Dozens of the BBC’s top journalists and news presenters are earning thousands of pounds a time on the public speaking circuit despite an attempt by the Corporation to curb the engagements.
BBC personalities offered for hire by Britain’s largest after-dinner speaking agency, JLA, include Fiona Bruce and Huw Edwards, the newsreaders, Emily Maitlis, the Newsnight presenter, and John Humphrys, Evan Davis and Edward Stourton, the Today programme presenters.
Some are available to make speeches while others can host corporate events or chair conferences.
Now they face investigation and a possible clampdown after Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat culture spokesman, said last night that he would refer the matter to the BBC Trust.
The disclosure will prove highly embarrassing for the BBC which introduced tough rules to restrict such activity.
The rules regarding what BBC journalists can say off-air were first tightened up in 2003 in the wake of a two controversies featuring Rod Liddle, the then-editor of the Today programme, who criticised pro-hunting protesters in a magazine article, and Andrew Gilligan, the then-defence correspondent for the same programme, who used a newspaper article to expand on his claims that the Government had misled the public over the war in Iraq.
Editorial guidelines for BBC staff, which also apply to presenters on non-staff contracts, state: “It is unlikely to be acceptable for any BBC staff member or BBC correspondent to be included on an agency list of those for hire for public speeches.
“Under no circumstances should they sign up with an external agency for public speaking without the written permission of the relevant Head of Department.”
The same editorial guidelines state that reporters and presenters, including freelance staff, must not appear in public to promote outside commercial organisations.
BBC staff who express a controversial or one-sided viewpoint on a particular issue in public can be barred from reporting on that issue on air.
The BBC last night declined to say whether its staff named on the JLA website had received the necessary written clearance. However, some individuals said they had been given approval.
Sian Williams, the BBC Breakfast presenter, now on maternity leave, said she had presented two events for JLA in the past four years, each time with the Corporation’s permission.
Other BBC figures offered for hire by JLA include Andrew Marr, presenter of Sunday AM, George Alagiah and Kate Silverton, the newsreaders, Robert Peston, the business editor, Mihir Bose, the sports editor, Bill Turnbull, the presenter of BBC Breakfast, Nicholas Witchell, the Royal correspondent, Rory Cellan Jones, the technology correspondent, Frank Gardner, the security correspondent, Jeremy Vine, the presenter of Panorama, and Declan Curry, the host of Working Lunch.
Several BBC staff have spoken directly about their brief or for organisations with links to their BBC positions. Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s environmental analyst, hosted an event organised by Powergen.
Mishal Husain, the BBC news presenter, has hosted events for government departments including the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
The BBC staff and freelance presenters on JLA’s website are listed in several categories depending on how much they charge.
Jeremy Paxman, the Newsnight presenter is classed has double AA and costs “over £25,000”. Mr Edwards, Mr Marr and John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, are all rated category A and cost between £10,000 and £25,000.
D category presenters, who include Sarah Mukherjee, the environment correspondent, and Reeta Chakrabati, the political correspondent, cost between £1,000 and £2,500.
As well as biographies and prices for all its speakers, the JLA website includes video footage of Mr Vine, Mr Humphrys, Ms Montague and Ms Silverton taking part in events on behalf of the company’s clients.
One video shows Mr Turnbull, who costs between £2,500 and £5,000, sharing some of his presenting secrets at an awards ceremony for council officials.
He tells his audience: “Most of the things we say are actually written down by producers on a computer and than it comes up on the autocue in front of you.
Louisa Preston, who anchors regional TV news bulletins, is shown presiding over an award ceremony for DIY products.
John Humphrys is filmed talking to an audience from a drugs company. During his speech he refers to a previous event for the Chemical Industries Association when he had offended some of the guests with his views.
In some cases, clients who hired BBC staff have rated their performance by leaving “feedback” on the JLA website.
Emily Maitlis, who is listed as one of JLA’s top five awards hosts and costs between £5,000 and £10,000 to hire, is described as “sure-footed and elegant with terrific stage presence” by the organisers of the Printing World Excellence Awards.
Nicholas Witchell has received glowing endorsements from both IBM and Vodaphone.
The website also uses BBC footage to highlight the skills of those on its books. Ms Maitless and Gavin Esler are both shown presenting on Newsnight.
Opposition MPs called for the BBC to enforce its rules more rigorously.
Mr Foster said: “This calls into question the adequacy of the rules and the implementation of them. I think the BBC Trust must view this as a matter of urgency.”
Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, said: “This does appear to be a clear breach of the BBC’s guidelines.
“The only reason that these presenters are hot property on the after-dinner speaking circuit is because of their BBC role, so they are benefiting from the platform provided to them by the licence fee.
“The BBC needs to urgently clarify whether or not these kinds of activities fall within its guidelines.”
A BBC spokesman, said: “It is for the BBC to be the interpreter of its own rules, and no evidence has been put forward to suggest any of the people mentioned have done anything which could compromise our impartiality.”
JLA was unavailable for comment.