s most dependable clients.
Following BBC reporter Lawrence’s detention in Shanghai, StoryWorks bombarded its BBC-branded social media outlets with Huawei advertising. The business brags about “connecting the unconnected” in a glitzy video.
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In an effort to disassociate itself from the Chinese government and the kind of citizen spying used during the Covid protests last month, Huawei has made numerous attempts. According to Xavier Wong, the former global creative director of Huawei, StoryWorks has been specifically involved in attempts to reposition the Huawei brand and “avoid disinformation.”
StoryWorks’ interactions with Huawei have drawn criticism. One BBC journalist who objected to the association told BuzzFeed News in 2019 that they “almost puked” after watching a Huawei advertisement. They claimed that it would limit their ability to report openly on the tech behemoth, which the US government has authorised but is presently being removed from the UK’s 5G network due to security concerns.
Despite severe press and staff criticism, the BBC has defended its partnership with Huawei on numerous occasions and has carried on with its business dealings. The company has repeatedly asserted that its editorial and commercial departments are clearly segregated.
State-controlled media content
Less well known are StoryWorks’ interactions with Chinese groups that clearly have ties to the government of Xi Jinping. Over the past six years, the business has collaborated with at least nine state-owned companies or regional tourism bureaus. These include China Southern Airlines, Xinhua news agency, and CGTN, the overseas division of state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).
Less than a year after being banned from UK airwaves, the BBC commercial section produced a documentary for CGTN.
Happy Chinese Lunar New Year is the heading of the webpage, which features uncritical stuff about China and is referred to as a “ad feature presented by CGTN.” This has been created by StoryWorks “with an editorial style which runs ‘natively’ on BBC.com,” according to the BBC, which classifies it as “sponsored content.”
The Spring Festival Gala, which is referred to as China’s most-watched TV event, is discussed on the website. According to the publication, the CCTV event “has never stopped innovating to entertain the audience with its visual effects.” According to StoryWorks, the words in the piece will probably reference “expertise, insights, or data” from CGTN. In the UK, where the BBC is supported by the licence fee and does not contain advertising content, the article is geoblocked.
CGTN is a pillar of Xi’s so-called “publicity front,” and its goal is to connect with Western viewers. Because Ofcom, the media regulator, was unable to demonstrate its independence from the Communist Party, it was outlawed in the UK last year. In addition, Ofcom fined CGTN $274,000 ($225,000) for airing Peter Humphrey’s forced confession and failing to fairly cover the protests in Hong Kong.
A diplomatic dispute erupted over Ofcom’s intervention, and China replied by blocking BBC World News, a station that supports StoryWorks’ efforts.
Similar scorn has been shown to other StoryWorks clients. For the Macao Government Tourism Office, a special administrative territory of China that was recently criticised by the UN Human Rights Committee for prohibiting peaceful rallies and abusing migrant workers, it developed a campaign in 2019. The airline China Southern, which contacted StoryWorks in 2019, came under fire last year for suspending a flight attendant after he was revealed to be gay online.
Chinese news agency Xinhua and StoryWorks collaborated on a sponsored article about China’s culinary heritage in December 2020. The article promises, “Welcome to China, a paradise of gastronomic discovery where food overcomes all and the feast never ends.”
Only a few weeks after Xinhua and the BBC worked together to create the feature that resembled a travel guide, the Communist Party mouthpiece criticised the BBC for airing “false” tales on “so-called human rights violations” in China’s Uyghur detention facilities. A Xinhua writer fumed, “In [the] BBC, reporting on China is like writing books or making movies.” In the UK, where the BBC has received accolades for its in-depth reporting on the situation of the Uyghur people in China, there is a different perspective on the stories.
Criticized Commercial Links
Journalists for the BBC have questioned the logic of StoryWorks’ association with Chinese propaganda organisations, which are alleged to have increased the dangers of reporting for British journalists.
John Sudworth, who has played a significant role in the BBC’s Uyghur reporting, abruptly left Beijing last year due to fears for his safety. According to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, Chinese official media had been spreading “personal assaults and misinformation” against him for months.
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Concerned that promotional content would affect the BBC’s unbiased reporting, senior BBC journalists have ordered that StoryWorks cut its links with Huawei and other Chinese organisations.
A source with knowledge of the discussions said, “I have always been really uncomfortable with these ties. The management completely disregarded the opinions of local reporters with decades of experience who were aware of the consequences of what StoryWorks was doing.
Others concurred. The BBC must “avoid any notion that its business interests risk undermining its reporting on China,” according to Peter Frankental, director of economic affairs at Amnesty International UK.
The agreements between StoryWorks and CGTN and Huawei were not in the public interest, added Thorsten Benner, co-founder and director of the think tank Global Public Policy Institute. “It recklessly harms the BBC’s brand and undermines trust in the organisation at a time when the BBC needs that trust more than ever,” he said.
He demanded that StoryWorks stop working with “customers from totalitarian regimes” and that the BBC board “urgently address its failure.”
BBC: Advertising Has No Impact on Journalism
“Hosting advertising outside of the UK allows us to generate cash to invest in the BBC, including in its top-tier, independent, and impartial journalism,” the BBC stated. All advertisements adhere to our stringent sponsorship and advertising policies. Commercial activity is completely unrelated to and has no impact on our journalism, which continues to widely and impartially cover China-related topics.
Concerning the approval procedure for StoryWorks contracts, the business declined to provide any information. The BBC refuses to explain why journalistic concerns about conflicts of interest were disregarded. It did not specify whether StoryWorks does research to make sure it does not collaborate with Chinese entities linked to human rights abuses.
According to the BBC, all contracts adhere to the rules for advertising and sponsorship, which say that any promotional material from “government agencies” needs to be approved by a senior editorial representative. If similar procedure was followed for the CGTN and Xinhua campaigns, the BBC refuses to comment. The BBC is forbidden by the rules from collaborating with outside parties who would “discredit or jeopardise the value of the BBC brand.”