Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by BBC World Service

  I am writing to inform you of some important changes to BBC World Service, which were announced to staff in our London and overseas offices earlier today. This will include the launch of a BBC Arabic Television Service, enhancements in new media, distribution and marketing; and the closure of language services, the majority targeted at Europe, after many years of distinguished broadcasting.

  These changes are part of an overall strategy to ensure BBC World Service maintains its pre-eminence and impact in a multi-media digital age. They have been approved by the Board of Governors. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Jack Straw, has also given his approval as he is required to do under the terms of our agreement with the FCO.

BACKGROUND TO THE CHANGES

  Like every other media organisation, the BBC is operating against a background of intense competition, fast developing new technology, and rapidly changing audience demands around the world. Despite this, the BBC World Service has maintained a weekly audience of around 150 million listeners and the highest scores of any international broadcaster for trust and reputation.

  However, the pace of the challenge for all of us in the BBC World Service is quickening in many parts of the world. We must also ensure that we serve our audiences in the most efficient and focused way, and offer maximum value for money for the UK taxpayers who fund us.

  In that context, BBC World Service held a strategic review of all its international language services. During the review, the BBC took into account many factors, including the relative strategic importance of the countries we broadcast to, the positive changes in the political and media environment over the last 15 years in many of them and where the BBC has the greatest impact and is likely to maintain it.

  The conclusion of the review is that the BBC World Service's English language services on radio and online will continue to be the foundation stone of our news and information services to our target audiences, working alongside BBC World television.

  However, the review concluded that BBC World Service should be concentrating its non-English services in areas where the media marketplace is less well developed and where audiences have greater need for impartial, independent sources of news and information—such as the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia. It also highlighted that we should increase our impact by being on relevant platforms in priority media markets, including television and offering more reports in video on our online site.

  These strategic directions were echoed in the Government's Green Paper on the future of the BBC which asked the BBC World Service to work out, within its current funding, how it could meet the challenges of widening media choice in many markets, especially in the context of the growth of satellite and cable television.

LAUNCHING A BBC ARABIC TELEVISION SERVICE

  We have therefore decided to launch, in 2007, a BBC Arabic Television Service, initially broadcasting for 12 hours a day, focused on news and information. Moreover we will invest further in the development of new media, particularly in the area of interactivity and video news reporting in a number of markets including South America, Russia and South Asia as well as to the Middle East.

  BBC World Service is already the most successful, trusted and respected voice in the Middle East with more than 60 years experience of broadcasting in the Arabic language on radio, and more recently and successfully, online. The BBC Arabic Television Service will build on this legacy by offering trusted and accurate news with an international agenda; using all three media for sharing views and perspectives across the region and the wider world. This would mean the BBC will be the only major broadcaster who will provide a tri-media service in Arabic to the Middle East—using TV, radio and online. Our research suggests there is strong demand for a BBC Arabic Television Service in the Middle East. Between 80 and 90 per cent of those questioned in seven Arab cities would be "very likely" or "fairly likely" to watch a BBC Arabic TV service.

  BBC World Service proposed an Arabic television service as part of its 2004 spending review bid. The Government supported this but said that funding would need to come from reprioritisation.

  Launching a television operation in Arabic and improving new media within a budget fixed until the next Spending Review in 2007 is a major challenge in financial terms. This has meant a significant reprioritisation of our current spend, especially in relation to our existing language services targeted to Central and Eastern Europe. BBC World Service intends to continue talks with the Government about the possibility of extra funding to enable the proposed service to become a 24 hour operation.

FUNDING THE NEW INVESTMENTS

  Our review concluded that 10 languages out of the current 43 no longer fulfil the strategic criteria outlined earlier. Therefore, after very careful consideration, BBC World Service has decided to close its Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Slovakian, and Slovenian language services (by March 2006), after many years of distinguished programme making by March 2006.

  In addition, we have decided to close our small Thai and Kazakh services by March 2006. Whilst they have a small loyal audience, they are struggling to make an impact in a competitive climate. The Thai media landscape has also changed fundamentally in recent years. In Kazakhstan, we have problems with FM distribution and most listeners are accessing our Regional Russian service, which will continue unaffected by this review.

  We are also making changes to the balance of investment in our Portuguese for Brazil service. Following dramatic media market developments in Brazil where online access to the BBC is more popular than conventional radio broadcasting, the Portuguese for Brazil radio service will cease broadcasting over the airwaves and become available online only, by March 2006. Its online service is growing its traffic rapidly and will see major new investment to enrich it.

  Many of the European services being closed had their roots in the Second World War, and they have continued to make excellent programmes through the Cold War years and right up to the present day. However, Europe has fundamentally changed since the early 90s. Now, the countries to which these languages are broadcast are members of the EU, or are likely to join soon. The growth of national and regional media has been marked in recent years. As people have turned to media produced in their own country or region, there has been a declining appetite for the BBC World Service. Other international broadcasters have already withdrawn from many of these countries. Some of our target audiences have maintained their relationship with the BBC by turning to our services in English, especially BBC World, which is growing a sizeable audience in Poland and the Czech Republic.

  The contribution of all staff in these BBC World Service language services for Europe has been immense. It is acknowledged that their presence has contributed to the building of the free and open democracies enjoyed by their citizens. We believe this will be a lasting legacy.

SUPPORTING STAFF FACING CHANGE

  We are determined to support all our staff facing redundancy in their search to find alternative employment in or outside the BBC, but we have to be realistic; there is a high likelihood of compulsory redundancies.

  Earlier this summer, the BBC reached an agreement with the unions, under the auspices of ACAS, which laid out the terms by which staff could be made compulsorily redundant. This includes a pledge that no-one would leave the BBC World Service compulsorily until early December 2006 on the grounds of compulsory redundancy. Eligible staff would also receive the appropriate redundancy compensation under BBC policy of one month's salary for every year on the BBC's staff.

  I am confident this difficult course is the right one for the BBC World Service. It is always difficult to close services with a distinguished history, but the alternative of failing to deliver our news and information on the right media platforms where it is needed most would do far more damage to the organisation's long term future, and to our reputation, and the value we deliver to the UK taxpayer.

  The full text of the announcement to staff, which gives full details of the rationale behind the changes, will be available online at bbc.co.uk/worldservice/us.

  I finally want to reassure you that whilst the mix of services has to evolve as the world changes, the overall core aims of the BBC World Service will remain the same: to provide quality news and information that people trust, which stands out for its independence, authority and objectivity; and to be a forum for global debate. Our news services on television and in new media will be judged by those values just as their distinguished predecessors have been.

  I, and the senior management team, believe these changes will enable the BBC World Service to maintain and build on its pre-eminent position as the world's leading international broadcaster.

25 October 2005





 
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