Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the BBC World Service


  1.  At the beginning of the 21st century the World Service's role as the world's reference point is as important as at any time in its history. The proposed strategy for 2003-06 combines an appropriate long-term response to the changed global context after 11 September, particularly in relation to South West Asia and the Arab world, and to changing audience needs, brought about by technological and competitive developments in critical markets. It will enable us to build on our current success:

    —  Our measured global audience is currently 150 million—far above any other international radio broadcaster.

    —  The World Service has expanded its FM presence to 129 capital cities in the world, reaching at least 22 million listeners and giving it a new level of competitiveness in increasingly sophisticated markets.

    —  Traffic to our online sites has more than doubled in the past year to 75 million page impressions a month in March 2002, already meeting targets for 2004.

    —  In 2001 the World Service won the prestigious Webby award, being judged the world's best radio website on the Internet.

    —  Our online discussion forums are attracting influential audiences to global political debates involving world figures such as Nelson Mandela, Vladimir Putin, and King Abdullah of Jordan.

    —  24 per cent of opinion formers and decision makers in Boston, New York and Washington listen to the World Service each week.

    —  An independent survey among MPs rated BBC World Service as the leading British brand name, scoring far higher than any other brand.

    —  The World Service has risen to the challenges posed by the events of 11 September by expanding programming in Pashto, Persian, and Urdu, making Arabic a 24-hour news service, and broadcasting in English an enhanced schedule of news, current affairs and analysis programming.

  2.  It is a key Government priority to secure a modern international role for Britain, forging greater connections and a trust between diverse global communities, developing partnerships, promoting a more open and participative dialogue of understanding. To do this, the role of public diplomacy is increasingly important: communicating with key target groups abroad is as essential as communicating with governments. The World Service should play a pivotal role as the best known and most respected independent voice in international broadcasting.

  3.  The proposed investment priorities for 2003-06 are in the following three areas:

    —  Geopolitical content.

    —  Online development.

    —  Increased competitiveness via FM in critical markets.

  4.  In support of these investments, we will also continue to implement our capital plan for the modernisation of transmission and distribution assets.


The World After 11 September

  5.  The terrorist attacks in the United States have profound implications for both Britain's and the World Service's geopolitical priorities, with an increased focus on South West Asia and the Arab world and the global drive to eradicate terrorism. As an immediate response to the crisis we expanded Arabic into a 24-hour news and current affairs radio service and increased output in Pashto, Persian and Urdu. We have also improved our audibility to the region. As well as maintaining this increased output, there is an overwhelming longer-term imperative to engage with our audiences by providing a service which helps with the rebuilding of civil society and contributes to a climate of tolerance.

  6.  Therefore, for the 2003-06 period we aim to:

    —  substantially strengthen programming in Pashto, Persian and Urdu, continue Arabic as a 24-hour news service and strengthen our journalistic presence in the region;

    —  maintain the new MW frequency for South West Asia;

    —  launch a sustained series of programming initiatives aimed at opening up the debate on such issues as Islam and democracy, models of governance and concepts of justice in World Service languages for the area;

    —  expand programming for Central Asia in Uzbek and Azeri.


  7.  The state of Africa is, in Tony Blair's words, "a scar on the conscience of the world". As the leading international broadcaster in Africa, the World Service is in a unique position to foster a pan-African and global debate to help overcome the decades of poverty, conflict and poor governance. The World Service therefore proposes for the 2003-06 period:

    —  a new daily programme for Africa in English which drives the development debate forward;

    —  increased newsgathering throughout the continent to improve reporting and relevance;

    —  building closer relationships with FM partner stations;

    —  integrating the successful but temporary lifeline programming for the Great Lakes region of Africa into core Grant in Aid.


  8.  As the European Union moves towards enlargement, the World Service can act as the most authoritative Europe-wide source of information and analysis on this historic development and a facilitator for informed debate, targeting opinion formers across the continent. We propose to:

    —  introduce new flagship programmes in English aimed specifically at European decision makers;

    —  provide high profile interactive discussion forums across online and radio.


  9.  The growing contradiction between economic power and political repression makes this a pivotal period. As China joins the WTO, we propose to introduce:

    —  a daily flagship Asia business programme in English (which is not jammed), thereby enhancing our brand presence among opinion formers and aspirants in China.

Landmark Series

  10.  Ambition and distinction are the hallmarks of special series on major global issues produced by the World Service across radio and online. We aim to build on this distinctive role by creating:

    —  a regular series of landmark radio programmes over the settlement period on global issues that are directly linked to new interactive online World Forum debates. Subjects will include: Global Security and Terrorism, Islam in the 21st Century, Development and Democracy.


  11.  The pace of growth in Internet access remains exceptionally strong with the number of online users increasing by 25 per cent over the past 12 months. Today there are some 513 million people online, with 1.2 billion users projected by 2005-06 and much of the growth coming in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Research emphasises that today's Internet users in developed countries expect sophisticated news sites with a wide range and depth of content, presented in a rich multimedia mix of text, audio and video. Consumers also want a greater sense of engagement and participation through interactivity and communities of interest.

  12.  In order to ensure that BBC World Service remains competitive in English and the other key online languages we will invest £9.3 million by Year 3 on:

    —  Greater depth and breadth of content in a range of subjects for our major sites in English, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Persian and Spanish.

    —  World Forums—promoting engagement through interactivity. Building on our position as the world's most trusted source of news we will establish the World Service as the premier forum for high profile interactive debate across radio and online in key languages.

    —  Upgraded languages. By applying two different criteria, online market maturity and geopolitical importance, we have identified five languages which need to be upgraded over the period 2003-2006: Polish, Czech, Serbian, Turkish and Bengali.

    —  Regionalisation. Providing better regional focus and navigation to ensure that we are competitive in our relevance to local audiences.

    —  Multimedia. Enriching media content to key language sites, including video clips.


  13.  Across the developing world, media market deregulation is continuing rapidly. Cosmopolitan and aspirant listeners in major conurbations now regard FM as a minimum standard of audibility. This presents considerable new competitive challenges for the World Service if we are to maintain our position as the best known and most respected voice in international broadcasting, particularly in the major cities of the world.

  In India, the first countrywide survey in 10 years has revealed a significant drop in the World Service weekly audience—down 12 million listeners. This falls in line with a major decline in overall radio listening there. Only one in four Indians listen regularly, half the number a decade ago. Stemming this decline through access to FM and medium-wave in India is critical for us. In South Russia, the World Service audience has already declined from 9.3 per cent reach in 1997 to 3.2 per cent reach in 2000. In Moscow, only 37 per cent of the population now own a short wave radio.

  14.  To remain competitive, the World Service must enter the second phase of its FM strategy with five clear lines of investment, amounting to a spend of £6.4 million by Year 3.

    —  Expand the FM network to new target capitals and major cities.

    —  Enhance existing FM presence in terms of hours of World Service output being broadcast to reinforce and safeguard our position.

    —  Provide a syndication delivery system for FM rebroadcasters in English.

    —  Critical market response: India

    —  pursue rebroadcasting deals with appropriate Indian FM partners;

    —  develop joint productions on current affairs, business and science.

    —  Critical market response: Russia

    —  pursue rebroadcasting deals with appropriate Russian FM partners;

    —  improve news, current affairs and business programming suitable for FM rebroadcasting partners.


  15.  The capital plan is structured to support the Three Year Plan in two ways:

    —  It provides for the modernisation of transmission assets that are due for replacement or upgrade as part of the World Service 10-year capital plan.

    —  It ensures that the World Service is digitally capable to compete effectively across existing, expanding and new platforms.

Modernising Transmitters

  16.  Short wave is the World Service's primary distribution method, delivering 75 per cent of the global audience. It will remain critical for broadcasting to all least developed and most of the developing markets for many years to come. Equipment on a number of transmitter sites has now reached the end of its economic life. This plan will ensure the continued modernisation of transmitters vital to retain the World Service core audience.

  17.  Digital Capability

    —  Production: The roll-out of the "GoDigital" technology to overseas offices and English news and production will enable the increasing amounts of content originating overseas and in general programme production to be integrated into the new Bush House system.

    —  Distribution: Upgrade of the global satellite distribution system (GDS) to support FM expansion and piloting of digital radio (DRM) in Europe.


  18.  By 2006, in agreement with the FCO, the investments outlined in this document will deliver the following benefits:

    —  Attracting a global World Service radio audience of 153 million listeners per week or at the highest level achieved in the current three-year period

    —  The highest reach of all international broadcasters in priority markets among target audience groups, in particular cosmopolitans, proven through a regular series of tracker surveys

    —  The highest awareness of all international broadcasters in priority markets among target audience groups, in particular cosmopolitans, proven through a regular series of tracker surveys

    —  The highest ratings among international broadcasters for trust and objectivity of news content, measured through bespoke surveys

    —  Global World Service online traffic levels of 200 million monthly page impressions by 2006

    (A new industry-wide method is being developed to monitor the number of users. Once this is available, reporting of unique users will supplement page impressions.)

    —  Distinctively recognised as the leading global radio and online forum for debate, measured through high awareness ratings in annual panel surveys

    —  Presence on FM across the world in at least 145 capitals (75 per cent of the global total) by 2006 and, in particular, in critical markets:

    —  Stemming the audience decline in Russia and India


  19.  World Service will meet the challenges set by HM Treasury in respect of both year on year efficiency savings of at least 2 per cent and reprioritising at least 5 per cent of 2003-04 spend by the end of the three year period.


  20.  World Service has a strong track record of achieving challenging efficiency savings targets. Over the past five years savings of 15 per cent have been made. We have included a commitment to achieve further savings of at least 2 per cent on baselines in each of 2004-05 and 2005-06.

  21.  World Service now spends almost 90 per cent of its funding directly on content production and delivery, with only 10 per cent going on overheads and support charges. The equivalent figure for BBC Home Services was 81 per cent in 2000-01, with a target of 85 per cent for 2003-04.

  22.  At the same time the average costs-per-hour of original production also compare very favourably with BBC Home Services and have reduced over time to below £2,000 per hour.


  23.  HM Treasury requires that World Service identify at least 5 per cent of the Grant in Aid available for 2003-04 that will be reprioritised by the end of the three year period. In recent years we have significantly changed the way in which funds are spent, in a context of FCO agreed targets, to meet changing audience needs (see over).

  24.  Looking ahead to the three years 2003-06, World Service has identified further activity equalling at least 6.8 per cent of the total DEL baseline which will be reprioritised and re-invested. This will be achieved largely through the impact of the Go Digital project, approved by FCO and Treasury in July 2001, which will be nearing completion as the new spending review period opens. The project involves the replacement of outdated analogue production equipment with a modern digital system. Its impact will be felt right across the World Service language production areas in a number of different ways.


  25.  An increase in the Grant in Aid over the three years 2003-06 of £10.5 million, £26.0 million and £35.2 million in operating expenditure and of £0 million, £3 million and £1.5 million in capital is needed to finance new investments and ensure the World Service remains the world's best known and most respected voice in international broadcasting:

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© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 14 November 2002