Examination of Witnesses (Questions 924
WEDNESDAY 30 NOVEMBER 2005
Mr Mostefa Souag, Mr Mohammed Chebarro and Mr Ian
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.
When you say "they" closed you down, who closed you
Mr Richardson: Orbit.
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.
On the editorial side, did you have total independence?
Mr Richardson: Yes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.