Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 924 - 939)

WEDNESDAY 30 NOVEMBER 2005

Mr Mostefa Souag, Mr Mohammed Chebarro and Mr Ian Richardson

  Q924  Chairman: Good morning. Thank you very much for coming. I think you will know the history of the Select Committee. We have produced one Report but there were a number of other areas which we did not think we had sufficient time to do in that first Report and we are coming back to them. One of the areas we are very interested in is the BBC World Service and obviously its intention to launch an Arabic-language television service and we thought, with your collective experience, you may be able to help us in this particular area. Obviously we are talking essentially about the BBC and policy as far as that is concerned. Could I start perhaps with you, Mr Richardson; in a sense, we have been here before, have we not? You had your own Arabic Television News in the 1990s. Tell us about that and why it failed?

  Mr Richardson: I was involved in it from the beginning. I started it up as the Project Manager along with the engineering people and then ran it and then closed it down. It is difficult to know exactly why it went wrong but, from my point of view, it was because there were irreconcilable differences over editorial issues with Saudi and with Orbit, which is owned by the Saudis, and it went from bad to terrible and eventually they just closed us down without warning.

  Q925  Chairman: When you say "they" closed you down, who closed you down?

  Mr Richardson: Orbit.

  Q926  Chairman: Just explain to us the Orbit connection, how that actually came about; this was not strictly BBC going out there by itself?

  Mr Richardson: No. It was a satellite cluster, I think was then the vogue phrase, with all sorts of different channels and one of the channels that they were promoting the most was the BBC channel and it was a commercial arrangement between Orbit and BBC Worldwide. I was removed from that, in a sense, because I was looking after the editorial side, the newsroom, and that sort of thing, but not the financial side, so it was a commercial operation.

  Q927  Chairman: On the editorial side, did you have total independence?

  Mr Richardson: Yes.

  Q928  Chairman: What about total resource, how many resources did you have?

  Mr Richardson: For what we did it was quite reasonable. We were independent but we had a tremendous amount of interference and it just went on and on and on.

  Q929  Chairman: Just explain to us, how did that interference come about?

  Mr Richardson: In theory, what was supposed to happen was that all editorial issues that were in dispute should have been dealt with between Orbit's management and BBC Worldwide and they were to act as the buffer between Orbit and the newsroom. To an extent that did work but it was not long before we really started to feel the heat. I think the first real clash we had was when we broadcast a programme in which we spoke about King Fahd's illness and speculated about the succession and word was passed down to me that we were very lucky we were not taken off air because we had broken a very serious taboo, in that we had suggested the King might die and it was very improper that we should have discussed who might succeed him.

  Q930  Chairman: Looking at the position now, what would you say if you were starting a new service in 2005-06, would there be the same restraints, would you get into the same problems? As you know, the BBC are starting their service; given your experience in the nineties, tell us what you think are the prospects for that service?

  Mr Richardson: For its editorial independence it will be much easier. They will still come under pressure but that is the way of the world. The difference this time is that there will be no financial interest. You will not have someone ringing up and saying, "Look, if you do that again we're just going to have to pull the plug on you," and in that sense they will have a great deal more editorial freedom.

  Q931  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Do you think the BBC understand fully how difficult it is to run a TV channel, they have got experience, obviously, of running radio channels in this part of the world, but how difficult it is to run a TV channel in the areas they now want to cover?

  Mr Richardson: I am not sure they understand, or that everyone understands, how difficult it is to run a foreign-language channel and I have already gone into print saying that I have great reservations about this new project, because I think it is seriously underfunded. Without me getting too technical, my experience is that you cannot compare an English television rolling news channel, an international one, like BBC World, with BBC Arabic, because it is about at least a third more expensive because of all the translation that is involved. Most world material that comes in for a news channel is in English and therefore it has to be translated. If I may give you just one example, we used to run Panorama, which got us into serious trouble by running it, but we could not put out Panorama under two days after it went out on BBC One or BBC Two simply because of all the translation involved, the checking of the translation, the revoicing, the production, that is everything. In a sense, I am not sure that everyone does understand how difficult it is.

  Q932  Lord King of Bridgwater: I thought another criticism of concern which led to the closure of the service was that it was a London-based service with Arabic speakers who were not actually really identified with the region. Is it your understanding that the new service is going to be the same; (a) is that a correct criticism the first time round and (b) will it be different next time, do you think?

  Mr Richardson: I do not think it is a correct criticism because it is not something that I ever heard about. We are accused of many things, like being a petro-dollar channel, because of the Saudi connection, but, in a sense, being removed to London, the news was coming out from an area where there were not any obvious conflicts. If it had come from Egypt, for instance, everyone would have said, "No, it's the Egyptian point of view." If it had come from Saudi Arabia, the same sort of criticism would have been made. I think the BBC had such a good reputation that some of the early reservations were swept away.

  Q933  Lord King of Bridgwater: You see it being BBC correspondents who are in the region now, who are broadcasting in English, being translated into Arabic and repeated back in Arabic?

  Mr Richardson: That will be the case, I assume, but I am sure they will be trying to set up their own network of correspondents speaking Arabic, but it is very expensive and that is where I differ with people about the cost of this project.

  Q934  Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: You said that the arrangement in which you were involved always had the financial clout, you could pull the plug if you did not like something; that will not be true of the new BBC service. If the authorities were to dislike what the BBC new service was putting out, would they have sanctions which they could apply to it, to try to censor it, as it were?

  Mr Richardson: I am no expert on that. They can always apply sanctions of some sort but certainly they would not be able to switch us off, like Orbit did. It varies from country to country. The Chinese have been quite effective at keeping a lot of the BBC's coverage away from the populous.

  Q935  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: Following on this topic, Nigel Chapman has said, in a speech that he made in October, that "We" that is the BBC ". . . must have a strong presence in the Middle East itself." From what you are saying, do you think that it will be difficult for the BBC (a) to recruit high-quality Arabic-speaking staff and (b) that actually they will be from the region itself? Do you think that will create a difficulty for the BBC, bearing in mind the amount of money that they are putting forward?

  Mr Richardson: I have wondered about that myself and I have asked a few people, with whom I was connected the previous time round, what their reaction would be to coming back to London to work for the BBC. There was a tremendous amount of damage done to the BBC's reputation among journalists and broadcasters because they regarded the BBC as a kind of god and they could not believe it when a great many of them had moved over here and suddenly found that they were out of a job at an hour's notice, almost. While the BBC did make some reasonable settlement deals, there was that damage. Since then, of course, you have got Al-Jazeera, you have got Al-Arabiya, you have got Dubai Television, it is everywhere. Honestly, I do not know whether the BBC is still going to be an attraction, although I would imagine that Al-Jazeera will not take lightly to a great number of defections, and there might well be a salary competition.

  Q936  Chairman: You are assuming that this operation is going to be headquartered in London, are you?

  Mr Richardson: I believe it is, yes, with bureaus abroad, but I do not know how many bureaus.

  Q937  Chairman: Thank you, Mr Richardson. Can we move on perhaps to Al-Jazeera. Could you tell us first the history; how did Al-Jazeera come to be formed?

  Mr Souag: Al-Jazeera started in 1996, exactly around the time when BBC Arabic Television was closing down, and found it really very useful to get all the expertise that the BBC had prepared. Actually, even before the BBC Television was planning to close down, Al-Jazeera was trying to hunt for good heads from the BBC, and some people were talking about moving to this new channel in Qatar. A lot of people were wondering why you would move to Arabic Television in a place like Qatar and The Gulf, where there was no freedom of expression, there was no tradition of providing serious television coverage, etc. I was with the BBC, Ian was my boss and I am very glad to be with him today. We were told that this was going to be actually a different kind of television, that the Government of Qatar was going to sponsor the station, at least for several years until the station could get its own money, but with no interference, with complete independence. That was because, even before the station was created, the Government had started liberating the media a little bit. They cancelled the Ministry of Information, for example, which used to censor everything there. They started some kind of liberation of the media. When the BBC closed down, of course, everybody was looking for a job. Some of us went to Qatar and to Doha to work for Vizier, some of us went to other places, including NBC, which used to be here in London, the Arabic television channel that was here in London, it was quite famous and had a good reputation in the Middle East, at least, not necessarily for the same kinds of reasons but still it had quite a good audience.

  Q938  Chairman: Just to cut through a bit, would you say that actually the closure of the BBC service was instrumental in Al-Jazeera forming, or it was just a vast help?

  Mr Souag: I think I would say it was a big help, because Al-Jazeera was already planned and was founded actually before the BBC closed down, but certainly without the staff that left the BBC for Al-Jazeera I do not think Al-Jazeera would have been the same success that it is now and I do not think the people who created Al-Jazeera were expecting it to be what it is now.

  Q939  Chairman: When Al-Jazeera took some of the staff from the BBC did it also take the values of the BBC, in the sense of objective and balanced reporting? Is that the aim of your channel?

  Mr Souag: I think that is exactly the aim of our channel and that is what we found in the code of honour for Al-Jazeera, all the principles on which the BBC and some other media institutions work.


 
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