Examination of Witnesses (Questions 900
TUESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2005
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
Q904 Lord Peston:
So no question can arise of your saying: "We are showing
this" and them saying: "Not on our platform you are
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
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
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 costsie,
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 oreven
worse than being leaned ongoing in for self-censorship
to avoid being leaned on. I am just wondering how you reconcile
the things you are valued forindependence, impartiality
and so onwith the fact that this is very salient for any
British Government and will be for the next 20 years. Have you
had any assurancesI know you are arguing about the funding
but there is no disagreement on the principlethat 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
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 implicationsI am sure you haveof
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 thatfrom 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:
Mr Chapman: I think it would be on the fringes.
Afghanistan is certainly not targeted, it is not the centre of
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
disheshigh percentages in many countrieswhere 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 farlet 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 thisit
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?
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
1 The Arab TV channel will be funded Grant-in-aid,
not the licence fee. Back