BBC splits India operations after coming under regulatory scrutiny

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The BBC has restructured its biggest overseas news bureau after coming under regulatory scrutiny from Indian authorities after it aired a controversial documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

The British public broadcaster is splitting off its news operations and creating a separate production company, which will operate independently from the BBC but have the corporation as its main client.

The move, which will formally take effect on Wednesday, will allow the network to continue reporting and producing news in India but bring it in line with Indian law after authorities questioned its tax compliance and ownership structure in the wake of the Modi film.

“The BBC for the first time in its history has handed over content to an outside company set up by employees,” said one of the corporation’s journalists, who asked not to be named. 

The new independent media company, Collective Newsroom, will be owned and operated by Indian BBC journalists who are leaving the corporation, and will provide news and other programming on a service contract with the UK news outlet, which broadcasts in English and six Indian languages, as its main business partner.

“We have got the BBC as our first client and main client right now,” said Rupa Jha, Collective Newsroom’s chief executive. 

Prior to the split, the UK broadcaster had about 300 journalists in India, about 80 of whom will continue to work directly for the BBC’s news operation.

Indian income tax officials in February 2023 conducted a three-day search at the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices shortly after it aired India: The Modi Question, a two-part documentary about the Hindu nationalist prime minister’s actions during the 2002 Gujarat riots, which killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, when he was the western state’s top official.

The government dismissed the film as a “propaganda piece” and blocked it from streaming online in India, but some Indians used VPNs to watch it. 

In April the Enforcement Directorate, the country’s financial crimes agency, launched an investigation into the BBC. According to people briefed on the case, officials probed the bureau’s accounting practices and whether it complied with a 26 per cent cap on foreign ownership of media companies imposed by the government in 2021.  

Jonathan Munro, deputy chief executive and director of journalism of BBC News, declined to comment on the tax probe, but said: “Everywhere in the world we will pay every tax that is legally due against the BBC, and where there are issues in any area, whether it’s underpayment or overpayment, it’s our job to make sure that we’re putting that right.”

He added that once the BBC’s split is formalised, the broadcaster will submit an application to take a stake of less than 26 per cent in the spun-off media company.  

India’s rankings on press freedom by watchdog groups such as Reporters without Borders have dropped since Modi took power. Critics accuse his government of weaponising enforcement agencies to target critical media and non-governmental groups, a charge New Delhi rejects. 

“There are independent indices about media freedom, and South Asia as a region generally is going in the wrong direction on these indices and that should worry everybody — all journalists and everybody who consumes journalism,” Munro said.

He added that the BBC’s job was to “rise to those challenges and do our journalism despite that”.


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