Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence

Written evidence submitted by the BBC World Service


  BBC World Service is available throughout the Middle East in English and Arabic, on shortwave, medium wave and numerous FM frequencies and online. In addition it is available in Persian in Iran on radio and online.

  BBC World television is available free-to-air across the Middle East on satellite and on cable in some countries.

  BBC Newsgathering maintains bureaux in Dubai, Amman, Cairo, Baghdad and Tehran. BBC Monitoring maintains its key regional office in Cairo.

  As well as the above-mentioned bureaux, The BBC World Service Trust, supported among others by the FCO and DFID, is training journalists and supporting the growth of high quality media in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Yemen.

BBC Arabic Service

  The BBC Arabic Service is both the largest and the oldest of the World Service's language sections other than English. It was founded in 1938 and today it is the leading foreign radio broadcaster in the Middle East. The service is available on air and online 24 hours a day seven days a week, and also delivers content to mobile phones and other mobile devices.

  The radio operation and the website offer news and information and cover a wide range of political, social and other issues. Discussions and interactive programmes expose Arab audiences to a unique range of views on current topics and debates.

  In addition to the radio and online services, the BBC Arabic Service will launch a television channel in the Autumn.

On radio

  Research shows that the radio service is the most trusted international radio news provider in the region and has an established reputation for quality.

  Eighty per cent of the BBC Arabic radio audience live in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. Northern Sudan and Iraq are the BBC's largest markets in the Arab speaking world, both attracting weekly audiences in excess of three million. Listeners tend to be male, better educated, aged 35-44 and live in large households (approximately five people in house).

  Most of the listening is via shortwave and medium wave transmissions, which are most popular in state-controlled media markets.

  However, the Arabic Service is increasingly available on FM relays, which are proving popular where available and as a result the BBC's audiences on FM are growing. There are currently 24 hour BBC relays carrying Arabic output in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Sudan and the UAE, as well as Chad, Djibouti, Mali, Somaliland and Mauritania. As well as the BBC's own relays, the Arabic Service also has partners stations re-broadcasting its output in Lebanon and the West Bank, and further afield in Somalia, Mali, Greece, Germany and even Australia. Of the 12.5 million adults worldwide who listen to the Arabic Service each week, 3.2 million are tuning in to these FM signals. All the BBC's audio output is also available through the internet.

  Listeners in the Middle East can also enjoy BBC English and Arabic programmes in digital quality sound 24 hours a day, seven days a week, via satellite through BBC World Service's partnership with Arabsat.

  Audiences mainly tune in for news and current affairs—with the BBC used as a primary source for news in markets like Iraq, and as a complementary source to TV in most other markets.

  The BBC is still used by many as a crisis station, especially in news-sensitive markets like Egypt. This has resulted in the BBC losing market share against some other international stations whose programmes are much more entertainment oriented. However, when it comes to news, the BBC is seen as more trustworthy, objective and relevant than its international rivals (Sawa, Al Hurra, RMC and CNN).


  The online market in the region is growing and becoming increasingly competitive. is the leading international Arabic news site on the internet, and has the highest usage of all the World Service's language sites apart from English. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait are key markets.

  Research shows high levels of trust in its content, and it has twice won the international "Best Arabic News Site" accolade. It currently receives over 21 million page impressions each month—up 40% on last year. Most of these online users are from the Middle East and North Africa but it also has considerable reach amongst Arabic speakers worldwide who are out of geographical reach of our Arabic-language radio broadcasts and re-broadcasts.

On television

  BBC Arabic TV, the first publicly funded international television service from the BBC, will be launched in late 2007. The channel will initially broadcast 12 hours daily throughout the Middle East at a cost of £19 million per annum, although the ambition is to extend this to 24 hours, and the additional funding required for the extension will form part of BBC World Service's bid in this year's Comprehensive Spending Review.

  Initial funding for the service was made available through a reprioritisation exercise which resulted in the closure of ten language services last year.

  Drawing upon the BBC's unmatched newsgathering resources, and working alongside BBC Arabic Radio and Online, the channel's launch will turn the BBC Arabic Service into a genuinely multimedia operation, indeed the only major international broadcaster capable of providing news to Arabic-speaking audiences whatever their medium of choice.

  Research in the Middle East shows a very strong demand for the service. The attached appendix gives more detail on this research, progress with the channel's development, and the case for closing the gap from 12 to 24 hours.

  BBC Farsi TV to Iran will launch in early 2008. Full funding for the service was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in October 2006. The operating cost of £15 million a year will be provided in addition to BBC World Service's existing grant-in-aid funding from the UK Government through the 2007 Spending Review, and will have no impact on the current BBC World Service portfolio of services.

  The service will include news, analysis, debate and high quality factual and cultural programmes made by the BBC, and will be on air initially for eight hours a day, seven days a week at peak viewing time in Iran. It will be freely available to anyone with a satellite dish in the region. As with all BBC services, it will be editorially independent in every respect.

  The BBC World Service will be the first international broadcaster to deliver a Farsi tri-media news service under a single brand. It will enable the BBC to have increased impact in one of its most important markets, and in a country with a growing global and regional role.

BBC World Service Programming on the Middle East

  Events in the Middle East continue to dominate the news headlines, and capturing a full picture of the situation, often against a daily backdrop of violence, is challenging and complex. As well as the more permanent news presence in the bureaux, the BBC relies on the determination and courage of a network of reporters throughout the region.

  Audiences listening in English can enjoy the BBC's flagship programmes: Newshour, 60 minutes of world news and analysis of the day's top stories from the BBC's most experienced correspondents, and Outlook which brings human interest stories from across the globe. World Have Your Say is the daily multimedia, interactive phone-in programme encouraging people across the world to question experts and leading international figures in the news. Recent figures from the Middle East featured on the programme have included: Salam Pax, The Baghdad Blogger; Syrian Cabinet Minister, Dr Bouehaina Shaaban and Pierre Gemayal, Lebanon's Industry Minister.

  Iraqi Vice President, Adil Abdul Mahdi talked to Lyse Doucet in The Interview in February this year.

  Assignment looked at Lebanon in December, asking the question: Winning the Peace—has the war made Hezbollah stronger than ever? and in the same month it investigated Palestinians who have collaborated with Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence service.

  Baghdad Billions broadcast in November was a two-part investigation into the missing billions of dollars that have poured into Iraq for reconstruction projects.

  The New Arab World, was a series about the pace of change in the Arabian Gulf, broadcast in July last year. While the smaller states are streaking ahead with modernisation, liberalisation and opening up to the outside world, their larger and more powerful neighbours in the Arab World are lagging behind. This series focussed on Dubai, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon and Egypt looking at how relationships are changing, and what the future holds.

  Iran—A Revolutionary State, a three-part documentary series broadcast in October last year, took a close look at the making of modern Iran. This followed on from a whole week of special programmes on Iran in May.

  Listeners in Arabic can enjoy BBC Arabic service's flagship news programme The World This Morning (Al-alam hatha al-sabah) which sets the day's agenda every morning, seven days a week, and Discussion Point (Nuqtat Hewar), the place to exchange opinions and share views on a wide range of issues for Arab speakers across the world.

  The Arabic Service also broadcast a series of debates discussing issues important to people's lives in Jordan, Kuwait and Sudan in November last year. They formed part of BBC Arabic's flagship programmes Talking Point and BBC Extra. The programmes were broadcast live and involved studio audiences as well as BBC Arabic listeners who called in from around the world. The focus of the Jordan and Kuwait programmes was on workers' rights and the events were also broadcast on national television in those countries. featured in-depth video and audio features exploring the issues covered by the programmes.

  In December last year the BBC signed a new agreement with Radio Riyadh to provide tailored bi-lingual programmes for learners of English across Saudi Arabia on FM. These programmes are designed specifically for young people and feature bilingual presenters. The lessons teach listening and comprehension and explain points of the English language through topical and human interest stories. UK lifestyle and culture is also included.

  All BBC journalists are required to undertake an online training programme, developed with the World Service and Arabic Service, about Israeli and Palestinian affairs and their historical background.

On the road

  In February and March last year, the Arabic Service took to the road to run promotional shows in Cairo, Amman, Khartoum, Ramallah and Damascus—Your future ... who decides it? The aim was to get the voices of young men and women in the Middle East heard on issues that affect their daily lives and their future. Live radio debates were held weekly in packed-out university halls and were promoted through interactive booths at colleges, shopping centres, gyms and coffee shops, and almost 270,000 people got involved.

  Over 33,000 people gave in their names for further contacts with the BBC during the roadshows. Following this success, BBC Arabic launched a monthly free e-newsletter. Subscribers receive an update on the programmes and special features coming up, have an opportunity to share their views and opinions with online debates and polls and get behind-the-scenes insights of BBC Arabic with profiles on presenters and backgrounds on the top stories.


  The visual element of TV has become key in the Middle East, with people wanting to watch events unfold live before their eyes. Al Jazeera has established itself as the leading news provider in the region. It dominates in terms of reach and is perceived as more trustworthy then any other news source. Al Arabiya is also performing well.

  On radio, Radio Sawa and Radio Monte Carlo are the BBC's main regional competitors. Radio Sawa is the leading station in terms of reach and through its primary offering of music it generates a large audience to its news bulletins. However, the news provided by Sawa does not score highly for trust, objectivity or relevance in any of the markets surveyed by BBC World Service. Similarly the news from RMC does not score highly.

BBC World

  The region is also a hugely important market for BBC World television, both editorially and in terms of distribution. The channel has the biggest daily and weekly regional reach in the Middle East of any international news channel among business decision makers, and is available in 6.6 million homes with access to cable and/or satellite television (over twice as many households for example as CNN), along with more than 71,000 hotel rooms.

  BBC World is committed to new programme initiatives that bring additional editorial focus to the Middle East. The Middle East Business Report programme, for example, which offers analysis of financial, company and economic news, marked its second anniversary in January 2006. It is produced from Dubai every week.

  The Synovate Pax survey 2006 shows that BBC World is the most popular international channel, watched by more viewers each day than any other English language channel across eight Middle Eastern countries. Countries include: Gulf Co-op Council (GCC) countries of Saudi Arabia (Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam), UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and three other countries—Egypt (Cairo and Alexandria), Lebanon (Beirut) and Jordan (Amman).

BBC World Service Trust

  The BBC World Service Trust has provided intensive training to nearly 1,000 journalists and managers since its media dialogue programme was launched in April 2004 for the Arab media. It has also engaged with over 200 Arab media professionals and chief executives and provided a forum for exchange between the Arab and UK media professionals. The project team are working with 17 state and privately run Arab media partners who have expressed a commitment to training and change within their organisations.

  The final phase of the project is aimed at building a cadre of Arab trainers who can deliver high quality training to help bridge the skills gap in the region. The programme is supported by an online learning resource and discussion forum in Arabic for journalists.

BBC Monitoring

  In the current welter of comment and speculation surrounding the Middle East and the Islamic world in general, BBC Monitoring offers a unique service of news and information which faithfully and accurately reflects statements and comments of all hues carried by the media. It produces carefully-selected reports based on extensive coverage of the world's media including that of the Arab world.

BBC World Service—the way forward

    —  In surveys from the region over recent years, and in bespoke focus group research, the BBC emerges as the most trusted international news provider on radio.

    —  TV is the dominant news medium in the Arab world.

    —  BBC World Service radio services are holding their ground, but are increasingly under pressure. Of the 12.5 million Arabic radio audience, over 7 million listeners are in the relatively under developed countries of Sudan and Iraq. BBC penetration is lower in the Arabic markets where television is growing fast and where regulatory pressures on FM broadcasting are greatest, eg Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

    —  Audience research commissioned in 2003, and repeated in 2005, indicated a very strong demand for a BBC Arabic television service. In seven Arab capitals, a range of between 80% and 90% of those surveyed said they would be "very likely" or "fairly likely" to use the service (with about half in the "very likely" group). This has remained consistently high over the past two years, and, in some areas, demand has solidified in the intervening period.

    —  The trusted nature of the BBC's brand—its independence and strong record in news coverage—is cited by most potential users as the reason for their strong interest.

    —  The establishment of an Arabic television service would mean the BBC was the only media player with a genuine multi-media offer and all the opportunities which flow from this in terms of cross-promotion, awareness raising and an enhanced ability to supply information whenever and wherever audiences want it.

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Prepared 13 August 2007