Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Second Report



56.  The Government's Green Paper states that as part of the BBC's core public purposes it should bring "high-quality international news coverage to a global audience through radio, TV and new media."[15] One of the most widely respected BBC news sources is the World Service which provides international news, analysis and information in English and 32 foreign languages. It has 149 million weekly radio listeners and over 20 million monthly online users across the world.[16] The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) funds the BBC World Service with a direct grant-in-aid. The value of this grant-in-aid was £239 million in 2005/6.

Public diplomacy and the World Service

57.  Since its creation in 1932, the independence of the BBC World Service has been the bedrock of its success. Its objectivity and impartiality, combined with the knowledge that the BBC World Service does not speak for the UK Government lies at the heart of its success. Nevertheless, there is a formal relationship between Her Majesty's Government and the BBC World Service because the FCO is the sponsoring department. The "Broadcasting Agreement" between the BBC and the FCO sets out the strategic objectives of the BBC World Service. It commits the BBC World Service to broadcast programmes and deliver other services as agreed with the FCO, and sets its broadcasting priorities. The FCO also has a role in determining where the BBC World Service should operate. The Green Paper states that the BBC World Service is required to plan and prepare its programmes in the national interest, while maintaining high standards of editorial integrity and programme quality.[17]

58.  The Director of the BBC World Service, Nigel Chapman, told us "We have regular meetings with [the FCO] about the geographical spread of our activities, the relevance of certain language services… and the sort of audiences we should be targeting…" (Q 1426). The Committee found no dissatisfaction within the BBC about its current relationship with the FCO. Richard Sambrook, the Director of the BBC Global News Division, believed the BBC World Service's editorial independence is secure and the relationship between the BBC and the FCO effectively insulates the BBC from Government interference (Q 912). However, while the Government does not appear to encroach directly upon the BBC World Service's editorial independence, we are concerned by the stance taken in a recent review of the effectiveness of the United Kingdom's "Public Diplomacy" work, which included the BBC World Service.

59.  As part of the 2004 Spending Review, the FCO and the Treasury commissioned Lord Carter of Coles to conduct a "Public Diplomacy Review" and in December 2005 he published his findings. Lord Carter defined Public Diplomacy as "work aiming to inform and engage individuals and organisations overseas, in order to improve understanding of and influence for the United Kingdom in a manner consistent with governmental medium and long term goals".[18] He added that this responsibility must be balanced by the Government's "continuing guarantee of editorial independence for the BBC World Service".[19] When questioned about his recommendation that the BBC World Service should reflect "governmental" objectives, Lord Carter stated that, because the Government was accountable for its operation and funding to Parliament, this mandate was unexceptional (QQ 1680, 1682). We do not believe the BBC should work to this definition of public diplomacy. It is neither convincing nor compatible with the BBC's well established independent role.

60.  The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs welcomed Lord Carter's findings and stated they were a "sensible new direction for publicly funded public diplomacy activities".[20] However, we are concerned about the proposed definition of public diplomacy and its implications for the BBC World Service. We believe the BBC World Service is an asset of the UK as a whole and that, although the FCO funds its operation, the BBC should not be considered an asset of the Government.

61.  Lord Triesman, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, recognised concerns about the closeness of the UK Government to the BBC World Service. He recalled that during the Cold War the Soviet Union attacked the BBC as a "mouthpiece" for the British Government. He also drew attention to the current Chinese government's censorship of the BBC ostensibly for the same reason (Q 996). Lord Triesman argued that because the BBC World Service was "heavily dependent upon public finance" it had an obligation to "face in a general strategic direction that is useful to the United Kingdom" (Q 986). However, he emphasised the absolute importance of the BBC World Service having "genuine independence" and praised the responsible and objective reporting which had led to it being so highly regarded "probably above all other international broadcasting players" (Q 984).

62.  We stated in our first report that it is legitimate for the FCO to work together with the BBC World Service to focus resources where it judges they are most needed.[21] Nevertheless, as its sponsoring department, we believe the FCO should consider itself the protector and guarantor of the BBC World Service's independence. The authority of the BBC World Service derives from its independence of the UK Government and from its values being those of the UK as a whole rather than just those of the Government. The BBC World Service's independence is strengthened by its public funding which insulates it from commercial pressure and allows objective coverage. Perceptions can be important. For example if the BBC World Service were to carry a by-line stating "Working in a manner consistent with governmental medium and long term goals" then its international credibility would be fatally undermined. Indeed, Mostefa Souag, London Bureau Editor, of Al-Jazeera television, believed that in the Middle East the BBC's affiliation with the UK Government already leads to accusations of propaganda, especially from Governments in the region (Q 969). If the BBC World Service is to continue to be successful everything must be done to avoid this perception.

63.  Lord Puttnam stated that the BBC World Service should not become "an instrument of the government of the day but rather that it can help to underwrite the values upon which our concept of genuine democracy and civil society depend" (BBC/05-06/118, p. 2). We agree completely. We do not believe that the Government should consider the BBC World Service as a tool of "Public Diplomacy", nor do we accept that a narrow conception of "Public Diplomacy" of this type includes an obligation on the BBC to adhere to Governmental medium or long term priorities. We recommend that under no circumstances should the BBC World Service be allowed to be treated or seen as a "tool" of public diplomacy or of governmental goals. Everything should be done to protect the editorial independence on which its reputation depends.

64.  Lord Carter has proposed replacement of the current Public Diplomacy Strategy Board with a new Public Diplomacy Board. The Permanent Under-Secretary to the FCO currently chairs the Public Diplomacy Strategy Board and the Board's stated aim is "to improve the cohesion, effectiveness and impact of the overall UK public diplomacy effort".[22] The new Public Diplomacy Board will be chaired by a FCO Minister rather than a civil servant. It will be a stronger and potentially more political body with responsibility for strategy, performance management, measurement and monitoring of the UK's Public Diplomacy.

65.  Lord Carter informed us that the BBC World Service would continue to be an observer rather than a full member of the Board and would "share and discuss" ideas but not be "in any way bound by the board" (Q 1690). Lord Carter also recommended that a new "Public Diplomacy Strategy and Performance Management Unit" could include co-opted staff from the BBC World Service.[23] No staff from the BBC World Service have previously been co-opted to the FCO. We do not believe that it is appropriate for a representative of the BBC World Service to serve either as a member or as an observer on a board chaired by an FCO Minister under the proposed definition of public diplomacy. We are also against the proposal that BBC staff should be employed by a Government management unit. The independence of the BBC World Service could be compromised by the closeness of the relationship proposed by Lord Carter's review.

BBC World Service Arabic television

66.  In our first report, we stated that the case for an Arabic language television service was particularly strong. We also welcomed the announcement that in April 2007, the BBC World Service will launch a free-to-air Arabic language television channel, broadcasting across the Middle East. Nigel Chapman told the Committee that the channel's output would be a mixture of news, discussion, documentaries and current affairs programmes, as well as some dubbed and sub-titled programming (Q 892). While the BBC World Service is planning additional investment in its Middle Eastern regional news bureaux, the majority of the staff of the Arabic television service will be based in London and its programmes will be produced mainly in the UK (QQ 856, 895). Nigel Chapman argued that the project was necessary because television was the "medium of choice" in the Middle East. He argued that "it was no longer going to be viable for us to just to broadcast on radio and provide new media services" (QQ 855, 841).

67.  The BBC believes it can make a major impact in the Middle East by providing trusted information to viewers who consider the "current plethora of channels as neither sufficiently independent nor international". In his evidence to the Committee, Richard Sambrook stated that channels such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya "are reporting the Middle East to the Middle East". The BBC World Service envisages an international perspective and agenda for its new channel "reporting the world to the Middle East" (Q 855). Al-Jazeera believed that the entrance of the BBC as a respected broadcaster into the Middle East television market will generally be welcomed by its competitors. Mostefa Souag commented that more objective reporting and better quality programmes would benefit "freedom of expression [and] the freedom of the media." (Q 968).

68.  However, the BBC has previously experienced considerable difficulties in producing a television channel in the Middle East. In 1994, Orbit (a Saudi Arabian media company) commissioned the BBC to produce an Arabic language news service but in April 1996 Orbit suspended broadcasting of the channel. Ian Richardson, former Managing-Editor of BBC Arabic Television, told us there were "irreconcilable differences over editorial issues with Saudi [Arabia] and with Orbit" (Q 924). However, Nigel Chapman was confident that because the funding and editorial policy of the new channel will be entirely the purview of the BBC, the problems encountered in the mid-nineties will not re-occur (Q 899). Al-Jazeera commented that damage was done to the BBC's reputation by the closure of the joint BBC-Orbit venture in 1996 and that "If the BBC is going to start this channel, it has to be sure that… it will not stop within a year or two" (Q 969).

69.  The BBC World Service informed the Committee that BBC Arabic TV will cost £19 million per year and there will be additional costs of £5-6 million to set up new studios and facilities, funded from the BBC World Service's capital expenditure (Q 907). Of the £19 million annual cost, £12 million is being provided by the closure in March 2006 of ten foreign language radio services in: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Kazakh, Polish, Slovak, Slovene and Thai. We understand that these services were not cut solely to fund the Arabic TV service (although this was a factor) but partly because of their diminishing strategic value (QQ 842, 843, 844). Due to financial constraints the BBC will only be able to establish a 12 hour Arabic TV service, although it is the BBC World Service's aspiration that this will eventually increase to 24 hours. It estimates that a 24 hour service would cost an additional £6 million a year, increasing the total operating cost from £19 million to £25 million (Q 859).

70.  We accept that some witnesses strongly doubted whether an annual operating budget of £19 million would be sufficient to provide a quality product meeting the BBC's usual standards. It is worth noting that BBC News 24's annual budget for 2004/05 was £48.1 million and its allocation for newsgathering alone (£18.4m) is almost as large as BBC Arabic's entire budget.[24] Ian Richardson described BBC Arabic's budget as "seriously under-funded" and expressed scepticism about the BBC's cost estimates because translation makes news "a third more expensive" (Q 931).

71.  Although we recognise our witnesses' concerns, we can only trust that the BBC has adequately and accurately costed the new service. We also acknowledge Lord Triesman's assessment that the BBC World Service is able to draw on considerable synergies and resources in terms of newsgathering (Q 1008). However, television will present a number of new and difficult challenges to the BBC World Service and we welcome the acceptance by Nigel Chapman that there are risks in moving to a medium with a higher public profile than radio (Q 895). It is our view that the costs for projects of this kind have a tendency to increase during implementation and we are concerned that any further funding demands should not be met at the expense of remaining radio services.

72.  Nonetheless, our greater concern is that despite the obvious benefits of extending the 12 hour service to 24 hours, the small additional marginal cost of £6m has not yet been found. The BBC takes the view that the licence fee should not be used to fund services that are not directed at licence fee payers. This means that the £6m must be found from the grant-in-aid. Nigel Chapman stated that "to move from the 12 hour to a full 24 hour service would require an infusion of funds from the UK taxpayer" but this would not be considered before the next spending review in 2007 (QQ 858, 860).We cannot believe that the Government is unable or unwilling to find £6 million somewhere in its annual budget of £435.8 billion[25].

73.  Michael Grade expressed regret that additional money had not been raised to launch a 24 hour service (Q 2012). Lord Carter's Public Diplomacy Review reported that some witnesses thought a 12 hour service was "too little too late"[26]. However, Lord Triesman said "we believe it is right to start with the 12 hour programme and see how it looks… If you look at the time zones of the Arabic-speaking world, you can get 80-90 per cent of most of the hours that people are awake with the 12 hour service". We concur with the Minister's assessment that 12 hours is "a very narrow time zone band" but we can find no basis for his calculation that a twelve hour service will cover 80-90 per cent of the hours people across the Middle East are awake (Q 999).

74.  We believe that the BBC World Service's plan to establish an Arabic language news channel is both ambitious and worthwhile. It will strengthen the BBC's position as one of the most important broadcasters in the Middle East. However, a 12 hour limit on the Arabic language channel's broadcasting time will mean the BBC competing for audiences with one hand tied behind its back. We recommend that the Government should immediately provide the BBC World Service with the required £6 million to establish a 24 hour Arabic channel.

75.  In comparison to the BBC World Service we also considered the performance of the BBC's other international services. BBC World is a 24 hour commercial television English language news service. The BBC states that its aim is to "influence opinion-formers and decision-makers across the globe" (p 206). Since its establishment in 1994, BBC World has never made a profit. In 2004/05 it made losses of £15.8m and since 1999 it has lost £79.9 million (p 208). While these losses are covered by BBC Worldwide's commercial revenue, it is money that could be invested elsewhere in the BBC. Despite the BBC's assurances that BBC World will break even by 2010 it remains a considerable financial drain. We fully support the aims and objectives of the BBC World Service but are less clear about the value of BBC World. We therefore recommend that the BBC should comprehensively review its international activities and that a strategy outlining the future of its public and commercial television, radio and online services used overseas should be published.

BBC World Service television

76.  A full review would also provide the perfect opportunity to consider whether further BBC World Service television services should follow the Arabic channel. The Green Paper states that in the future the BBC World Service may consider providing "niche foreign language TV services in countries where the switch in consumption from radio to television is very marked".[27] Our first report stated "We believe that the opportunities and benefits of BBC World Service Television in a range of languages outweigh the financial costs…".[28]The BBC believes that as a "tri-media operator" (TV, radio and online) the BBC World Service cannot be "out of date and out of touch" and that "operating just with radio… will not do the job" (Q 841). Nigel Chapman stated that in addition to the Middle East, "there are other parts of the world… where I believe that, over time, the BBC will be broadcasting in the relevant languages on television" (Q 841). He concluded this was especially important in the developing world, because television would allow "access to markets where FM distribution is extremely difficult" (Q 917).

77.  Lord Carter of Coles' review recognised "the increasing importance of television in reaching large numbers of people". It stated that despite the potential complexities and cost issues "the FCO should explore options for developing a television arm of the BBC World Service". Lord Carter also concluded that further work was required to exploit new technologies worldwide, because development of additional foreign language TV services may be "unsustainable on the current economic model".[29] The BBC's strategic review of services, which led to the recommendation for an Arabic language channel, also stated that the BBC World Service should increase its impact by being on relevant platforms, including television, in priority media markets. The Green Paper concluded however that any new television services would have to be funded by the BBC World Service, either through greater efficiency or further reductions in radio services.[30]

78.  The Committee supports the aspirations of the BBC World Service to establish television services and believes the Arabic language channel is an important first step in this process. However, the arguments that led to its establishment are valid when applied to some other parts of the world. Any decision by the BBC World Service to expand beyond the Middle East will obviously have significant cost implications. We accept the growing necessity and demand for television services, but also recognise the importance of radio services, which remain the foundation of the BBC World Service's success. We recommend that as part of the comprehensive review of the BBC's international services the BBC World Service should continue to consider the need to provide television services beyond the Arabic language service. Further expansion may prove to be important but should not be dependent on cuts to existing radio services.

15   Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: A strong BBC, independent of government, March 2005, p. 8. Back

16 Back

17   Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: A strong BBC, independent of government, March 2005, p. 43. Back

18   Lord Carter of Coles, Public Diplomacy Review, December 2005, para. 2.5, p. 8. Back

19   Ibid. Back

20   Letter from the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to Mr Michael Gapes MP. Back

21   First Report of Session 2005-06, para. 189. Back

22   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Public Diplomacy Strategy Board, Terms of Reference, para. 1, p. 1. Back

23   Lord Carter of Coles, Public Diplomacy Review, December 2005, para. 4.9, p. 16. Back

24   BBC Annual Report and Accounts, 2004/2005, Table 12, p. 143. Back

25   Central Government Supply Estimates 2005-06, Main Supply Estimates, HM Treasury, May 2005,
para. 3, p. 3. 

26   Lord Carter of Coles, Public Diplomacy Review, December 2005, para. 5.3.6, p. 26. Back

27   Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: A strong BBC, independent of government, March 2005, p. 46. Back

28   First Report of Session 2005-06, para. 193. Back

29   Lord Carter of Coles, Public Diplomacy Review, December 2005, para. 5.3.12, p. 28. Back

30   Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: A strong BBC, independent of government, March 2005, p. 46. Back

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