Examination of Witnesses (Questions 880
TUESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2005
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 allwhich 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:
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 mediumit 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.
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.
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
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.
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, BBCArabic.com 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 Arabic.com'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 bodymight
you not have mistrust carried back to contaminate your main reputation
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
tensionswe 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
Mr Sambrook: It is the first I have heard of
it, but we will look into that.
Chairman: Could you look into it, please?
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
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 journalistsie, 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-clockie
12 hourswhere 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 serviceie,
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.