Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100
TUESDAY 30 JANUARY 2001
MR M BYFORD
100. One of the main issues the trade unions
raise is what they see as the dilution of the separate identity
of the World Service within the larger BBC. Can you assure the
Committee that there is absolutely no cross-subsidisation of the
rest of the BBC from the grant-in-aid to the World Service?
(Mr Byford) Absolutely. How can I show that? Firstly,
within the BBC there is a Fair Trading Committee chaired by the
Vice Chairman, now Gavin Davies, previously Baroness Young. We
have very detailed trading protocols in place which show how the
grant-in-aid is being utilised, how in any relationship we have
with other areas of the BBC which are licence-fee funded, there
are clear contracts in place such that we are paying for what
we get and that there is no cross-subsidy. Then KPMG as external
auditors on this matter also, with Mr Hind obviously, examine
in detail all our protocols and accounts and then each year we
have a fair trading certificate which ensures that is the case.
That is published in the annual review.
101. The other issue I wanted to raise was from
the trade union submission. They raise a specific example to illustrate
the point that they believe that BBC Radio coverage is being downgraded
for TV coverage. They cite the funeral of President Assad, where
they said that the allocated radio reporter had to share a line
with the allocated television reporter and that the television
reporter took preference. I simply quote, "... since his
written reports were naturally filed at the last minute"and
I not actually understand why TV ones are always at the last minute"it
meant that [the radio] despatches often could not be recorded
and edited in time for the hourly bulletins". Is that example
accurate and is that subordination of the radio service to the
TV service carried across the board or was that a specific and
(Mr Byford) I just do not think it is the case. On
that specific example, not only was Barbara Plett in the village
at Assad's funeral, we also had a correspondent come into the
World Service from Damascus itself in order to give us full and
comprehensive coverage. We make a contribution to the BBC's overall
news gathering operation and that is tracked on a weekly, monthly,
yearly basis. I chair a weekly review meeting with my senior editors
both in News and in the World Service. We have a monthly editorial
group, the trading protocols with News are tracked by our own
person as Director of English Networks and News to ensure we get
a good service. Look at India this week, just an example and this
morning my own listening. Who are we calling on from the overall
newsgathering machine there? Jill McGivering and others. The newsgathering
machine has also increased its presence there by deploying people
from Moscow because of the scale of the story, Caroline Wyatt,
they have deployed extra people from the Delhi bureau. We have
been able to access all of them. Some of them are pure dedicated
operations to ourselves, others in complementing the core material.
We take that really seriously. Obviously the last thing we would
want is for the World Service to suffer. It is an absolute high
priority that we ourselves get a very strong newsgathering presence
on the air. I am confident as editor-in-chief that we do.
102. I want to ask about the internet language
services. You have set out what you think are the key languages
on the internet and I am interested to know why you have chosen
them in that order. For Chinese you have spoken about the very
large number of people but is Arabic really the second largest
language grouping, followed by Russian, Spanish, Persian and Portuguese?
(Mr Byford) We are not saying they are the only languages
which will be on an internet presence for the World Service. We
want all 43 language services' audio material to be available
on the World Service site and that is just about achieved now.
We then, as you will have seen from the document, have a gradation
of presence. What is critical is that they cannot all be the same:
let us just put our audio on. Clearly the most important sites
have to have a richness in terms of their updating across 24 hours,
seven days a week, in terms of their interactivity, forums, discussion
forums, specialist reports. We looked at it from a number of angles.
One was the size of the diaspora, because obviously it is not
just the territory itself where the internet can get access to
a language community. We are looking at the size of the language
community across the world as well as in the main territory. Secondly,
we are looking at internet takeup in that area. Thirdly, we are
looking at strategic importance for us in reaching certain audience
groups through that new delivery mechanism. That got us to those
language services. I would say Arabic is absolutely critical for
us. This was a service which was getting 30,000 page impressions
about 15 or 16 months ago; today it is getting five million a
month. I would not want to be facing you asking why we have not
put an Arabic service together, rather than why we have, because
in the Arabic world obviously short wave remains critical to us;
obviously it does. Our biggest concern there is our lack of FM
in certain key areas of the Arab world. It is also really important
that people who are using the internet today, from students to
journalists to decision makers, can access us in a better quality
sound than they can in short wave and secondly be able to have
specialist reports and be constantly updated 24 hours a day. The
other language services, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese,
Persian, Indonesian and then a south Asian site, critical for
us with Hindi, Urdu and Tamil, meet that criteria of the size
of the diaspora, the importance of the internet in that particular
area and the importance to us. You see in Brazil the Portuguese
service has a very, very fast-growing internet community. In India
it is admittedly from a very small base, but there is an annual
growth rate of more than 150 per cent taking up the internet there.
China, you will have seen from the document, 20 million connected
today, more than 100 million by 2005. That is why we have framed
them in that way.
103. The view has been expressed by some of
our colleagues that the problem with emphasising the internet
is that you are not going to reach the information poor and indeed
the poorest, that internet access is slanted towards the better
off. Using some of those communities as an example, maybe the
Arabic one, what sort of people are you actually reaching and
what communities do you think you are going to reach in the future?
Is there any indication that, just as mobile phones are now being
used in India by village communities, the internet may also skip
and become more accessible to remote communities than less developed
(Mr Byford) It would be very, very dangerous for me
to say that those we class as information poor today will become
an internet community fully and there is no need for radio. That
is absolutely not the case. However, for certain audience groups
the internet will be critical. Firstly, younger audiences. In
the Arabic world for instance what we should love to do, and we
are committed to this, as is the whole internet industry, is know
more about the audiences which are using it, where they are coming
from, who they are. We will get a better picture on that over
time because obviously it is a very young medium. Younger audiences,
whether they are at college, students, definitely people of that
community of decision makers, definitely using the net across
areas where short wave has been difficult. What we are trying
to do is hold the audience we have today, that 151 million in
radio, if not build it, as I have shown in the paper, but also
for long-term strength of the World Service to attract audiences
who are on the internet today and will be in future. You are right
to talk about internet cafes; let us not underestimate that. You
go to India and you see in the conurbations or in Pakistan, as
I have done in this last year, internet cafes everywhere. That
does not mean everybody is connected to the internet, but it means
that an increasing number have access to it. For certain groups,
it will be critical.
104. May I go back to the whole question of
relationships within BBC World Service. You very robustly replied
both to Dr Starkey and indeed in the counter response to the Father
of the Chapel, Mr Pierre Vicary. You have given a robust response
to the points he made and to the points Dr Starkey made. Does
it not concern you that a significant and meaningful part of your
staff feel moved to send to this Committee submissions of the
kind we have had? At least is it not an indication of some kind
of breakdown of communication between you two that the trade unions
within your organisation feel it necessary to make submissions
of this kind to this Committee which in fact ought to have been
thrashed out internally?
(Mr Byford) Yes, it does concern me that a union submission
would come to you.
105. I am not saying it should not.
(Mr Byford) Nor am I.
106. All I am asking is why you are failing
to communicate with your staff?
(Mr Byford) They have communicated with you in the
past and my understanding is that they had the opportunity to
put forward another document to you and took up the opportunity.
107. By our standards it is very critical. You
have robustly replied to it but it is a critical one.
(Mr Byford) For me personally I believe that to have
good relations with the unions is a pretty important thing to
do as a senior manager and obviously I have regular sessions with
them at directorate liaison meetings where we discuss the overall
strategy as we are this morning and where the World Service is
going. Certainly, if you look at the performance of the World
Service today, it is very strong in an exceptionally challenging
environment. The key for me is to explain to all the staff the
need for change, the need for investments in new things and also
to explain the challenges we have. Does it concern me that unions
submit documents which are not 100 per cent in favour?
108. It is pretty strong stuff. It is not just
a normal submission; it is pretty strong stuff.
(Mr Byford) It is a submission which I believe we
can give a very fair contextual reply to you on all the points,
as we have done, which sets out in context what we are trying
to do and why. Does it concern me that it is sent? I think, as
you have just said, that if they want to send it of course they
can at your invitation. Should you yourselves see the wider context
as well of the points they made? Yes, as we have done, and I think
you will see a more balanced position.
109. Does it not slightly indicate that the
wounds which opened up at the time and the whole debate we had
when you did come before us for the first time have not really
(Mr Byford) The restructuring was 1996, which in broadcasting
terms is a very long time ago. I would say that the World Service
itself and its staff overall are in pretty buoyant mood. We recognise,
as a group of all staff, that we face enormous challenges in order
to retain our lead position. Of that there is no question and
I hope I have done much in emphasising the need for change and
development. On some of the points they have raised, whether it
be that the quality and reputation of the World Service has declined,
well it has not. It has not. The audience performance today is
the highest in the history of the World Service. We have a World
Service consultative group established within the 20 point framework
on that restructuring which has seen no diminution in quality.
We have audience research programmes across the world on trust
and esteem; no reduction in that. Has news gathering become a
lower priority? Of course it has not. How the introduction of
the new schedules, that is the new English schedule in April,
has damaged output? We have just done a very, very major programme
of audience research in many areas of the world of a service which
I would say is inherently conservative. You know what I mean by
110. I do not know what you mean.
(Mr Byford) Stable. Fifty per cent see immediate improvement
in the output; 17 per cent did not like the change. As someone
who has run many speech services for the BBC, that is a very positive
result. I do not want to counteract each and every point because
that is not what you want me to do, but I am confident myself
in the context of the points they raise that the World Service
is a very good service.
111. You have touched upon your priorities on
services but could you beef out for us how you make those choices?
Clearly there are some painful ones and then you get some reactions
(Mr Byford) Over all the priorities of the Service
or specifically languages?
112. The selection of languages. You are cutting
back on some of the languages.
(Mr Byford) Firstly, we have an overall portfolio
of 43 language services and the strategy at the moment for that
period is that they are retained. It is a very dynamic situation
for the World Service. As you will know from previous discussions,
some language services are opened, some language services are
closed over time. In this particular plan there is no specific
plan to close any of them. What we are looking at is the ability
for some language services to utilise some of their money to invest
in online as well as utilising the investment monies we have,
so complementing the money we have from the new money from the
spending review to put into expanding online.
113. You touched upon this earlier, so I do
not want to labour it. On the question of short wave it does seem
to me that as well as a problem with poverty of access to computers
we also politically need to maintain short-wave facilities, do
we not? FM is dependent upon host countries allowing technology
to be within their territorial area. Is that right?
(Mr Byford) I agree.
114. Short wave is the thing where we reach
out to the Belarussians and the people in very fragile situations.
(Mr Byford) I agree, but not everywhere. I agree with
you that as a premise that is right. I am the person who joined
the World Service in October 1998 and found 33 rebroadcasters
in Serbia withdrawn overnight. Thank goodness we were on short
wave. For me, that is always in my head, that anywhere you reduce
your shortwave, you are right, not just is it an audibility issue,
but it is what we describe in our own management team as an insurance
issue as well, which is the ability still to reach those audiences.
In the United States of America, my own view to you would be that
the risk of that is so low that it is not worth considering. That
is the judgement you make. Or Australia. Do you need to be there
on short wave because the chances are you will be withdrawn from
FM? A very low risk and you are probably spending good money after
bad which you could be investing in new delivery. Meanwhile in
the example you asked about earlier in Africa, Nigeria, a changing
country, on a road to democracy but shall we withdraw short wave?
No, we shall not. We shall have a number of delivery mechanisms
there. For some areas in the world, be it Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan,
short wave is the core. As you rightly say, on FM we would be
dependent on a local regulatory framework and the chance of getting
it are low for the moment, so short wave is critical. All the
time, territory by territory, we are making those judgements to
see which is the right delivery mechanism for us. The complication
is that it is not just about whether a regime allows you in, as
you rightly say, but what is the best way of reaching different
audience groups within that country too.
115. You have stumbled across something which
is actually of some interest for a different inquiry we are having.
You mentioned Serbia. Do you know what your listenership was?
How were you able to say you were still on air, you had not gone
away, you were on short wave? That was quite interesting. We have
an ongoing inquiry on the Balkans. We are going to Belgrade next
(Mr Byford) It goes without saying that the Balkans
are really important to the World Service. I hope it goes without
saying that Serbia itself is very important to the World Service.
It has been primarily a short wave broadcaster to Serbia, but
over the last few years was able to develop through B92 and other
station networks a rebroadcasting network. That was withdrawn
by Milosevic in October 1998. That meant that the only methods
for getting the World Service were two: actually one was the internet
and was being used. The other shortwave. We had clear evidence
of the fact that the Serbian output in audio was accessible on
the internet and was being used.
116. Was that in English or in Serbian?
(Mr Byford) Both. English, Serbian and Albanian were
all on the internet, but the primary method then was short wave
and we spent much of our time during that two-year period looking
at how we could enhance medium wave audibility into Serbia from
outside the specific territory. Since the events at the end of
last year and a new regime, we were the first international broadcaster
back on B92 in Belgrade on the morning after, which was a great
thing for us. Now I think I am right in saying, but I shall correct
myself with a written note, that we are on at least six rebroadcasters
and we are on a journey now of rebuilding those rebroadcasting
partnerships such that people can listen to us on short wave.
Obviously if they can listen to us on FM through local broadcasters,
all the better for us.
Mr Mackinlay: It might be useful if we had a
note on what has happened and the future in this whole area.
117. As soon as possible, if you do not mind,
because of our visit.
(Mr Byford) I think I am right in saying that we have
submitted a document to you on our strategy for Serbia; not for
today's session but for consideration next week.
118. After Sailing By in the evening we receive
the World Service overnight when driving home from Parliament.
(Mr Byford) Do you mean for Radio Four overnight?
119. Yes. Do you get a little money in consideration
for that? Or is that gratis to the BBC?
(Mr Hind) We do not get any money for that. It is
on the basis of a fair trade. We are also entitled to use some
Radio Four programmes which we then version for suitability for
overseas audiences and we do not pay in return for that.