Playing Our Part: how the BBC is redefining charity appeals

25 Feb 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 25 Feb 2015

Eileen Mullan AgeNI, Mark Adair and Linda Robinson AgeNI at the launch of Playing our Part, picture by Paul McErlane

BBC Northern Ireland has been breathing new life into its most venerable institution, the charity appeal. Scope reports.

Late last year BBC Northern Ireland unveiled an exciting new initiative in partnership with AgeNI. The Playing Our Part campaign redefined broadcast charity appeals and was run right across the network, from the Nolan Show to Hugo Duncan and from Good Morning Ulster to Evening Extra. The campaign was the first of its kind right across the BBC and there is now huge interest in developing the concept further. Scope caught up with Mark Adair, head of corporate and community affairs at the BBC to get the story behind the campaign.

Promoting good causes has been a priority for the Beeb from very early days. The first appeals were run in Northern Ireland in 1927 and have been carried continuously ever since.

In 1949, as the BBC celebrated its Silver Jubilee The Rt Hon Sir James Andrews, Lord Chief Justice chairman of the BBC Appeals Advisory Committee wrote to celebrate the £33,500 raised in Northern Ireland for “The Week’s Good Cause” over that period. He stated: “The fact that the appeal has been made through the agency and under the auspices of the BBC is a sure guarantee of the merits and the needs of the objects selected.” He added that the public should be grateful to the BBC “for this branch of their great public service which is foremost alike in its noble conception and its solid achievement.”

Sir James was especially pleased at the sums received for “Uncle Mac’s Christmas Appeals on behalf of 'Crippled and Invalid Children'.”

The BBC Appeals Advisory Committee is still in existence, it decides which causes should be promoted and provides advice and feedback to BBC Northern Ireland on progress. It is currently chaired by the civil servant David Lennox.

Until relatively recently appeals were mostly for raising funds, and took on a similar format: with someone from the charity concerned, or sometimes someone famous in its behalf, reading a four minute script into the microphone. It seemed to work well enough in its day, but audiences and broadcasters have changed, and the appeals have changed with them.

Mark Adair is no stranger to the voluntary sector, he worked at the Community Relations Council, rising to chief executive before joining the BBC.

Now his portfolio embraces what he calls “political liaison”, dealing with complaints, overseeing the BBC’s community archive which it runs with the National Museums, event management, and appeals.

“It is amazing that we have been doing these appeals for such a long time,” he says. “A very popular series might run for a good few years, but this has been going on since the mid 1920s, it is phenomenal."

He’s overseen the evolution from the tired old format of reading from a lengthy script to developing crisper radio packages telling stories about the work of charities rather than the bog standard appeal for funds, and there are short films as well, designed to fit the general output of the station.

Currently the BBC have monthly appeals on Radio Ulster and run two TV campaigns a year. Although the purpose is no longer primarily to raise funds, last year donations to charities featured was the highest for 10 years. The service is over-subscribed. Applications go to the advisory committee which decides which will be supported.

This year saw a radical break from tradition. For the past 20 years the BBC has worked with the Salvation Army and the SVP on a children’s toy appeal. It had worked well enough, but it did follow just a week after Children in Need and Adair was keen to focus on older people.

A call for applications was issued and AgeNI were successful.

Breaking the Mould

It is never easy to break new ground and running charity appeals are not as straightforward as you might think for the BBC.

The BBC’s editorial guidelines are its own sacred text, a sort of catechism. It is a portentous document that defines the rules by which all journalists, programme makers and broadcasters must conduct themselves. Unswerving allegiance to the guidelines is compulsory. Regular news bulletins are circulated, advising staff on amendments and new policies. At BBC NI Adair, as the arbiter of complaints, is its enforcer. He is, if you like,  the defender of the faith.

There is an entire section, for example on running charity appeals which contains the following: “the BBC must not allow its programming to be used as a vehicle for political campaigning or lobbying. Very careful editorial decisions may have to be taken to ensure that this line is not crossed and Editorial Policy should be consulted at as early a stage as possible.”

And then there are the core editorial precepts, as sacred to any BBC manager as the Ten Commandments were to Moses:

“14.2.1: We must be independent from outside interests and arrangements which could undermine our editorial integrity.

14.2.2: We must not endorse or appear to endorse any other organisation, its products, activities, services, views or opinions.”

So the BBC has to be very careful indeed when it comes to partnering with an organisation like AgeNI which, quite properly, does lobby and campaign on behalf of older people, and clause 14.2.2 is a particularly interesting one which some more traditional theologians of the BBC sect might lead them to cry heretic when the Beeb partners with any other organisation charitable or not.

So, intrinsic to the deal with AgeNI was a clause in the contract which states in relation to the appeal that “its content and messaging should not involve anything of a campaigning or political nature and/or activities which might compromise the BBC’s brand, reputation or editorial independence.”

So whilst it is okay to ask the public for donations for example to perform services for older people, asking the Department of Health to provide better care packages is not.

So instead the campaign centred around a celebration of the contribution older people make to society, appealed for volunteers and set out to stimulate neighbours and relatives to do more to help those suffering from loneliness and isolation and encouraging schools and other organisations to do more to connect with and recognise older people.

With the theme set Adair set out to convince his colleagues on the programming side of the station to get involved. No easy task. Producers, presenters, editors and journalists are notoriously “independent minded” they compete with each other and there are plenty of mavericks.

“I must say I hadn’t thought about it quite like that,” said Adair “It struck me as a good idea and one which would have resonance with our audiences. I have to say it was all very straightforward and my colleagues immediately got what we were trying to do.”

The result was extraordinary and unprecedented. Programmes highlighted the campaign in their own particular style, news outlets like Evening Extra, Good Morning Ulster and Newsline carried strong editorial stories, Nolan got involved as did Hugo Duncan and Kerry McClean.

Almost inevitably news about older people surfaced during the campaign when it emerged that Belfast Health Trust were reducing domiciliary care packages. A newspaper presented with that opportunity would weave the issue into their campaign. That’s not permitted for the BBC as it would break the guidelines so the piece was treated the same as any other news story.

Adair said: If issues do arise during a campaign you do not present perspectives uncritically. This is not a licence to make a case no matter how important it might be to an organisation, Appeals do not exist for that purpose.”

The campaign produced some strong broadcast material and the powers that be at the BBC are delighted: we can expect more of the same next year. The partnership with AgeNI runs for up to three years, after that Adair is open minded about the next theme to address. Plenty of time for others in the sector to start building their case for the next theme of a Christmas appeal.

The results for AgeNI were pretty staggering. It reports: a 100% increase in volunteering enquiries, 10% uplift in volunteers;  57% increase in benefits identified through the Advice Line services and almost £90,000 during the two week campaign a 12% increase in calls to the Age NI Advice Line.


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