Memorandum submitted by the BBC World
This report articulates the views of the three
National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Chapels in the BBC World Service.
The Chapels represent some 750 journalists and correspondents.
The report is also supported by the two World Service branches
of BECTU (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre
Union) which represent several hundred technical, research and
The Chapel is more than happy to provide more
detailed information, or to make someone available to give oral
evidence, should the Committee so require. What makes the BBC
World Service special is the pride its employees have in the institution
and the quality of its output. The critique expressed in this
updated report (we delivered our initial submission in May 1999)
comes from our frustration that those values continue to be eroded.
It is our understanding that senior BBC World
Service Managers have been invited to appear before the FAC on
Tuesday 30 January 2001.
We predict that they will attempt to portray
themselves as a leadership team with a clear and detailed vision
of the way forward, enjoying the overwhelming support of staff,
in full control of budgets and resources and able to defend World
Service standards and interests against all-comers.
The unions would argue that sadly the reality
is rather different. This document will attempt to explain the
reasons for the deepening crisis both in BBC World Service and
World Service News (now part of News Division).
For many years, the BBC World Service enjoyed
an unrivalled international reputation for accuracy and impartiality.
But that reputation is now seriously under threat and Bush Houselong
regarded as the Cinderella of the Corporationrisks becoming
a neglected outpost and forced to play second fiddle, even on
international stories, to other BBC news outlets. A recent example
was the funeral of President Assad of Syria. This was the sort
of set piece occasion that the World Service once excelled at,
but the allocated radio reporter, Barbara Plett, had to share
a line with the allocated television reporter, Jeremy Cook. He
took preference and since his written reports were naturally filed
at the last minute, it meant that Barbara's despatches often could
not be recorded and edited in time for the hourly bulletins. And
since Jeremy was doing live two-ways for domestic television at
the top of the hour, we didn't even have the fallback position
of getting Barbara to deliver her written reports live on air.
As a result World Service radio was often obliged to broadcast
material recorded an hour earlier, whereas BBC domestic television
had the latest coverage. So why is this happening?
1. THE PRE
1996 STATUS OF
Until 1996, the World Service although formally
part of the BBC, was run almost as a separate entity. Senior Managers
were mainly chosen from within the ranks of current employees
and there was a shared commitment and pride in the output. Some
facilities were shared with our domestic cousins, but the separate
funding requirements (Grant-in-Aid as opposed to Licence Fee)
meant that for most services, dedicated World Service Departments
existed. There was a price to pay, but most Bush House employees
were prepared to accept less favourable working conditions and
lower salaries and allowances because they valued their work for
the World Service.
2. JOHN BIRT
The unions believe that the World Service continues
to pay the price for Sir John Birt's disastrous 1996 decision
to incorporate World Service News and Current Affairs into domestic
BBC News. This resulted in multiple, often conflicting leadership
structures, an artificial division between the commissioning and
production of World Service News programmes and the effective
loss of traditional World Service standards in much of the current
WS News output.
Since 1996, the Executive Director of the World
Service (Sam Younger) and the Editor of World Service News (Ian
Hoare) have been replaced. Their successors were both Managers
from domestic BBC, with no previous World Service experience,
appointed in one case without any competitive selection procedure
3. GREG DYKE
Since the appointment of Greg Dyke in February
2000, the inexorable fusion of dedicated World Service resources
into centralised BBC structures has continued. This fusion is
well illustrated by the current commissioning system for despatches
(journalist reports). Until the 1996 take-over, there were specific
domestic and world service correspondents, who wrote in different
styles to reflect the different audiences and the different emphases.
Using terms like the "British Prime Minister" rather
than the domestic "Prime Minister", avoiding loaded
words like "terrorist", sometimes spending time to break
down concepts into a form more easily accessible for an audience
for whom English was not a first language. Now on many breaking
stories there will be one radio and one television "pool"
correspondent who will file an initial catch-all "generic
minute" and then be shared among up to two dozen news outlets.
Often, World Service Editors, find that the more reflective, analytical
items they require get lost in the general scramble.
Another example of the damage the domestic BBC
agenda can cause World Service standards is a Management edict
last June to seriously downgrade the traditional "newspaper
cuttings service" in Bush House with a computerised clippings
package called NEON. For many years the World Service reference
library was considered a mine of printed information, able to
provide producers almost instantly with selected "media packs"
on current events, able to look up dates, facts etc at short notice
as required by the output. Overseas correspondents could call
in to check material before broadcast around the clock. Now hard
pressed producers, working at night or at the weekend are forced
either to try to navigate their way around an less than ideal
computerised system to check material or try and get help from
the Resource Centre at Television Centre.
Yet another example is the Corporate computer
system ENPS. Designed for regional television, it was never intended
for the complex multi-level requirements of the World Service.
(We have multiple regional and one central Newsroom running concurrently)
Imposed two years ago, it kept breaking down and World Service
News staff finally had enough and returned to an earlier system.
A newer version was provided after a six month hiatus, which we
now use, but it still fails to meet our requirements and still
crashes far too regularly.
4. REMOVING THE
Even though it happened more than a year ago,
World Service staff remain incensed that the current Executive
Director of the World Service, Mark Byford, within months of his
appointment, allowed the words "Home of the World Service"
to be removed from the entrances to Bush House (despite a petition
signed by hundreds of staff). It was the best possible evidence
that Managers imposed from domestic BBC simply do not understand
or share the World Service's main credo. Despite what they may
believe, we do not see ourselves as the overseas division of domestic
BBC. We are part of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual community
providing international news for the World. We just happen to
broadcast from a building (Bush House) known around the world
as our Headquarters.
5. GREG DYKE
BBC" IN APRIL
In April 2000, the new Director General Greg
Dyke announced his intention to create "One BBC". World
Service staff felt this would mark the final integration of the
World Service into a domestic-run BBC. But if that was to be the
new reality, then Bush House staff also expected working conditions,
salaries and allowances comparable with those enjoyed by domestic
In reality, World Service staff continue to
get inferior treatment. Both in News and in the language services,
they receive £2,000 less in unpredictability allowances (UPA)
than their domestic counterparts, despite having at least the
same levels of disruption in their shift patterns.
Bush House staff have the highest levels of
nigh-shift working the whole of the Corporation, but night payments
are geared to the requirements of domestic Breakfast television.
Management's failure for more than a year to negotiate a realistic
increase in night pay rates in the World Service has resulted
in a two-day strike in September and an ongoing campaign of industrial
action. (But programme quality remains paramount. The NUJ shortened
the strike by several hours to allow journalists to return to
work to cover the declaration in the Florida election, the Last
State to announce its result.)
Night pay and working conditions are not the
only causes of discontent at Bush House. Greg Dyke recently described
the BBC as a whole as "hideously white". We might well
question the appropriateness of the word "hideously"
but it is true that the proportion of non-white staff employed
by the World Service is much higher than the domestic BBC, even
if most of them are in junior positions. But despite this, the
Corporation insists on a single BBC-wide set of targets (10 per
cent of all staff and 4 per cent of Managers by 2003) for ethnic
minorities. The NUJ would like to see much more realistic targets
in the World Service News. "25 per cent say for all staff
and 10-15 per cent for Senior Duty Editors and Managers.
We would raise a number of specific issues.
Why is the entire Management team in World Service
Why are there so few non-whites in Mark Byford's
World Service Management team?
Why is the Head of the World Service Arabic
section white, when several highly qualified Arab senior journalists
work under him?
Why are so few Asian and Afro-Caribbean journalists
promoted? (out of some 60 journalists at the substantive Senior
BJ9 Grade for Senior Broadcast Journalists in World Service News,
only one is from an Afro-Caribbean or Asian background.)
Why has it taken nearly 15 years of pressure
from the NUJ to get the World Service to begin dismantling its
"Fresh Blood" policy, which the unions consider to be
racist. (Agreement was reach in September 2000 to significantly
increase the numbers of World Service journalists on continuing
staff contracts) Fresh Blood involves hiring overseas staff on
short-term contracts and then sending them home, rather than offering
them substantive staff posts. The argument being that people who
have been in the United Kingdom for several years somehow lose
touch with their native countries and need to be replaced. Yet
UK based white journalists are allowed to report on some of those
same countries as regional experts without in some cases ever
visiting the target regions!
6. THE UNIONS
With Management unable or unwilling to lead,
World Service staff have increasingly turned to the unions to
defend traditional WS standards. NUJ membership levels are at
record levels. Nearly 100 per cent in News, over 95 per cent in
Current Affairs and growing rapidly in the many Language services.
Rather than simply looking after industrial issues, the unions
at Bush House have taken on some of the aspects of a parallel
administration, fighting the Management on many issues, proposing
policy, insisting on realistic budgets.
7. FAILURE TO
The lack of effective leadership is most clearly
felt in the way the World Service is financed. There seems to
be a chronic failure to plan and maintain realistic budgets and
even when budgets are set. Management appears incapable of maintaining
them over any period. Their ambition is almost always far greater
than the available resources.
This can be illustrated by World Service Management's
decision in March 2000 to transform World Service News into a
round the clock 24 Hour News station. Done well, the proposal
had merit, but instead of fusing those existing elements which
were working well with some new ideas, Management came up with
an unimaginative, repetitive model which resulted in a loss of
overall quality and a plunge in staff morale.
Let me explain.
Because they are simply not enough staff to
fill all the necessary shifts, staff are constantly being asked
to double desk (do their own job, plus that of their missing colleague)
That obviously increases stress levels, levels raised still further
by the constant difficulties with ENPS, the computer system imposed
on the World Service by the BBC's Management.
We share Management's concern that the World
Service's future is conditional on us being able to deliver a
high quality audible signal to urban markets around the world.
One of the ways this is being done is by offering core material
to existing FM stations, which can then rebroadcast WS material
on their outlets. The difficulty for the World service is that
those FM stations all have different requirements, and to try
and satisfy them, the current schedules have become a patchwork
quilt of pick-and-mix segments which allow re-broadcasters to
opt in and out at will. But this has created a World Service output
which is no longer a seamless, integrated and continuous whole.
It has now become repetitive and lacking the depth and gravitas
for which we have become known.
A far better solution would have been for the
World Service to make available to re-broadcasters dedicated hourly
news bulletins and summaries, which they could select as required
without compromising the entire World Service output. Had this
been done, it would have freed up our own frequencies to create
a fully effective international news station. We could then have
achieved our twin aims of expanding our news coverage and effectively
broadening our news agenda. And that material would also have
been available via the net and high quality short wave.
Management's stated goals of both providing
comprehensive programming for a world audience as well as bulletins
tailored to the needs of FM re-broadcasters are simply incompatible.
One or other has to lose out. The real loser in all this is the
traditional World Service listener who now has to make do with
a less than ideal compromise, rather than the unique and comprehensive
coverage they had become used to.
Why was consideration not given to producing
our regional current affairs programmes (World Today for East
and South Asia) in the target regions? The BBC has offices in
Delhi and Tokyo. World Service Breakfast programmes made from
there with staff seconded from London would make far more sense
than having shattered journalists in the early morning hours trying
to understand the regional agenda at distance. (It's not so original;
most of our main competitors CNN, Reuters, AFP already work in
Before the introduction of the new schedules,
our flagship news programme of record was Newsdesk, a 30 minute
international summary, consisting of about twelve correspondents
reports plus a number of straight read stories. The correspondents
reports almost always contained 60 seconds of news and 30 seconds
Now we have an American style one minute billboard,
a five minute bulletin (with three correspondents reports of between
35-45 seconds) and then we start all over again with a 15 minute
summary. Many traditional listeners complain that the new schedule
means they are now hearing constantly repeated information about
the same top four of five top stories, leaving less room for off-agenda
items and a significant decrease in news analysis (which is what
earned the World Service its reputation).
So we endure long, tedious shifts where staff
are ground down by the need to fill even longer periods of air-time,
with less and less time to think and prepare and consequently
less and less pride in the finished product.
Our view is that the incorporation of the World
Service into domestic BBC has been an unreserved disaster. Our
brand identity (Clear and accurate, well-researched and relevant,
balanced and fair, not always first but almost always correct)
has been seriously damaged and the quality of our output and the
resources available to make programmes continue to be downgraded.
The World Service needs adequate funds to ensure
that programme quality is maintained. Yet our Chief Executive
appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee just under two years
ago (23 February 1999) and expressed himself satisfied with the
continuing reductionsin real termsof World Service
budgets. As it turned out, the Foreign Affairs Committee disagreed
and recommended a significant increase, which the Foreign Office
accepted, leaving the unions in a rather difficult position.
We had argued in our 1999 submission to the
Committee for additional funding both to improve services, but
also to address the chronic imbalance between domestic BBC and
World Service working conditions and salaries. But World Service
Management chose to spend almost the entire additional sums provided
by government (£36 million over three years) to boost its
FM radio and on-line capabilities and allocate next to nothing
to addressing the staffing and salaries issues.
Which means that the unions are obliged to again
ask the Committee to consider another increase in Grant-in-Aid
funding, if possible ring-fenced, to provide additional sums to
guarantee appropriate World Service staffing levels to meet the
ever growing and complex production demands and to allow all World
Service staff (Language Services and News) to enjoy salary and
allowance parity with their domestic BBC colleagues.