Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the BBC World Service Unions

  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 ancillary staff.

  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 House—long regarded as the Cinderella of the Corporation—risks 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?


  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.


  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 whatsoever.


  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.


  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.


  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 service colleagues.

  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 News white?

  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!


  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.


  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 this way.)

  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 of analysis.

  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 reductions—in real terms—of 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.

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