Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Ethical investing at the BBC

The BBC was in one of its fits of moral outrage yesterday, with an episode of Panorama criticising various charities for investing in "unethical" companies, notably alcohol, tobacco, arms, pharmaceuticals and energy.

Millions of pounds donated to Comic Relief have been invested in funds with shares in tobacco, alcohol and arms firms, BBC Panorama has learned.

Panorama never explained what harm was being done by Comic Relief investing in high-yield shares. It is simply a fact that companies like Diageo and BAT have been amongst the very best performers in the stock market in recent years and therefore appear in many investment portfolios. This seems to me to be sensible financial management but the BBC has previously reported on local councils investing in tobacco stock for pension funds so I guess it must be controversial (eg. here and here).

The tone of the programme strongly suggested that it was immoral per se to invest in companies like Imperial Tobacco, BAT, BP and GlaxoSmithKline. So imagine my surprise when I looked at the BBC pension fund's annual report (p. 19) and found those very companies—along with 'tax dodging' Vodafone and Amazon—in a list of their twenty biggest investments.

Panorama said that Comic Relief had nearly £3 million invested in tobacco stock. The BBC pension fund has over £111 million invested in tobacco stock.

The BBC quoted a self-styled ethical investing expert in its programme and in its report:

Ethical fund manager Helen Wildsmith looks after the cash of thousands of charities.

She said she was surprised that a charity as high profile as Comic Relief would risk its reputation and future donations.

"If people who've been giving them money, after watching the television, next year think twice and don't give that money, because they're concerned about their investment policy, then that could be argued to be a breach of fiduciary duty."

I personally couldn't care less which companies Comic Relief and the BBC invest in, but if I was a moral puritan I would take solace in the fact that I can stop giving money to Comic Relief. I would be—and am—less happy about being forced to pay for the BBC and its increasingly embarrassing Panorama 'exposés'.


A longer list of the Beeb's biggest pension investments can be seen here. It includes £25.3m in BAE systems, the weapons firm that Comic Relief had a £0.4m stake in, plus £22.3m in the alcohol company SABMiller, £18.9m in the tobacco company Reynolds America, £8.6m in Altria (AKA Philip Morris), £8.2m in Greene King, as well as a combined £169.6m in the pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche Holding and Novartis

So that's one arms company, all of Big Tobacco except JTI, most of Big Pharma and both of the big international alcohol companies. According to Panorama, all of these industries are "unethical".

Next week on Panorama, a team of kettles investigates the blackness of pots.


Lynnie Heal said...

Wishes someone had scrutinised the MS charitys aswell because so much is going on

Ivan D said...

It is interesting that the Panorama team moralize about investments that will ultimately help people but are silent on the subject of Comic Relief's use of the public's donations to support political activists such as Alcohol Concern. No doubt, in their "progressive" view, funding blatant dishonesty is fine as long as it is on message.

Panorama is an excellent example of all that has gone wrong at the BBC in recent years. It is hopelessly biased and a pale shadow of it's former self.

Jonathan Bagley said...

I won't donate to Comic Relief because it gives money to anti alcohol organisations.