The BBC Is Making Money Producing Glossy Tourism Ads For China’s Propaganda Machine

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping inspects a guard of honour at Horseguards Parade on his UK state visit in 2015 Getty Images

EXCLUSIVE: When BBC journalist Edward Lawrence was detained and beaten by Chinese police during anti-lockdown protests last month, the condemnation was swift.

The BBC said it was “extremely concerned” by the events. The UK’s foreign secretary described it as “deeply disturbing.” Lawrence’s peers piled on to Twitter to voice horror at an authoritarian regime trampling press freedoms. 

Among those sharing the news was Richard Pattinson, the senior vice president of a little-known commercial enclave of the BBC. 

Pattinson, a former BBC News journalist, takes an interest in China. He has posted several downbeat articles about the Communist superpower, not least a Financial Times editorial in August that implored readers to “wake up” to the risk of China amid tensions over Taiwan. 

What Pattinson has not shared with his Twitter followers is that the commercial unit he oversees, BBC StoryWorks, has years-long ties to China and is making money producing sponsored content for the Chinese propaganda machine and the country’s biggest companies.

The extent of StoryWorks’ ties to China can be detailed for the first time by Deadline. We can reveal that:

  • BBC StoryWorks has partnered with at least 18 Chinese clients since launching in 2015, including nine state-affiliated bodies.
  • StoryWorks has produced tourism campaigns for state-owned media outlets, including partnering with China Global Television Network (CGTN) after it was banned from broadcasting in the UK.
  • StoryWorks is a loyal partner to Huawei despite the tech firm being sanctioned by U.S. and UK authorities amid national security fears.
  • Senior BBC journalists have appealed directly to managers to sever StoryWorks’ ties to China but said their pleas had fallen on deaf ears.

The BBC said StoryWorks was “entirely separate” from its newsgathering operations and that contracts with Chinese state media do not stop journalists from reporting on the country “without fear or favour”.

While the BBC insists that StoryWorks has played by the rules, our investigation highlights what some see as an uncomfortable relationship between Britain’s publically-funded broadcaster and mouthpieces for a hardline regime with a questionable human rights record.

Sources close to the BBC newsroom have voiced anxiety at the corporation doing business with state media organs who have attacked British journalism. They also harbour concerns that the commercial ties leave the BBC open to accusations of a conflict of interest in its reporting on China.

The StoryWorks Story

StoryWorks was established in 2015 and has described itself as a commercial content studio with “newsroom values.” Sitting within BBC Studios, it produces sponsored content for brands and megaphones it across the BBC’s ad-funded services and the World News channel, as well as on social media.

BBC StoryWorks website

In its efforts to win new clients, StoryWorks leans on BBC News’ reputation for impartiality and trustworthiness, meaning its partners get a dusting of the corporation’s credibility around the content they have paid for. 

Pattinson articulated this in an interview in 2017, telling the Native Advertising Institute: “In an era of so-called fake news … we are providing the safest possible environment for the brands. We are very protective of ourself as an organization, and that means that we are also protective of the brands that we work with.”

The BBC does not publish StoryWorks’ earnings and the commercial unit has never been mentioned in the broadcaster’s annual report. It contributed to BBC Studios’ overall advertising revenue of £294 million ($360 million) in 2022, though insiders insisted StoryWorks’ income was only a small proportion of this total. The BBC refused to disclose how much money StoryWorks makes from its contracts in China.

Microsoft, Amazon, FedEx, Samsung and The World Wildlife Fund are among the global giants who have turned to StoryWorks to tell their stories. An analysis of StoryWorks’ social media posts reveals that it has produced promotional campaigns for organizations headquartered in more than three dozen countries over the past five years.

StoryWorks has won contracts from at least 18 organizations in China, according to our social media analysis, which does not include deals that have not been publicly declared. Based on social media activity alone, China was StoryWorks’ third largest territory by number of clients, behind only the U.S. and UK. The BBC disputed this and said China only accounts for a small proportion of its customers.

Among the Chinese brands who have partnered with StoryWorks are Alibaba, China’s equivalent of Amazon; Lenovo, the consumer electronics giant; telecoms company Tecno Mobile; and Roborock, a maker of robot vacuum cleaners.

Huawei: A Loyal BBC Customer

But one Chinese company stands alone in its loyalty to StoryWorks. Huawei has been one of the BBC commercial unit’s most consistent customers, producing several campaigns for the tech giant since 2016.

BBC StoryWorks interview with Ren Zhengfei, the CEO of Huawei

In the days following BBC reporter Lawrence’s arrest in Shanghai, StoryWorks blasted messaging for Huawei across its BBC-branded social media channels. A glossy video features the company boasting about “connecting the unconnected.”

Huawei has repeatedly tried to distance itself from the Chinese government and the type of civilian surveillance deployed during Covid protests last month. StoryWorks has been explicitly involved in efforts to recast the Huawei brand and “prevent misinformation,” according to Xavier Wong, Huawei’s former global creative director.

StoryWorks’ dealings with Huawei have been a lightning rod for critics. BBC journalists have bristled at the connection, with one telling BuzzFeed News in 2019 that they “nearly threw up” after watching a video made for Huawei. They said that it could prevent them from reporting freely on the tech giant, which has been sanctioned by the U.S. government and is currently being ripped out of the UK’s 5G network amid security concerns.

The BBC has defended its relationship with Huawei on a number of occasions and has continued to work with the company, despite negative press and criticism from staff. The corporation has consistently said it has a clear separation between its commercial and editorial departments.

Content For State-Controlled Media

What is less well known is StoryWorks’ dealings with Chinese organizations with unequivocal links to Xi Jinping’s regime. The company has worked with at least nine state-owned brands or local government tourism agencies in the past six years. These include CGTN, the international arm of state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV); news agency Xinhua; and China Southern Airlines.

The BBC commercial unit created a feature for CGTN in January, less than a year after it was barred from UK airwaves. The webpage, which contains uncritical content about China, is headlined “Happy Chinese Lunar New Year” and is described as an “ad feature presented by CGTN.” The BBC defines this as “branded content,” meaning it has been produced by StoryWorks “with an editorial style which runs ‘natively’ on”

Dancer at the 2020 Spring Festival Gala Xinhua/Wang Lili/Getty Images

The webpage includes a section on The Spring Festival Gala, described as China’s most-watched TV event. “It has never stopped innovating to treat the audience with its visual effects,” the article says of the CCTV event. The words within the feature are likely to draw on “expertise, insights or data” from CGTN, according to StoryWorks. The article is geo-blocked in the UK, where the BBC is funded by the license fee and does not host advertising content.

CGTN serves as a cornerstone of Xi’s so-called “publicity front” and the channel has a mission to reach audiences in the West. It was banned in the UK last year because Ofcom, the media regulator, was unable to establish its independence from the Communist Party. Ofcom also fined CGTN £225,000 ($274,000) for failing to cover protests in Hong Kong fairly and airing the forced confession of Peter Humphrey, a British citizen. 

Ofcom’s intervention sparked a diplomatic row and China retaliated by banning BBC World News, the channel that helps amplify StoryWorks’ campaigns. 

Other StoryWorks clients have attracted similar opprobrium. It created a campaign in 2019 for the Macao Government Tourism Office, a special administrative region of China that was recently attacked by the UN Human Rights Committee for banning peaceful protests and exploiting migrant workers. China Southern Airlines, which turned to StoryWorks in 2019, was criticized last year for suspending a flight attendant after he was outed online as being homosexual.

In December 2020, StoryWorks partnered with Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, on a sponsored feature about China’s culinary history. “Welcome to China, a land of culinary discovery where food conquers all and the feast never ends,” the piece boasts.  

Just a few weeks after Xinhua collaborated with the BBC on the tourism brochure-style feature, the Communist Party mouthpiece slammed the corporation for broadcasting “fake” stories about “so-called human rights violations” at China’s Uyghur detention camps. “In [the] BBC, doing China news is like writing novels or shooting films,” a Xinhua writer raged. There is a different view of the stories in the UK, where the BBC has won praise for detailed reporting on the plight of the Uyghur community in China.

Commercial Links Criticized

BBC journalists have questioned the wisdom of StoryWorks’ involvement with Chinese propaganda organs who have been accused of making reporting conditions more perilous for British journalists. 

John Sudworth, who has been heavily involved in the BBC’s Uyghur reporting, left Beijing abruptly last year, citing concerns for his safety. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said he had been subjected to months of “personal attacks and disinformation” disseminated by Chinese state media.

The BBC’s John Sudworth BBC

Senior BBC journalists have demanded StoryWorks’ sever ties with Huawei and other Chinese organisations amid fears that promotional content could taint the BBC’s impartial reporting.

“I have always been extremely uncomfortable with these relationships,” said a source with knowledge of the talks. “Management showed complete disregard for the views of reporters with decades of experience in the region and an understanding of the impact of what StoryWorks was doing.” 

Others agreed. Peter Frankental, Amnesty International UK’s economic affairs director, said the BBC must “avoid any perception that its commercial interests risk compromising its reporting on China.”

Thorsten Benner, co-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute think-tank, added that StoryWorks’ deals with CGTN and Huawei were not in the public interest. “It damages the BBC’s brand in a reckless way and erodes trust in the institution just as the BBC needs that trust more than ever,” he said.

He called on the BBC board to “urgently correct its failure” and ensure that StoryWorks no longer works for “clients from authoritarian countries.”

BBC: Ads Have No Bearing On Journalism

The BBC said: “Hosting advertising outside of the UK allows us to generate income to invest in the BBC, including in our world-class, independent and impartial journalism. All ads comply with our strict advertising and sponsorship guidelines. Commercial work is entirely separate to and has no bearing on our journalistic output, which continues to cover matters relating to China extensively without fear or favour.”

Xi Jinping visits a ‘Doctor Who’ exhibition in 2015 with BBC director-general Tim Davie (right) and the Prince and Princess of Wales Heathcliff O'Malley/Getty Images

The corporation refused to answer questions about the sign-off process for StoryWorks contracts. The BBC declined to reveal why conflict of interest concerns raised by journalists had been ignored. It would not say if StoryWorks carries out research to ensure it does not partner with Chinese organizations with links to human rights violations.

The BBC said all contracts comply with advertising and sponsorship guidelines, which state that promotional content by “government agencies” must be approved by a senior editorial figure. The BBC declined to say if this process was followed for the CGTN and Xinhua campaigns. The guidelines prohibit the BBC from working with third parties who could bring the corporation into “disrepute or jeopardise the value of the BBC brand.”

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