Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 880 - 899)


29 NOVEMBER 2005Mr Richard Sambrook and Mr Nigel Chapman

  Q880  Lord Peston: You are saying it is 25 million every week.

  Mr Chapman: Every week, weekly reach, yes.

  Q881  Lord Peston: That is very helpful, thank you. My last question takes us back to Lord King's question, are you absolutely certain that there will be no problem about impartiality or independence on this? Let us say that the major news item one week is Islamic terrorists and that should be your item, if that is the major news item. You as news people say that has got to be what we cover; are you absolutely certain that you are not going to have any problems over that sort of thing?

  Mr Sambrook: We do not believe so. We have a history based on Arabic radio and on Arabic on-line services to build upon and they are respected and acknowledged to be independent, and I do not think we are going to have any difficulties there.

  Q882  Lord Peston: You have had no pressure from any of them at all—which is what you said to Lord King. None of the governments have said to you that you must not be attacking Islamic terrorists in your news bulletins or comments?

  Mr Chapman: No.

  Q883  Lord Peston: None whatsoever.

  Mr Chapman: No. We have extended the Arabic radio service in the last three years from being a 12 hours a day service to 24 hours and we have put more investment into it, particularly since 9/11, and we are not getting complaints or comments of that kind. I think what that tells me is that those governments understand and expect a certain sort of service from the BBC and they expect the BBC to follow those values, whether they are on television, radio or new medium—it does not matter what the medium is, that is what the BBC does. If we do that properly, which I think we will, recruit the right people to do it, then we will defend that coverage to the hilt as we defend our other coverage.

  Q884  Chairman: Just before I bring in Lord Holme, you were describing problems with China which make it a less good strategic place to be at the moment. Such things could happen with other countries.

  Mr Chapman: They could do, but they have not, and I would have thought there had been plenty of opportunity in the last four or five years. If an Arab country wanted to systematically block access to satellite television in Arabic because it did not like editorial content, I can think of plenty of opportunities and examples that they could have used to do that, particularly in relation to some of the new Arabic satellite channels, but they have not done that, so I have to take some comfort from that fact, therefore why would they do it to the BBC when the BBC has got a reputation for impartiality and fairness far higher than these other channels. I think the odds are that it is highly unlikely they would do so.

  Q885  Chairman: I just want to confirm what you said originally, that Al-Jazeera was not bringing, as it were, the world to the Arab world.

  Mr Chapman: I think what Richard says is absolutely fair.

  Q886  Chairman: Would they agree with that?

  Mr Chapman: I am not sure they would agree with that, but what is more interesting is the perception of the audiences, and they see Al-Jazeera as a regionally made Arabic channel which focuses very heavily on activities in the Middle East and also comes with a certain perspective which audiences spot, and that perspective is to be a champion of the Arab cause, at least definitely not a kind of pure, neutral, impartial force, that is something that audiences are telling us. What is interesting about audiences in the Middle East is that they use a portfolio of services, they do not just use Al-Jazeera and nothing else and they would not just use the BBC and nothing else. They are extremely astute and they hop around if you like, in television terms and cross-comparisons are done all the time about the nuances of coverage. One of the reasons why people would use the BBC is because they would see it as a standard-setter, the gold standard if you like, of certain sorts of coverage, against which they would judge both satellite television services and their own national state television, and they would compare and contrast and come to certain views about what they really believed and what they did not believe as a result of that exercise.

  Q887  Chairman: They are doing this to a considerable extent and the on-line services are not using as much at this stage?

  Mr Chapman: They are using a reasonably diverse portfolio of television services, that is happening already, and we can be part of that rich and diverse portfolio. In terms of new media, the Arabic on-line site, has built up a very good reputation for the range and breadth of its news coverage, but a new medium is a new medium in this world and it has one million users across the world who listen to's service. To give you some sense of context, it would have to put its audience up by 10 times to begin to get into the league of usage that we were talking about in relation to television and radio.

  Chairman: I was just wondering about the comparative speed.

  Q888  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: I am worried about a slightly facile assumption that these Olympian values of impartiality and balance are going to be easily achieved by even the BBC in the Middle East. I mean, you have enough trouble with the pussycats of British political parties here; if one thinks of an area of the world where everything is contested and where there is a religious, political and culture maelstrom, how would you have dealt with the Iraq war, how would you have dealt with the death of the princess, how would you have dealt with the person you have just apologised for, one of your reporters, for weeping at the death of Yasser Arafat? How would you deal with those sorts of issues in this way? Your stock-in-trade is trust, but is it not possible that there is a level of mistrust in Anglo-American institutions and culture so that the response, instead of the welcome you anticipate, at last a trustworthy body—might you not have mistrust carried back to contaminate your main reputation and brand?

  Mr Sambrook: I would say two things. Firstly, of course, we do have over 60 years experience of broadcasting to the region in Arabic on the radio, and of course all those tensions—we were broadcasting in Arabic on the radio and on on-line during the Iraq war and during all of the other kinds of incidents you mention, so we do have experience of that. As Nigel indicated earlier, the language services, including the Arabic service and the new Arabic television service are tied into the editorial processes and ethos of the World Service and the leadership of the World Service which has been proved over many years, and we have therefore confidence that we can extend that to this new service as well. In terms of how it is perceived, our audience research generally shows that they believe the BBC is trusted as a broadcaster in the region and that they will see it as a valuable addition to the array of services that are already local to them. It may be, of course, that some parts of the audience in some countries and some viewers do not receive us in quite as positive a light as we would wish, and that is inevitable, but I think across the piece, again, based on some pretty thorough research, we believe we can get a decent audience and will actually be welcomed as a service in the region as an addition to the variety of services they already have.

  Q889  Lord King of Bridgwater: Did not the accusation of bias against the BBC actually come on World Service, and it came not from Arabs but from the British Government. Did the Prime Minister not say that there was anti-war bias in the BBC World Service?

  Mr Sambrook: I do not think he said it about the BBC World Service, no, I think that was about the UK service.

  Q890  Lord King of Bridgwater: In reporting on the war, and that was carried on the World Service.

  Mr Sambrook: It was not the same programmes, obviously, the World Service has different programmes to those carried in Britain.

  Lord King of Bridgwater: Can we clear up one factual point?

  Chairman: Very quickly, because Lady Bonham-Carter has a question.

  Q891  Lord King of Bridgwater: Our brief unfortunately contradicts what you have said to us, and I think we ought to have, perhaps, a further letter or something on this because actually what our brief says is that there is censorship of television in Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the indication is that you would be subject to that as well. This is to do with what is called the multi-channel, multi-point distribution service which takes down the satellite signal and distributes it locally. You do not think that applies but I would be interested to know.

  Mr Sambrook: It is the first I have heard of it, but we will look into that.

  Chairman: Could you look into it, please? Lady Bonham-Carter.

  Q892  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Picking up on what Lord Holme was saying, I am not going to insult radio but there is something about television that is more potent and has greater possibility to cause problems, it seems to me. I know last time we met Mr Sambrook said that international journalism tends to be more reflective; I wonder if that is not going to be a slight problem when you are filling 12 hours of television. Hence my main question is what are you going to put in that 12 hours of television?

  Mr Sambrook: It will be a schedule that is a mixture of on-the-day news and breaking news, but with discussion and debate as well, and some documentary and current affairs programmes. It will be very largely original programming, there may be some dubbed and sub-titled programming, but our intention is to make as much original programming as we can. I do think that international journalism does tend to be more reflective, it has a slightly different pace to it, but I absolutely recognise what you say, that television is a very powerful medium, and that is the reason we want to launch this service in the first place. We believe actually that if the World Service is to extend its vision in terms of being a trusted voice in international broadcasting throughout the world and in this most important region at the moment, then we need to extend it to television to maintain that impact. But you are right, television can be very powerful and I am quite sure it will raise some difficulties and some issues of the kind that clearly concern yourself and would concern the Committee. I do believe we have a good track record in managing those and in understanding exactly how to position the service in a way that, I think, can stay true to the World Service values and extend them to this new service.

  Q893  Baroness Bonham Carter of Yarnbury: You are in a good position to manage this.

  Mr Chapman: I hope so.

  Q894  Baroness Bonham Carter of Yarnbury: Can I ask what you are doing to recruit Arab journalists? What proportion of these programmes is actually going to be made by Arab journalists?

  Mr Chapman: An extremely large proportion would be made and we have not started the process of recruitment yet. That will be a major task in 2006. I think there are a number of issues here. First of all, it is going to be vitally important to get a range of geographically based journalists—ie, not just people from Egypt or from the Lebanon or some of the other places where satellite television has already established itself, and where you obviously have people who have television skills already. It is going to be very important to reflect the wider Middle East, if you like, in the workforce, whether they are based in London or overseas. Most will be based in London.

  Q895  Baroness Bonham Carter of Yarnbury: Most will be based in London?

  Mr Chapman: That is where the main production is going to take place. The gathering of news footage and news interviews will obviously take place all over the world, not just in the Middle East but in Washington and Russia, and we are going to have Arabic television people working in lots of different parts of the world. The second issue is the training of those people when they come to work in London. It is going to be, again, critically important that whatever baggage they bring from their past about making television or radio, whatever it is, or if they have worked in newspapers, that we train them in the proper way to understand what the BBC wants and believes in. I do accept the tenor of your questions, which is that there is a risk here; there is a risk in going to a new medium which has a higher public profile than radio, on the whole, tends to have. That is something we have got to mitigate and one of the ways we mitigate it is by being very clear with people about what we expect, definitely in terms of balance, fairness, impartiality and diversity of view. Actually, the audience also expects that. It would do us no favours at all if I were to produce an Arabic television service which some people saw as highly partisan and favoured, if you like, their point of view because you would alienate just as many people and it would actually undermine the value system which has been part of the World Service for over 70 years. It would undermine the Crown Jewels, if you like, which would be the wrong thing to do, and so we will not do it.

  Q896  Baroness Bonham Carter of Yarnbury: As you know, making television is a much more intrusive process than radio. That is the other side, is it not?

  Mr Chapman: It is and as somebody who worked in it for 20 years before I moved to the World Service I am very aware of some of the just sheer production sort of struggles sometimes that producing television can bring compared to the simplicity of radio. So I am very aware that it is a tough challenge.

  Q897  Baroness Bonham Carter of Yarnbury: A final question: will you be using independent companies or will this be all—

  Mr Chapman: No, I would expect the vast, vast bulk of the output will be produced in-house by the core team. This is a news and current affairs service, it is not like BBC2 with lots of individual, kind of bespoke, programmes; this is going to be much more a news and current affairs channel round-the-clock—ie 12 hours—where when you tune in, within a very short space of time, you are going to get the main, top stories of the day analysed in depth. That would be one of the key things it would do for the market which we presently are not doing.

  Mr Sambrook: Perhaps I could just briefly add to that point. The BBC is doubling its investment in journalist training over the next two to three years with the launch of its own college of journalism within the BBC for its own staff, and certainly the staff of this channel would benefit from that investment as well. The emphasis there is on the BBC's editorial values and on journalistic ethics and policy.

  Q898  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: Would you take special measures to secure the integrity of the journalism by monitoring conflicts of interest or would you rely on your current measures?

  Mr Sambrook: We do already have some measures in place, clearly, for managing those kinds of conflicts across editorial areas and particular measures in place for managing such things within language services, but I certainly think we will need to extend those for this new service, for all the reasons we have already touched on. We are very aware that is an issue which will have to be managed.

  Q899  Lord Peston: I am mostly going to ask you about the Orbit relationship, but I think you have covered most of the ground anyway, have you not? Essentially, your view was that you approached it by one funding model and it just did not work. I am not very clear what there was about that funding model that made it not work.

  Mr Chapman: Very briefly, there were two fundamental differences from the proposal that we have now for Arabic television. First of all, the Orbit Company was paying for both the content creation, the programmes, and the distribution, and the BBC was making them. That relationship worked reasonably well, I think, for up to two years and then there was a major argument about editorial matters, including coverage of Saudi Arabia, which was a irreconcilable split because the BBC's editorial judgments were going one way and the views of the funders were going the other way. As a result of that the whole project collapsed. The second fundamental difference is that this was a pay-for-view service—ie, people had to pay money in the Middle East to watch it; you had to pay a premium, it was not a free-to-air service. I think we have learnt from that that when you have so many already free-to-air services, such as Al Arabiya, Al-Jazeera et al, it would be narrowing the potential audience hugely if you ask people to pay a premium or supplement for it. So I think we learnt two things from that experience, and we are not going to repeat the experience again.

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