Fears of bias as BBC gets £141m in EU loans

THE BBC last night faced accusations of pro-Brussels bias as it was revealed that the corporation had taken out £141m in “soft” loans from the European Union.

The broadcaster has taken out three separate low interest loans from the EU-backed European Investment Bank (EIB) to fund the expansion of its growing commercial empire.

It also emerged that the BBC has received grants from the EU worth £1.4m over the past five years.

The Brussels deals raise awkward questions for the corporation about its coverage of European affairs and its burgeoning profit-making arm whose interests extend to property, publishing and the internet.

The details of the loans and grants stretching back six years emerged in a letter written by Zarin Patel, the BBC’s finance director, to Bob Spink, a Conservative MP.

The first £66m loan in 2003 was used to fund “the fit-out” of a new building in the BBC’s Media Village development in west London, which was later sold for a profit. The second loan for £25m and the third for £50m were made to BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s profit-making arm, to pay for the acquisition of overseas rights to programmes made by the BBC in the UK.

The EIB has described itself as “an autonomous body set up to finance capital investment furthering European integration by promoting EU policies”.

It specialises in providing low interest loans below the normal commercial rates. However, the BBC refused to disclose exactly what rates the EIB was charging.

The BBC letter, written in response to a parliamentary question, also discloses a series of grants to help to fund online educational programmes and preserve the BBC archive.

Spink said yesterday that he would be putting down a Commons motion condemning the BBC for accepting the cash: “I am concerned that the independence and objectivity of the BBC may have been improperly influenced by funding from the EU.”

A BBC spokesman denied any pro-Brussels bias: “There were no editorial obligations whatsoever attached to the three EIB loans. The BBC’s commercial businesses go to the European Investment Bank as opposed to any other commercial bank for purely commercial reasons.”

He added: “The BBC occasionally receives some EU funding in relation to specific educational or research and development projects.”

However, the size of the EU loans highlights the rapid growth in the BBC’s commercial activities, which are kept separate from the core programme-making funded by the £3.5 billion a year licence fee.

Critics question how commercial contracts fit into the BBC’s “public services” remit.