Analysis: Why did TV firm doubling as PR agent for Malaysia set up in London?

Clearing the forest to make way for a palm oil plantation in Sarawak.

London-based TV production company FBC Media was recently revealed to be doing more than producing TV reports for broadcasters, including the BBC, about Malaysia.

The Sarawak Report, an internet blog reporting on East Malaysia, revealed that while making TV documentaries, FBC was also in receipt of a three-year public relations contract worth £18m from the Malaysian government.

Undeclared links
FBC, whose contract ended last year, is being scrutinised by Ofcom over allegations that it had not revealed its links to the Malaysian government in its films on the country and the palm oil industry. The company has denied any wrongdoing.

But the Malaysian government admitted it had contracted FBC to ‘help raise the standing of Malaysia as a tourism and investment destination’ between 2007 and 2010 and that the BBC has ceased working with the company.  US business channel CNBC also ceased broadcasting its weekly programme World Business, which FBC had produced.

Interestingly, FBC is based in London despite the fact that both FBC directors, John Defterios and Alan Friedman, are US citizens and FBC’s annual return states that they are both usually resident in the USA.

Could this be because in the US, firms lobbying on behalf of foreign governments have to register on a comprehensive and public database? They have to disclose their contacts with media organisations and politicians down to the level of dates of individual phone calls and emails, as well as details of their contracts.

‘Reputation laundering’
In the UK there is no such requirement. Here FBC wasn’t obliged to tell anyone anything about its relationship with the Malaysian government. The firm’s website gives no indication that it is in the public relations or image consultancy business.

Last month the Bureau revealed how Communities Secretary Eric Pickles had not registered his attendance at a dinner hosted by leading UK lobbying firm Bell Pottinger. The story led to questions in the House and an MPs’ debate after concerns were raised about a loophole in the ministerial code that allows MPs to ‘hide’ certain meetings deemed ‘private’. But the story as well as others in the Bureau’s work on lobbying also touched on the hugely secretive world of lobbying in this country.

The revelations by the Sarawak report add further weight to the arguments of critics who say that Britain’s lack of regulation of lobbyists has turned it into a centre of ‘reputation laundering’.

And the latest allegation from the Sarawak report – that FBC attempted to ‘cultivate’ an influential US academic into becoming an ambassador for the palm oil industry – should help convince the government of the urgent need for a US-style statutory register of lobbyists.