Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 860 - 879)


29 NOVEMBER 2005Mr Richard Sambrook and Mr Nigel Chapman

  Q860  Bishop of Manchester: What kinds of conversations are going on at this moment with the Government on that?

  Mr Chapman: There have been conversations about it, but the difficulty is that those conversations are taking place outside the spending review framework and the next spending review discussion formally will start in the early part of 2007 and be concluded in the summer of 2007. That will be the formal theatre in which these conversations will need to take place, but it will be a very, very high priority for us and I have made it clear in my conversations with the FCO that we have worked really hard in terms of reprioritisation, and taken some difficult decisions about the language services, in order to bring together a package of measures which I think puts the World Service on the right path for 2010, but if you Government want more than that, whether a 24 hour service instead of 12, whether you want new television services or extensions of anything else, I am sorry, but there is a limit to what the World Service can do without it taking money out of things that it really does need to keep going. That is a very frank conversation that I need to have with funders—it is a continually frank conversation—about how far we can go, and I think we have gone a long way here with reprioritisation and I think we have gone as far as we can go in that respect. If people want expensive new services, or even modestly expensive services from the BBC World Service, then the taxpayer has to pay for it because there is no other way, unless we close down more things which, against the criteria I talked about, you could not justify doing.

  Q861  Chairman: But the 12 hours you can cope with.

  Mr Chapman: Yes, we can and we will be.

  Q862  Lord Maxton: Can I in a sense turn to Lord King's question about coverage. If you put out a radio broadcast and I tune my radio and it has shortwave and all the rest of it, I can get it. That is not quite so true of television, is it? I cannot tune my television to pick up television programmes from France or from Germany, someone has to provide it on a platform for me.

  Mr Sambrook: Yes.

  Q863  Lord Maxton: It is alright talking about the Arabic world as if somehow it is a unity but it is not, it is a whole variety of different nation states, each of them presumably with their own television services. What guarantees are you getting that you will be on their television platforms and therefore available to the people of each nation state?

  Mr Chapman: What we will do is we will take space on three different satellite providers which will mean that provided you have a satellite dish—and remember that in some of the societies I am talking about, satellite usage is now 60 to 70 per cent, so 60 to 70 per cent of households have access to satellite television—provided you have got the satellite dish this service will be free-to-air to you, you will not have to pay for it, and the spread of distribution will cover right from Morocco, right across to Saudi Arabia—

  Q864  Lord King of Bridgwater: But in Saudi Arabia dishes are banned.

  Mr Chapman: That is not correct.

  Q865  Lord King of Bridgwater: Is that not right?

  Mr Chapman: The penetration of satellite television in Saudi Arabia is something like 90 per cent of the country.

  Lord King of Bridgwater: The brief I have here says dishes are banned in Saudi Arabia and they control through encrypting networks and programming—

  Q866  Lord Maxton: That is my problem, it is the control. It is who says that your satellite broadcast will actually be allowed into the individual homes of each satellite owner? As I say, I am a satellite owner but I cannot necessarily tune my satellite of my own accord into whatever free-to-air satellite programmes are floating around out there; I have to have someone to provide it for me. That is the question I want you to answer.

  Mr Chapman: As I understand it the satellite distributors will enable that to happen. This is a free-to-air service and of course it is possible in theory that a company could turn round and say I want to try and block access, but that is not the position in Saudi at the moment. The position in Saudi at the moment as I understand it—and Richard might want to come in here—they have free access to BBC World in English, they have access to Al-Jazeera and Arabic TV channels. The authorities may not like people watching them very much, but they have free access to them and they use them at the moment, so there is not really a precedent at the moment of a country turning round and saying I am going to have systematic blocking of access to satellite television in the Arab world. They might not like the content, but they do not block it.

  Q867  Lord King of Bridgwater: They put a delay on it, I am told, a five second delay.

  Mr Chapman: That has not been our experience.

  Mr Sambrook: There are some countries which put a delay on, although I do not think English language BBC World has any significant issues across the regions in which we distribute.

  Q868  Lord King of Bridgwater: Have you had consultations with all the countries that you are proposing to broadcast to?

  Mr Sambrook: We have had a number of discussions and negotiations going on and we have a high degree of confidence that we can get proper distribution, particularly, as Nigel says, as this is going to be available across a wide region by satellite on a free-to-air basis. We have good relationships with a number of distributors in the region, partly on the back of the distribution of BBC World in English, and indeed good relationships with a number of broadcasters based on broadcasting on radio and some FM distribution with some as well. So we have strong relationships there which we intend to use and we have—not every signature is in place at this stage given we have not yet begun to put the network together, but we have a high degree of confidence that we can get the distribution.

  Mr Chapman: The three satellite distributors are Arabsat, Nilesat and Intelsat. Arabsat and Nilesat are already distributing the BBC World Service radio in Arabic, they are already doing that, and BBC World television and BBC World English radio sometimes. So there is already a proper relationship and this is a commercial relationship—you go and buy your space and you just pay for it. It is a very different situation from what happened in the Nineties when the BBC had a relationship with a company called Orbit which was a Saudi-backed company and it was a pay-per-view channel. It was a very different situation and the fact that channels like Al Arabiya and Al-Jazeera are so widely viewed across the Middle East gives you an indication that whilst governments sometimes have problems with individual parts of the editorial remit, there is no systematic prevention or obstruction going on to people's access to it.

  Q869  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: Could I perhaps come in on this from a slightly different angle? You very kindly told us in your letter to us of October 25 about the changes the staff were facing and how you were attempting to support them. Would you like to just run over that for us and bring us up to date on exactly what is happening, because obviously as you change languages you change the staff you need.

  Mr Chapman: Indeed, and that has been one of the most difficult parts of this process because there are something like 230 members of the World Service staff working in the language services affected, where we have decided to have closures or partial closures, where they have done a very good job. I am determined that they should be given everything we possibly can in terms of redundancy payments and help to find jobs and find new opportunities. In that context, earlier this year the BBC, when we were discussing the changes on the licence fee side negotiated under the aegis of ACAS, an agreement with the trades unions, both with BECTU and NUJ, which gave a guaranteed minimum length of time that any member of staff could stay on the payroll if they were facing compulsory redundancy. Obviously, in reality, the staff in the language services are facing compulsory redundancy, unless we can find them alternative employment, and that could be very hard—half of them are not even based in London, they are based overseas so they would need to find alternative employment in Prague, or in Sofia, Zagreb or wherever, and that would be very difficult, obviously, because the BBC does not have alternative outlets in those places. We have agreed with the unions that we will honour the ACAS agreement in this respect, so (a) there will be a length of time, a year, from the time we tabled these proposals in October, and anybody facing compulsory redundancy will be on the BBC payroll and stay on the salary payroll until December 2006. In addition, they will then be entitled to the BBC standard redundancy settlement of one month for every year they have worked on the staff on full contract. We are working with them on retraining issues, re-skilling, looking about for new opportunities for them and a whole range of other issues too. At the moment our conversations with the trade unions are going reasonably well and I hope we will be able to come to a sensible settlement on this.

  Q870  Lord Peston: I must say, I am very lost on your arguments. As I understand it, we are talking about TV in Arabic.

  Mr Sambrook: Yes.

  Q871  Lord Peston: Where you will provide an impartial, independent service, the implication being that they cannot get an impartial independent service in Arabic at the present time, is that right?

  Mr Chapman: That is the way audiences perceive it. Audiences perceive that despite the range of choice they now have on television in Arabic, they do not feel that they get—

  Q872  Lord Peston: Their belief is that it is neither impartial nor independent.

  Mr Chapman: They will get that from the BBC service.

  Q873  Lord Peston: You are saying, therefore, it is the duty of the British taxpayer to spend £20-£25 million a year to fill that gap. That is the nature of your argument.

  Mr Chapman: Yes. I am not sure I quite express it that way—

  Q874  Lord Peston: No, it is the way I am expressing it, but that must be the logic of what you are saying.

  Mr Chapman: Yes, because one of the roles the World Service has had historically, ever since it was founded, is to provide people with a cornerstone of reliable news and information, and what this is an example of is keeping the same values but using a different medium in order to reach people.

  Q875  Lord Peston: You are also arguing that since they can already get this reliable independent and impartial information in English, there is a net gain from letting them have it in Arabic.

  Mr Sambrook: Yes.

  Q876  Lord Peston: Can you tell me why that is so? That does not make any sense to me at all.

  Mr Sambrook: Less than 10 per cent of the audience are fluent English speakers; therefore an Arabic television service is aimed at a very different group, and we do not believe that there will be a substantial overlap between viewers to BBC World and viewers to BBC Arabic.

  Q877  Lord Peston: To extend it, what you are saying is that the British taxpayer has to find £25 million per annum for non English-speaking, Arabic-speaking people to get this kind of information. Can you then tell me—and you probably did answer this and I was not paying enough attention—how many Arabic-speaking people are we talking about?

  Mr Chapman: Arabic-speaking people in the Middle East, you are talking about 250 million people.

  Q878  Lord Peston: I know that, but how many of them are going to be watching this?

  Mr Chapman: It is very, very hard to give precise numbers at this stage, but we believe that we would at least double the reach of the BBC's Arabic services. The BBC Arabic radio service has 12 million listeners at the moment, so at the very least you would expect to double it and I think we would be looking to get a reach with television and radio in Arabic into the 30 million mark, so it is a significant audience and one that is much bigger potentially than for radio, which is going to face a lot of pressures and in some markets will actually decline.

  Q879  Lord Peston: If we take it as 25 million, what does the 25 million mean? That 25 million some time during the year will watch the service?

  Mr Chapman: No, we would get 25 million users every week. It may not be the same 25 million—

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