Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 900 - 919)


29 NOVEMBER 2005Mr Richard Sambrook and Mr Nigel Chapman

  Q900  Lord Peston: Just to reiterate what you have said, which I fully understand, you are going to have an independent platform where no one can mess you around from now on, as I understand it?

  Mr Chapman: Indeed.

  Q901  Lord Peston: That was your answer to Lord King and Lord Maxton: that you have this platform and that is for you; there is no way someone will be able to say to you: "You are on our platform and you are really not going to show this or that sort of thing"

  Mr Sambrook: There will not be the same control over the content.

  Q902  Lord Peston: My point is not "the same control", the point is one requires the BBC not to have any control. The moment I hear there is any control I do not trust any of it.

  Mr Sambrook: As Lord Maxton has indicated, of course there will be some third parties involved in distribution.

  Q903  Lord Peston: But they will not control.

  Mr Chapman: They are not paying for content. The content is being funded in a completely different way. We are going to make the programmes, the programmes are going to go out.

  Q904  Lord Peston: So no question can arise of your saying: "We are showing this" and them saying: "Not on our platform you are not".

  Mr Sambrook: No. I do not see how that can happen. Theoretically it is possible, if they decide they do not like our service, to withdraw distribution. That could happen in any country in the world. Obviously, the sensitivities in this region are acute in some circumstances but, again, we are not the only Western network broadcasting in this area, this is not the only BBC Arabic service going into that region, and I am not aware of any issues of that kind.

  Lord Peston: Fine. I just wanted to make sure we had it on record precisely what your position was.

  Q905  Lord Maxton: So, basically, you are buying space on three satellites. Those three satellites are independent commercial companies, there are not any links with any of the Arabic countries that you are then going to be broadcasting to in any way.

  Mr Chapman: Let me be absolutely precise about this: two of them do have shareholders from different countries in the Arabic world. You would expect that because—

  Q906  Lord Maxton: But they are commercial shareholders; they are not national or government shareholders.

  Mr Chapman: Indeed, that is the critical difference. With Orbit, remember, they were not only paying for the content creation they were also paying for the distribution. This is a case where the BBC is going to pay for the distribution. So that is a fundamental difference. In a commercial climate, with commercial companies who are not state-owned or state-funded, it is a very different set of circumstances.

  Q907  Lord Maxton: Is there any capital cost involved in any of this from your point of view?

  Mr Chapman: Yes, in addition to the £19 million I talked about earlier in relation to a 12 hour service, there is going to be a capital cost which we can afford to fund from our capital expenditure in the World Service of about £5-6 million to set up the appropriate studios and facilities to make the television programmes.

  Q908  Lord Maxton: What is the breakdown in the £19 million annual cost between the production of programmes and the buying of the space on the satellites and maintaining your studios etc?

  Mr Chapman: The vast proportion of that £19 million will be spent on what we call production costs—ie, people, producers, news-gathering, editing and the preparation of programmes. I would have to, maybe, write to you with the precise figures, but the rough proportion was about £1-1.5 million for distribution in a £19 million budget.

  Q909  Lord Maxton: In terms of the online service, will it be basically the same service available online as is available on the television platform?

  Mr Chapman: Yes. What we are anticipating there is that we are looking into streaming, if you like, the BBC Arabic television service on the web. So if you have reasonable access to the web (preferably broadband) you would be able to watch it, and you will not just be able to watch it in the Middle East, of course, but will be able to watch it anywhere in the world, which will obviously be a great advantage.

  Q910  Lord Maxton: I think you are under-estimating. As most people round this table would expect, my view is that if you look at the way broadband has expanded in the Western world in the last five years, then you have to take a much bigger account of that happening in the Arabic world and the rest of the world as well. Have you built the fact that increasingly it will be broadband you will be watched on rather than television into your—

  Mr Sambrook: We have significant investment into broadband services and into the web, and indeed mobile 'phones. I think in the Middle East, as in Africa and parts of Asia, it may well be mobile 'phones rather than computers that become the wireless mobile device.

  Q911  Lord Maxton: You can do both because, presumably, once you can bring it down to your `phone you can then put it down to your computer as well.

  Mr Sambrook: That is true if you have a computer, but it is a region where many people would choose to have a 'phone rather than a computer.

  Q912  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: The flip side of the FCO thinking this is a matter of strategic importance is that they are intensely interested in it. So when they say to you: "Let's do it" and you say: "There is a market demand" and they think it is strategically important, it occurs to me that the potential danger of government interference in your editorial output in this area of the world, given how significant it is to British foreign policy and security policy (and, indeed, now to energy policy), must be quite significant, and that you will find yourself being leaned on or—even worse than being leaned on—going in for self-censorship to avoid being leaned on. I am just wondering how you reconcile the things you are valued for—independence, impartiality and so on—with the fact that this is very salient for any British Government and will be for the next 20 years. Have you had any assurances—I know you are arguing about the funding but there is no disagreement on the principle—that the Government is going to let you get on with it?

  Mr Sambrook: In a sense, that assurance is encapsulated in writing in the broadcast agreement between the Foreign Office and the BBC which will also sit across this new Arabic television service as well. It is very clear that the BBC's editorial processes and editorial decisions are entirely independent of the FCO. I think in practice as well (and we did touch on this the last time we met), whilst accepting that television is, of course, potentially a more interesting medium, perhaps, than radio in some cases, nevertheless in practice, in the way we are structured and the way that we operate, there is a separation and a Chinese wall between the daily editorial decisions and those people having the debates and discussions and regular meetings with the Foreign Office. I think that is something that has existed across the BBC for many years and is a rather effective insulation, if you like, against the kind of pressure that you are talking about.

  Q913  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: You, of all people, know that when the Government has a rush of blood to the head pieces of paper tend not to be worth as much as they seemed at the time, and I do urge on you the necessity, if you are going to do this service, as you are, to try and get a very clear understanding of what are the parameters and the protection you have against something which is so important from a policy point of view to any British Government.

  Mr Sambrook: I appreciate your concern about that.

  Q914  Baroness Bonham Carter of Yarnbury: Just a very quick question: whether television is more interesting or not, it is certainly more visual, as we were discussing earlier. Have you thought of the implications—I am sure you have—of how you will use women as a consequence of certain attitudes?

  Mr Sambrook: Yes, obviously it is a very difficult issue because we have to be culturally sensitive whilst, at the same time, in terms of an employer and so on, we have a number of cultural sensitivities which we have to bridge, but again, in my view, we have some of our most experienced people overseeing this service and, indeed, overseeing the current Arabic service as well and we have a very strong editorial team who are attuned, if you like, to that bi-polarity, if I can put it that way. So I am reasonably confident that we can manage those, although you are absolutely right there will be cultural sensitivities of that kind that we will have to deal with.

  Mr Chapman: One of the interesting things, if you watch Arabic television now, is how far you could argue that it pushes the boat out, if you like, in terms of the portrayal of women. In some of the most popular services that have most recently come onto the market, the way women are dressed on the screen, the way they present programmes and the way they take part in that, some people have argued that that has pushed the boundaries of women's role in the Arab world further than would otherwise have happened before. So, actually, some would argue it is an opportunity, if you like, to reflect the diversity of the Arabic world in a much more complete way than, perhaps, was possible in the past.

  Q915  Lord King of Bridgwater: Is this an Arabic service or is it a Middle East service? In this connection, what is the footprint of these satellites?

  Mr Chapman: It is a service in the Arabic language, it is going to cover events in the Middle East but not just in the Middle East; as Richard said earlier on, it is going to cover an international news agenda so it is going to have strong international news coverage as well as coverage of the Middle East. The footprint will take you from Morocco right across to Iraq and, actually, a little bit further than that—from my research, I suspect as far as Pakistan and the Stans. It would be available but obviously people there would struggle to understand it because they would not have the Arabic language. Some would but the great majority would not. It is a case of a comprehensive footprint; it covers the whole of the Middle East.

  Q916  Lord King of Bridgwater: Afghanistan?

  Mr Chapman: I think it would be on the fringes. Afghanistan is certainly not targeted, it is not the centre of its footprint.

  Q917  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: Going back to the audiences that may prefer radio or audiences that may prefer new media, what does your research show about those audiences in the Arab-speaking world? Is there one shrinking and the other growing, as in Brazil or do you have different issues?

  Mr Sambrook: The Arabic radio audience is much strong than the Portuguese for Brazil audience but it is in decline, and it is, I think it would be fair to say, an ageing audience, whereas the audience for online is a younger and more professional audience. So the broad pattern that we spoke about before holds true in Arabic as it holds true in a number of languages, but what has happened in the Middle East over the last five, six or seven years, really, is the explosion of television as a medium of mass interest. That is obviously partly driven by Al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya but, also, multi-channel television which, as Nigel was saying, now has a very high level of penetration across the region. So I would say within the last 10 years television has established itself as the pre-eminent mass medium over any other.

  Mr Chapman: There are some countries where radio is still going to be very, very important, particularly in somewhere like the Sudan, for instance, where you have got low take-up of television and definitely a low take-up of satellite television. BBC Arabic radio is going to retain a strong audience. BBC Arabic radio has a strong audience in somewhere like Iraq, at the moment; a very high percentage of the population tune in, partly because of the improved distribution on FM for Arabic radio by the BBC. What television brings you is access to markets where FM distribution is extremely difficult, and there are many countries in the Middle East which will not allow the BBC to broadcast on FM from their main conurbations. Saudi Arabia is an example. And the BBC does not have a single FM transmitter or serious partnership to re-broadcast on FM from Morocco to Egypt, as we speak. We are working hard on that but there are regulatory reasons and governmental reasons why those societies do not want to grant the BBC that sort of access at the moment, and therefore what this free-to-air television service will bring you is access to people who have got satellite dishes—high percentages in many countries—where we cannot, at the moment, deliver our radio. So it is complementary. That is why it is part of the rounded picture, if you like, of the sort of service the BBC needs to do.

  Q918  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: There is a thought crossing my mind. If we were taking evidence, as we have, from the commercial side, and so on, during the first part of our investigation, there are a number of areas where we would be told that you were operating in a world which meant that they were, in fact, not having the commercial opportunities they should have. Does any of that apply at all in what you are doing, or might it in the future apply? Might you be taking away potential commercial advantage from more local services?

  Mr Chapman: That has not been their response so far—let me put it like that. What has been really interesting is that once we announced this Arabic television service was going to happen in 2007 both companies like Al-Jazeera, in their kind of editorial on the way they responded to the story, and, also, if you look across the newspapers and magazines in the Arab world, almost without exception have welcomed it. There is a sense that they expect the BBC to be in this sort of market doing this—it is part of the plurality. They do not feel threatened by it they just kind of expect it to happen; it is part of the way the world should be. So I do not think it is a similar situation you would get in the UK, where you have commercial channels coming to give evidence saying: "The BBC is crowding us out in a particular part of the marketplace" or "They are doing operations that, effectively, use public subsidy and lower costs which damage market penetration". Those are not the sorts of conversations which have been emerging so far.

  Q919  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Looking at it from the other side, too, could it be that you can make some money which would reduce the amount that the licence fee payer would have to put into it?[1]

  Mr Sambrook: I think it is difficult to see how, for two reasons. One is, for the reasons that the Orbit experience taught us before, that there are some difficulties and sensitivities in entering into commercial arrangements for channels of this kind. Secondly, we know from the experience of the BBC world, that international television channels require a long period of investment before they can reach break-even or even profit. There is no indication, as far as we can tell, that Al-Jazeera, for example, is profit-making even though it is commercial and taking advertising. I think it would be a very long investment period before you could hope to break even in a service of this kind, which is why our view is that if the BBC is going to do it and extend its reach in this way it needs to do it on a public service basis.

1   The Arab TV channel will be funded Grant-in-aid, not the licence fee. Back

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