Monday, August 6, 2007

Plan to link up with BSkyB splits Friends of the Earth

· 'Favoured charity' status would boost media profile

· Activists angered by approach to broadcaster

Severin Carrell, The Guardian, Monday, August 6, 2007

The environment group Friends of the Earth has been split by a bitter internal row after its directors approached the broadcaster BSkyB to set up a joint campaign on climate change which could be worth more than £1.7m. Executives at FoE received a barrage of complaints from senior campaigners after they decided to bid to become Sky's favoured charity in a three-year deal which would give the group direct access to Sky's 8.6 million subscribers and its satellite channels.

The Guardian has learnt that 77 FoE staff - including most senior campaigners as well as the outgoing director of FoE Wales, Julian Rosser - signed a highly critical petition to FoE's board last month calling for the Sky bid to be withdrawn.

FoE's directors say the tie-up would give the group an unparalleled opportunity to reach a mass audience with its campaign on climate change. Sky claims its programmes and news channel are seen in a third of British homes, while its customer magazine has the highest circulation in Britain.

After its chief executive, James Murdoch, was converted to the climate change cause, BSkyB has won plaudits after branding itself as a carbon-neutral company, cutting emissions by 20% and increasing its programming on environmental issues.

Mr Murdoch famously persuaded his father, Rupert, to screen Al Gore's documentary film on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, at a News Corporation summit last year, which led other Murdoch titles including the Sun to embrace the global warming message. But FoE staff claimed in the petition that such a direct link to Sky would be highly divisive, damaging the group's reputation for not taking money from corporate interests and for campaigning against multinationals.

They fear that Sky's links to Rupert Murdoch, who also owns the conservative, climate-sceptic broadcaster Fox News, would risk losing core supporters and local groups, who are often seen as "deep" greens. Annual subscriptions from members account for 90% of FoE's £10m income.

Critics of the move claim that supporters will resign in protest. They also dispute BSkyB's green track record, since all its set-top boxes waste energy in standby mode, it promotes cheap flights, and it relies heavily on carbon offsetting - the system, opposed by FoE, where firms try to cancel out their own carbon emissions by planting trees or helping cut emissions by others.

Their protests were rejected by the board. Roger Higman, FoE's campaigns co-ordinator, said many of FoE's 150 staff supported the approach to Sky. The opportunity to reach nearly 9m homes and influence the broadcaster was too valuable to miss. BSkyB's corporate stance on cutting emissions put it in the "front rank" of British firms tackling global warming: "Climate change is an absolutely massive issue and we have got to persuade the British population to back, or at least accept, action to cut emissions by 90% over the next 50 years." Sky could be "potentially very influential" in achieving that. "We've a duty to explore this."

Other green groups, including the UK wing of the global environment group WWF, which secured a record $50m (£24.47m) sponsorship deal with the HSBC bank in 2002, have also put in bids. Around 170 charities have applied to become BSkyB's charity partner - the three-year deal has earned the current partner, Chickenshed Theatre Company, £1.7m in donations from Sky staff and customers.

BSkyB hopes to exceed that figure with its next charity, which could alternatively focus on sports, education or the arts. The broadcaster is due to unveil a shortlist of five charities this month. They will be invited to make a short film for Sky, whose viewers and staff will select the winner.

Other major environment groups have distanced themselves from Sky's offer. A spokesman for Greenpeace said: "We've an absolutely cast-iron position that we don't take any money from corporations. We're entirely funded by our members, so we wouldn't do that."

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