Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Mr Byford, may I welcome you and your colleagues to this session of the Foreign Affairs Committee. You have with you, Mr Nigel Chapman, the Deputy Director and Mr Andrew Hind, the Finance and Business Development Director. We thank you for your helpful memorandum. As you know, Mr Byford, we are learning from you and your colleagues first, in advance of the spending round, and we will then meet your colleagues, if I may call them that, from the British Council in a similar session, so it might be helpful to begin in terms of the relationship between you as head of the World Service and your colleagues in the British Council. I give warning to anyone from the British Council who is here they will have to field the same question. Can you give some indication, given that many of the priorities of yourself and the British Council are the same, of the nature of the relationship and the co-operation between the two of you?

  (Mr Byford) When I became Director of the World Service in 1998, and David Green was the new Director General of the British Council, it became clear there was a lot of activity taking place between the World Service and the British Council out in the field but it could be better codified and the relationship could be put on a more formal basis between us, so the following year we established a memorandum of understanding between us both, a framework for us to co-operate. Now, David Green and myself meet at least once a year, but in practice it is twice a year, formally together—

  2. Is the document available publicly? Could the Committee see the document?
  (Mr Byford) We would have no problem, and I am sure the British Council would not either, in supplying you with that overall framework.

  3. Thank you.
  (Mr Byford) We meet regularly, as I say, at least twice a year. We also codify now all the projects we are working on together, of which there are some 50-plus, and also annually each year we come together to review the past year's activities and look ahead to the future year with some of our senior editorial colleagues working across both organisations.

  4. Apart from that relationship at the top of the pyramid, what are the relationships at other levels of the two organisations?
  (Mr Byford) Nigel Chapman as Deputy Director has a direct relationship with the British Council. Our Head of Strategy has exactly the same relationship with the British Council on planning key initiatives on the way forward. Then actually in the field there is a relationship between British Council offices and the World Service. We are pleased that now within British Council offices you can get access to the World Service internet site, for instance, in the main reception areas. Things like that are working well.

  5. To what extent when you formulate your programme for the spending round would you seek to overlap, to co-ordinate, and to plan in tandem certain of the relationships over that planning period?
  (Mr Byford) We would certainly want the British Council to know what our priorities are going into the three year spending review, similarly we would expect to hear from them, which has happened in having our two strategy documents put forward. We would also see where there are areas for co-operation, for instance, in English language teaching, in the CELLS project in China, and there is potential for that happening in Russia, so the overall strategic goals on which there would be shared knowledge. But they are two different organisations and it is important we recognise, they recognise, and may I say everyone recognises, that although both organisations are working on the international front they have separate goals, sometimes in parallel, but it is important for us both to know what each is seeing as priorities for the future.

  6. If you step outside for a while and if you were carrying out some consultancy into the work of the two organisations, can you see any way in which you and your colleagues could build on that memorandum of understanding of 1998, any further initiatives which you think might lead to co-operation, perhaps reduced costs or co-operation in markets?
  (Mr Byford) Certainly in terms of impact on the ground, and obviously, even though I am stepping outside, on the inside we have been thinking about where we can work more effectively together, in English language teaching opportunities there are things to take forward on the new technology front, use of the internet, et cetera. There are things we can do on the ground in terms of presence between the World Service and the British Council in offices, et cetera, but I think on the key goals of us providing a core service of journalism, news, current affairs, analysis and expertise, that programming remains within the World Service itself.

  7. So you would not expect any dramatic changes in the relationship over the current planning period?
  (Mr Byford) I would expect us to be building on the strong relationship which we are already nurturing now, looking at areas where we can build on joint initiatives for the benefit of the Council, the benefit of the World Service and, frankly, the benefit of Britain, but also to recognise we have separate roles to fulfil as well.

  8. Following 11 September, Afghanistan and the Middle East, can you give examples of that closer co-operation?
  (Mr Byford) Between the Council and ourselves?

  9. In particular geographical areas, say Afghanistan.
  (Mr Byford) We know one priority they will be giving to this session is their high priority on cultural programmes of mutual understanding. That is in absolute parallel with our own programme of extending services in Persian, Pashto, Urdu and Arabic, which is all about greater debate, discussion as well as extended news and current affairs programming. So both are in that context of there being a greater understanding and freedom of information.

Mr Olner

  10. The answers you have just given, Mr Byford, indicate your keenness to promote the World Service as the leading British brand name. Is there any tension in that circumstance between taking advantage of your brand name, which is an image which is ideal for commercial promotion and for conveying political messages, and the long-standing ideals of the World Service which is impartiality and independence? Is there not a conflict there which is a little uneasy to ride?
  (Mr Byford) There would be a conflict if we did go down the road of the former which you emphasise there. We are absolutely a brand, an institution and a proposition that stands by its core values of providing accurate, fair, impartial, objective information, which is trusted across the world. The fact we do receive grant-in-aid funding, ie we are a public service proposition, is a great strength to our sense of being, if you like, independent of political and commercial interest. Although we get our funding through the Foreign Office, the fact we are the BBC World Service within the BBC's constitutional framework is absolutely critical to it being seen as independent of government and therefore wholly credible.

  11. Obviously we all have a series of questions we need to ask you, Mr Byford, but looking through them one of the areas which raises a little doubt in my mind is the accuracy of your audience contact.
  (Mr Byford) The audience figures?

  12. Yes. Several MPs have said, yes, the BBC World Service is a leading British brand name, but have we got really good, solid figures to back that up?
  (Mr Byford) Yes, an independent poll is carried out, not by us but through MORI, of MPs.

  13. What about the figures of those people in third world countries or other countries who listen? Are the listening figures accurate?
  (Mr Byford) Those surveys of MPs here are merely to try and give some support to the credit it brings to Britain and its standing within the United Kingdom itself. So that independent survey by MORI is but one small measure of our impact. The main measure is our audience surveys which are carried out across the world. They are independently carried out. They include listeners that listen at least half an hour a week to the World Service, and that is how we determine our overall reach. Sometimes they are done with other international broadcasters, sometimes they are commissioned direct from ourselves, but they are authoritative and recognised to be so. That is where we get the 150 million audiences from. There are some areas of the world where we cannot survey, we cannot survey in Afghanistan, we cannot survey in Iraq or Somalia because we cannot carry out what you and I would judge as authoritative, comprehensive audience surveys. But in those areas of the world where we can, we know we have an overall global figure of 150 million. The surveys are done over a rolling cycle, so we hope to cover 70 or 80 per cent of the world over a three year period.

  14. You are seeking additional operating funds of £32.2 million over the next three years. Is that going to be money that is going to be well spent? Is there any evidence that the World Service can help with the rebuilding of civil society and contribute towards a climate of tolerance?
  (Mr Byford) In the current three year period the impact and effect of the World Service can be seen. It is a very strong investment. Also the new three year plan is obviously in a framework where we think the priorities will not only bring credit to the World Service and Britain but are the important priorities we need to move forward on. In audience terms last year we had our highest audience ever at 153 million, we still stay at a highly credible 150 million, in a world of exploding competition all around us, markets deregulating across the world, greater choice, yet the World Service is still far and away the world's leading international radio broadcaster.

  15. What about the benchmark of how the World Service is contributing towards fairness and a climate of tolerance?
  (Mr Byford) Our overall aim for the World Service is to be the best known and most respected voice in international broadcasting, thereby bringing benefit to Britain. By being the best known, ie being used by the largest number of listeners, we are reaching as number one the audience groups that we want to reach. "Most respected" is about reputation and standing, our values of openness, tolerance, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality. That trust is (a) a service from the World Service to the world but (b) reflects on great credit from the World Service to home, ie Britain, in providing that service. So in terms of its audience impact, it is doing a strong job, but also in the values and contribution it makes to building civil society, to providing impartial, objective information, to being the promoter and catalyst if you like for open debate and discussion, for understanding different cultures and bringing communities together to discuss in an open and free way, it is having a great contribution in the world today.

  16. Can I say, Mr Chairman, I am no opposer of the BBC World Service and think in fact it provides an incredibly good service, but I think there is a need for the BBC World Service to be able to not only rely on its name but be able to justify to taxpayers that what they are contributing to is worthwhile.
  (Mr Byford) We feel that very strongly ourselves. We obviously recognise the money we get is from the taxpayers of Britain, of the United Kingdom. We recognise there must be in terms of delivery and impact as well as its raison 'êêtre results from the World Service, but we think we are able to show that demonstrably.

  17. Post-11 September how were you able to fund your increased output in Arabic, Pashto, Persian and Urdu following those events?
  (Mr Byford) We moved swiftly, post-11 September, to extend the Persian and Pashto services through Iran to Afghanistan and Tajikistan, to extend the Uzbek service and to make the Urdu service extended too, and, the Arabic service a 24 hour news operation. We also strengthened news gathering for the English service and provided more current affairs and analysis, not just for that region but of course the world on what was a huge global story. So we moved very swiftly on it. We then were in discussions with the Foreign Office about extra funding for that. We received just under £3 million in the last financial year in order to support the extension of those services. We did re-prioritisation ourselves and that enabled us (a) to extend the services and (b) to improve our audibility to the region by taking out a new medium wave frequency from the Gulf, which gave us good audibility through Iran, Afghanistan, to the region. We are still in discussions with them now about providing funding for the current year we are in.

  18. So the Foreign Office at that point in time were able to react quickly and positively?
  (Mr Byford) The Foreign Office was supportive. They were able to have discussions with the Treasury about the World Service as well as their own operational needs, and they were able to win extra funding for us for last year, and as I say we are in discussions now about that continuing for this current year.

Mr Hamilton

  19. Can I follow up some of the things you said about the role the BBC World Service can play in areas of conflict, and specifically come back again to Afghanistan. We have heard a lot about the role the World Service has played in trying to help produce a civic society once more in a war-torn country, to try and heal some of the divisions caused by the Taliban's time in office and of course the war and the different forces which have been in the country. What evidence have you got, given what you said earlier, that it is almost impossible to collect listening figures in Afghanistan and other war-torn areas, specific statistical evidence or just evidence from your reporters, people like Baqer Moin, for example, of the role the World Service has actually played in the reconstruction specifically of Afghanistan?
  (Mr Byford) We are not able to do authoritative, independent surveys across the country, and we do not then build that into our global audience figure, but that does not mean we have no sense at all of our impact. Afghanistan itself, pre-11 September, was a country with no television, no credible national newspapers, radio was the main medium and the BBC was the main impact source for information, for education and for entertainment. There was a limited United Nations survey done two or three years ago which suggested that 70 per cent of Pashto male heads of households and 60 per cent of Persian males heads of households were listening to the World Service regularly, but we have never put a great emphasis on that. What we do know is that our news and current affairs programming in Pashto and Persian, as well as English but mainly Pashto and Persian, is the primary information source. We know from our own staff working in Kabul and Afghanistan today that although television is coming back and Afghan Radio is coming back, still the BBC has a huge impact in the area as a primary source of information, because it is reliable. Hamid Karzai wrote to us only two weeks ago saying the World Service had a huge impact wherever he travelled in the country because it was credible. So we provide an objective, impartial and trusted primary source of news and information. On top of that, with our Afghan education projects, we also provide additional offerings to the people which are not just news and current affairs. New Home, New Life is our very popular soap opera for the Afghan people, with strong educational and social messages behind it. We do programming for children and we do programming for refugees in Afghanistan. So it is a rounded offer, if you like, more than just news and current affairs, which is supporting that society as a whole. Since then we have also, through money from DFID, been able to work on training journalists, on building the new Afghan media itself in terms of reconstruction. So a primary news and information source, education and entertainment programming, and a very strong source of help with the reconstruction of Afghanistan itself in the context of media rebuild.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 14 November 2002