The BBC has been accused of putting "slick PR" ahead of serving licence fee payers after it emerged that it lists more than 200 press officers on its website.
A new list of contacts on the BBC's media centre website names 220 people who work in press and publicity for the corporation as well as four external companies which manage PR.
- October 14, 2020
- September 29, 2020
- September 25, 2020
This number is more than 50 per cent larger than the figure obtained by Press Gazette via a freedom of information request last January. Then, the BBC said the number of people it employed in communications "on permanent or fixed term contracts" was 147.
The BBC press office said the two numbers, 220 and 147, are not comparable. It said that there has been a reduction in the 147 "press officers/PRs/communications workers" to 141.
Asked why the other 79 PRs listed do not count in this total, a spokesman said: "The Media Centre website includes all BBC, agency and in-house publicists working on programmes across TV, radio and online.
"Not all projects are currently live, so the number of contacts on the site at any one time is not a reliable guide to current staff employment numbers."
1.30pm update: In a further statement the BBC appeared to accuse Press Gazette of being delusional:
The figure of 220 is a fantasy – many of these names no longer work at the BBC, are on maternity leave, secondment or were employed years ago to work on a specific project. The list also includes staff at BBC Worldwide who are not paid for by the licence fee and individuals employed by independent production companies rather than the BBC. The BBC Communications Division has 141 staff in post at present. This figure includes support staff, public and corporate affairs staff (who don’t work directly on PR campaigns) and staff based across all English Regions.”
The 147 figure emerged in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile scandal, when the BBC was known to have "enlisted the help" of external PR company Brunswick, although no services were paid for. The number was met with "astonishment" at the time by Conservative MP Robert Halfon.
Reacting to the number of PRs listed on the media centre website, which itself has at least three communications employees working on it, Rob Wilson MP predicted the new number would make licence fee payers "deeply angry".
The Conservative MP for Reading East told Press Gazette: "It is beggars belief that the BBC sees fit to spend licence fee payers' money on slick PR men rather than on the TV and radio programmes people know and love.
"What people will be deeply angry about is that the number of PR staff [appears to have] gone up significantly in under two years, from the already shockingly high number of 147 that was revealed at the time of the Savile scandal.
"This…suggests the BBC is putting even more focus on spin and self-promotion at the public's expense, rather than doing the vital hard work of changing its internal culture and becoming more accountable, the need for which has been demonstrated by the litany of scandals over the past few years."
Included in the 220 PR staff listed on the media centre website is BBC News head of communications James Hardy, who earns £101,000 a year. The corporation also lists Avalon PR, Midas PR, Premier PR and Taylor Herring PR as contacts for publicity.
Not included in the media centre list (but added into Press Gazette's, below) is the corporation’s director of communications John Shield, who earns £144,000 a year.
A BBC spokesman said: “At the time of writing there are 141 Communications staff in post. This figure includes support staff, public and corporate affairs staff (who don’t work directly on PR campaigns) and staff based across all English Regions.
"With regard to your query about agencies we use to support certain high-profile programmes, this allows us to adjust our resources around major publicity campaigns without increasing our headcount.”
They added: “Every week the BBC communications division handles several thousand enquiries at a regional, national, and international level. The team promotes a wide range of programmes in newspapers, magazines, broadcast and online media. In addition there is a Corporate team that responds to a huge array of queries about the Corporation itself. There is also the Public Affairs team that liaises with politicians nationwide. The division is vital for keeping licence fee payers informed about the BBC’s content and how the organisation is being run.”
Press Gazette's original FoI request of December 2012 asked: "how many people [does] the BBC employ as press officers/ PRs/ communications workers?" The BBC responded: "As at 31st March 2012 there were 147 members of staff of permanent or fixed term contracts employed in BBC Communications division comprising Press & Media Relations, Corporate Affairs, Vision Communications, Audio & Music Communications, News Communications, and Internal Communications."
Here is the full list of contacts from the media centre website, with director of communications Shield and the four external PR companies added: