Former employees of the UK’s largest local television operator – That’s TV – say the BBC is breaking its own code of ethics in its work with the company. Journalist and former That’s Solent video journalist Dale McEwan reports exclusively for Star & Crescent.
In a previous article published on S&C, I wrote about my time working as a full-time freelance video journalist for That’s Solent, following revelations in the national media that the station’s parent company, That’s TV, ‘gamed’ the BBC for hundreds of thousands of pounds of licence fee payers’ money each year.
That’s Solent launched as That’s TV’s first station in November 2014, and the company now holds licences for 20 stations across England, Wales and Scotland and is currently set to earn millions of pounds from BBC licence fee payers’ cash. Stations air their stories and send that same content to the BBC each day in return for funding. Up to £300,000 is paid to each station over a three-year period.
The BBC’s internal code of ethical policy aims to ‘promote the adoption and improvement of ethical practices globally, and to implement effective processes for improvement of trade practices.’
The code states a ‘supplier’ to the BBC also includes ‘contractors and licensees.’ That’s TV is a licensee and, through its workers, a supplier of content to the BBC.
Under the code, there are 10 key BBC ethical requirements that suppliers must meet, including that ‘suppliers must pay wages sufficient to meet basic needs and to provide some discretionary income’ (see screenshot from the code below).
I was paid the National Minimum Wage (£6.50 at the time) on a zero-hour contract and expected to fund my own large petrol costs for chasing stories across Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight every day. I was kept on the National Minimum Wage for my 15 months at That’s Solent TV between November 2014 and January 2016. Parking was paid for but my colleagues and I had to cover all other expenses.
The requirement from That’s Solent TV that I pay for my own petrol costs means that my wages did not ‘meet my basic needs’ or ‘provide some discretionary income’.
The wages are also not a reflection of the huge amount of work employees are expected to undertake. In my recent article I explained that That’s TV founder and chief executive, Daniel Cass, started cutting staff early on at That’s Solent to save money.
The remaining three paid video journalists and myself were expected to self-shoot, edit and script at least two stories a day, plan future stories, field calls and emails, look after unpaid interns and work experience students, assist with directing the daily one-hour talk show, help to direct the three-hour evening news show, book guests for all of the shows, send footage to the BBC, upload stories to the station’s YouTube channel, keep on top of social media and cut content for overnight broadcast.
All while we were being paid the minimum wage.
Cass told us there was no money for a pay rise, but new stations were being rolled out all of the time and even more public cash was pouring in.
One former staff member said Cass asked them if they would be willing to go from paid to unpaid, but the individual refused. This was one week after the birth of this freelancer’s disabled child.
National media reports and social media posts have also revealed similar experiences of former employees. An intern at That’s Manchester worked unpaid for one year. She tweeted that she once could not afford tampons during her time at the station. There was a constant stream of unpaid interns at That’s Solent, and these interns were providing stories for the BBC in return for funding for the station.
Asked if they believe the BBC has broken its ethical code on this point, one former employee (with more than 12 years’ experience in broadcast and TV) said, ‘If that’s what the code of ethics says then it sure as hell was not implemented. Not as far as I was concerned.’
Working hours are also covered under the BBC’s ethics code, which states: ‘Workers must not be required to work extreme hours or work without adequate rest periods.’
I often had to work through lunch breaks. There were also many occasions in our skeleton staff when no one was around to direct the daily afternoon talk show, Talk Solent, or even to set up the studio for broadcast. That burden fell on us, the video journalists.
The BBC’s ethics code states that ‘workers must not be required to work excessive hours and may not ordinarily and regularly work more than 60 hours per week (including overtime)’.
In my experience, staff at That’s Solent often worked 12-hour days but not regularly more than 60 hours per week. However, a number of interns had to pick up paid part-time jobs to fund their internships.
I also remember an unpaid intern at That’s Solent who was with us for several months in 2015. He told me that Cass paid for temporary accommodation for him at Highbury College, where the station is based.
The intern took on responsibilities expected of an employee, such as directing shows and covering stories. He worked weekdays at the station and also worked part-time in a department store at weekends. The intern also provided stories to the BBC in return for public cash for That’s TV.
Through my investigation I discovered that job applicants to That’s TV are required to complete a one-week unpaid internship so that Cass can make a decision about their suitability for a paid position. The unpaid internship could be extended if he believes the applicant needs extra training.
The BBC’s ethical code states: ‘The BBC will not engage in business with suppliers who do not meet the BBC’s 10 core requirements and the BBC will be entitled to terminate any contract with any supplier who is found to be non-compliant with any of the core requirements.’
Through my investigation I contacted a number of former employees of That’s TV. All asked not to be named as they still work in the media and are deeply concerned that their career prospects will be affected by speaking out.
A former That’s Solent employee said it is ‘imperative’ that the BBC now launches an investigation into its work with That’s TV. One former staff member said, ‘Do the BBC not realise what they were doing? They were tacitly paying money for this. And that is the disgrace of all this, that the BBC should have allowed it to go on like it, in their name because they were paying money.
‘The BBC have failed in a duty of care to their supplier, to make sure the suppliers are being covered by that [ethical code].’
Another former reporter said, ‘The BBC pride themselves in treating people correctly, they host schemes to allow minority groups into the industry but are turning a blind eye to what is happening.
‘Not only that, but they are funding it! They really need to launch an investigation and shut this company down.’
In a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the BBC, I asked for details of its correspondence about the pay and working conditions of That’s TV employees, along with details of any breaches of the ethics code. The BBC said this request was excluded from the FOI Act.
A BBC spokesperson said, ‘Our relationship with local TV companies was set out by the government. It said we must pay these stations for a supply of material.
‘We don’t comment on disputes between suppliers and individuals who work for them, although we would take note of any findings by the relevant authorities.’
I approached the BBC’s editor for the local TV scheme, Chris Carnegy, who liaises with stations on behalf of the BBC for comment. He directed Star & Crescent to the BBC’s press office.
I have also approached That’s TV owner Daniel Cass on more than one occasion for his right of reply. He has not responded.