Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  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 unusual example?
  (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 technology?
  (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.

Mr Rowlands

  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 been healed?
  (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 that.

  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.

Mr Mackinlay

  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 as well.
  (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 week.
  (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.

Dr Starkey

  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.

Mr Rowlands

  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.

Mr Mackinlay

  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.

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