Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 960 - 979)

WEDNESDAY 30 NOVEMBER 2005

Mr Mostefa Souag, Mr Mohammed Chebarro and Mr Ian Richardson

  Q960  Lord Maxton: When you talk about your viewing figures, is it all of those?

  Mr Souag: No, I am talking just about Al-Jazeera news and programmes.

  Q961  Chairman: Let us move to Mr Chebarro. Mr Chebarro, would you tell us, first of all, in the same way as the other two witnesses have done, about the Middle East Broadcasting Centre and how that was formed?

  Mr Chebarro: It emerged here in London in 1992. We started airing as the first independent satellite channel beaming free-to-air to the Middle East region. It was a variety channel, maybe tailored similar to BBC One, for example, or Two, some three or four news bulletins a day, a lot of emphasis on news because the Arab world likes news, so the research, if we trust it, had shown. That was in 1992. It was a response to the fact that until that time government was the only vehicle of information. Then we were broadcasting out of London, free of Information Ministry's control, here in London, yet you are not totally free of controls if you are broadcasting in Arabic and to 22 Arabic-speaking countries and reporting from the Middle East region. Whoever does news is not totally objective nor totally balanced and not always managing to reach and seek and give the truth plainly and objectively. MBC in 1994, at the beginning of the floating by the other plan of a BBC Arabic Channel, through Orbit, started to do a feasibility study about the possibility of a 24-hour news channel. At that time market research, again, showed that there was no need for such a channel. They moved on, they kept the service as a single channel with news emphasis until the BBC came up and then left the market briefly afterwards and then Al-Jazeera started to gain audience, and not until February 2003 did our group see the necessity of launching an Arabic 24-hour news channel, called Al-Arabiya, the Arab One. Again, ethos, we can speak about the opinion and other opinion of Al-Jazeera, we have truth, courage and objectivity, basically, as our ethos. In a brief period of time, again, working in the Arab states, as both my colleagues know, is very difficult, we established a presence in approximately all 22 Arab states, apart from one, which is Qatar. Behind my group there is some Saudi money, funding, i.e. it is a business group.

  Q962  Chairman: A private group?

  Mr Chebarro: A private group, yes. We have a business which has some revenue from advertising. We do not have an office in Qatar. At some point in time our offices even there have been closed or were subject to certain attacks.

  Q963  Chairman: Like where?

  Mr Chebarro: In Iraq, for example, in September 2004 we got bombed. We have lost five reporters so far in Iraq, some by American `friendly' fire, or unfriendly fire, and some others by insurgent car bombs, assassination attempt and abduction. One of our colleagues is still in American custody with no chance of getting a lawyer to him. Another one is undergoing spinal injury rehabilitation in a Buckinghamshire hospital. All part and parcel of doing and trying to do news in the Middle East or in a hot area like Iraq.

  Q964  Chairman: In Iraq, you stand in the middle and you are fired at from both sides?

  Mr Chebarro: We are fired at from both sides yet we still have a presence. We are still trying to work in Baghdad, around Baghdad and in other hot spots in Iraq as well as other parts of the world.

  Q965  Chairman: Sometimes we forget how difficult it is to report, is it not, from Iraq and that area? You started this new service in 2003, we have just been told not to trust any figures, how do you estimate your audience figures?

  Mr Chebarro: Again, we have commercial revenue of a certain level, we have, basically, commercial entities that are trying really to gauge the mood and understand what our viewership level is. They bore us with lots of graphs and stuff at various times of the day but, as my colleague said, it is anything between 30 million and 70, 80 million, depending on which part of the spectrum you are whether you believe them or not, but estimates say, observers say, that the viewership is split in the middle between us and Al-Jazeera at certain, various different hours of the day. We are seen widely in Iraq but maybe less widely in Saudi, and vice versa.

  Q966  Chairman: In two years you have managed to establish this figure?

  Mr Chebarro: We benefited from the infrastructure of MBC, which was the Arabic independent channel, established in 1992, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Therefore having a footprint was much easier than starting from zero.

  Chairman: With all this background, can we now apply this knowledge and experience to the BBC.

  Q967  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: I am very interested in what you said about the size of your audiences, and it invites the question is there room in the market, first of all, for a new BBC Arabic service and I would like to ask this question of all three of you? A supplementary to that is whether there is a market space for it, is there an editorial space for it and is there a set of values that the BBC represents which are needed, which are superior? We have already heard that perhaps Al-Jazeera thinks their independence and impartiality are superior to that of the BBC, nevertheless is there a space for the BBC in the market and in terms of an editorial need which is unmet particularly for independent news coverage? The third question is, in your personal opinion, as it can be only a personal opinion, what would be seen to be the reputation and strength and credibility of the BBC as an objective bringer of independent, balanced news and current affairs to the Middle East and the Arab world? I would be very interested in the reactions of all of you to that.

  Mr Richardson: I suppose you might expect me to say this but the experience with World Service over 27 years was that the BBC did help a great deal in many areas by being a benchmark for quality journalism and for production values and I think that should not be underestimated. The first time round with Arabic Television, I am happy to admit that it was not all that brilliant to start with, it was a bit ragged around the edges, but it was better than anything else that was available, far, far better. I think, without BBC Arabic Television, television media across the Middle East would be very different today. I accept what Mostefa says, that there were already plans for Al-Jazeera towards the end of BBC Arabic Television but I have no doubt that if we had not set a standard which others wished to follow then it would be different.

  Q968  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: Of course, that is history, and whether it is cause and effect, as you described, or whether it is just the development of competition, we do have now two substantial broadcasting presences, both of which represent that they have some of the values and editorial quality and standards of the BBC. Looking at it today, I would be interested in your opinion of whether there is a market and editorial space for what is being suggested?

  Mr Richardson: I think there is a market for a good quality product, and this is where we come back to the funding of it, because my view is that if it is not done well it should not be done at all. I do have in the back of my mind, with respect, that, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, their editorial independence is pretty fragile. It may appear to be strong but if the Emir of Qatar felt the need to change the editorial policy of it, it is his company at the moment and so I think, in that respect, it is a little fragile, whereas I would hope that the BBC's editorial independence is not.

  Mr Souag: If I start where Ian ended, probably personally and I think the Al-Jazeera people, I was in Qatar when the news about the plan to start this BBC Arabic Television came out, people were actually quite welcoming, they want a station that might be good competition to start maybe to activate the media environment a little bit more, because everybody respects the BBC. Moreover, if there is BBC Arabic Television and the Emir decides to change the editorial stance, at least we will have a place to go to, to be a little bit blunt. We have no reason to believe that the Emir of Qatar would change his mind about Al-Jazeera and Al-Jazeera's editorial stance. There is every indication that probably we will get even more support from the Emir of Qatar, rather than less, in terms of what we are doing. Is there a need? I think the more we have of objective reporting, of good programmes, the better for the Arab countries to enhance the extent towards objective reporting, towards the freedom of expression, the freedom of the media, certainly. With different stations in the Middle East, let us say, for example, a lot of people in the Middle East would think Al-Jazeera, regardless of how objective it looked, "it must work for the Qatari's, it must do some propaganda for the Qatari's, even if you don't see it," they say there must be something there. The same thing would be said about Al-Arabiya, because it comes from different countries with some competition, with some problems in-between, but when it comes from the BBC, "At least, one thing, the British Government support it but it is still the BBC, we know they have standards." It might actually help to show that these are the right standards, that they are followed by Al-Jazeera or by Al-Arabiya because they are also followed by the BBC. I assume there is space for them. There is always a need for better reportage, for enhancing that kind of track.

  Q969  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: Would the Arab person on the street think that, because it is the BBC and they have from radio some knowledge of and experience of the BBC, let alone the recent experiment, the BBC would represent independence, or would they think that this was a propaganda tool of the British Government whose policies from time to time are unpopular in the Arab world? Which would it be? Would they see the BBC the way we like to see it, as independent of Government, or would they see it as somehow an instrument of British Government propaganda?

  Mr Souag: I would say yes for both. There are people who will see it this way and people who will see it that way, especially, for example, governments. If BBC Arabic Television would really respect its standards and be what the BBC should be then a lot of people would believe that this was real journalism, etc., but a lot of people would follow mostly the official propaganda against anything that they do not like, that "this is coming from the West so they are just working for the oil interests." However, if you will allow me, there is one point to make here. If the BBC is going to start this channel, it has to be sure that it is going to continue for a little while, that it will not stop within a year or two, or whatever, that is one thing; secondly, it is not going to back off when the pressures start. One of the reasons, in my opinion, that maybe the BBC Arabic Television stopped was not just that Orbit decided to close it but also I think the British Government could have said "This is too big and too important an institution at this point to close down and it's going to hurt the reputation of the BBC," because people would see it as a complete influence by Saudi Arabia or the Saudis on the BBC itself. They should have come in and given them money, at least for a little while, just to take that perception away and then they do whatever they want, because there is going to be a lot of pressure from business groups. In Saudi Arabia, if the Saudis were to say, "The BBC is reporting this way, I'm not going to give you the project, we are going to give it to the Americans or Germans," there might be some pressures there, and I understand at that time there was that kind of pressure. It was a time when the (Yemaneh ?) project was negotiated with the British Government and I think there was a lot of pressure in that respect. They have to be sure about this.

  Mr Chebarro: I returned from the region a couple of days ago, and definitely the news that everybody was asking about in the professional field, i.e. the intellectuals, professional Arab journalists, was "When is this project going to be launched?" i.e. the BBC. For our station, it is just another welcome competitor, a respected channel, a respected entity getting into the media. We have to remember that there are lots of players in the Middle East, cross-regional, cross-country channels, there are in excess of 50 channels, all on satellite, free-to-air, competing for the viewers, and the BBC definitely can stand apart, as far as competition is concerned, from the rest. Yet I think one sceptical point of view here, that you would hear in the Middle East, is "Why Arabic?" because, let us be frank, news is not an innocent product. As much as we would take the value of the BBC on board, it is still another, it depends how you can find a use, therefore the product will determine it. From the previous part, when Mr Richardson was talking about the standards and the ethos of the BBC in Arabic in the mid nineties, I do not know, the set standards of the BBC English were there. Did we reflect that in the Arabic service, how far was it reflected, this is another question. The television industry is a new industry in the Middle East and does not have the long experience and expertise of the national broadcasting companies such as the BBC, so there was pressure on funding and finding especially the human asset, of finding independent-minded reporters who are capable of reporting the story as it is. If it is translation, as in the first round of the BBC, in the mid nineties, i.e. the re-package of the BBC material translated into Arabic and voiced over by an Arabic-speaking journalist, that is one thing. Then putting a fully-fledged service from A to Z by bureaus in the region I think is a costly business and I wonder whether anybody is ready to foot the bill if it is going to stay without advertising and commercially competitive.

  Q970  Lord King of Bridgwater: What is the image at the moment of the BBC? There is plenty of radio broadcasting here. The man in the Arab street, does he have a high respect for the BBC or does he not know much about it?

  Mr Chebarro: Every household opens on the BBC World Service radio in Arabic first thing in the morning, or English if they are educated, as far as I remember, growing up in a house in the Middle East. Yet was it always seen as positive, it was a different source of information in the absence of multi sources of information in every state, whereby the information industry was controlled by the state. The situation has been different from the nineties onwards, there are different outlets, different sources of information and there were ups and downs in the perception as well of the BBC from the days of the Suez crisis and a lot of the information that was published then and after that. Today we would say that the Iraq expedition, or war, could also cloud this view, and we are talking about people's perception, it would cloud their perception, but overall the BBC has a good name whereby it is another source of information, respected and reputed and believed to be objective or closer to the truth.

  Q971  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You said that you, the professionals, are happy about the idea of this BBC television service. Is that true of the Arabic governments, would you say?

  Mr Chebarro: I think that the governments, till now, are trying to swallow, or get used to, basically, the current information revolution that the area has witnessed. The professionals welcome the BBC and I think, the governments, in a global world they cannot say no to the BBC. The BBC is entering lots of houses anyway through the excellent service the World English Service provides. But, it is not reaching the masses. There is a sceptical question by these governments why now you want to repeat an experiment, like the Americans did a couple of years ago, Al-Hurra, the free one, basically to propagate freedom, democracy, and get the message right. For some reason they think Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and other national TV stations are not getting the message right and they are airing lots of propaganda. Let us face it, there is a situation in the Arab world whereby what is cross-national news could be aired on a broad channel, there is the Palestinian question and there is the Iraqi question and these are where there is consensus about how to report and where to report and when to report them. With the BBC, I wonder what else could be brought in. It will bring in better production values and it will bring in better objective input. If it is not going to report from the region it is going to be seen as an element importing news from outside it. Al-Hurra is seen clearly as a vehicle of American hegemony within the intellectuals and the street switch it off, because I do not see it saying anything or adding any news value or information value. This will be the challenge. The BBC has an aim and it is risking a lot by going on with this.

  Q972  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: I think what they say is that they want to bring the world as regional, maybe, in their news, as you both have been. You have both talked about having offices closed down and I think neither of you have offices in Saudi Arabia.

  Mr Chebarro: We do have.

  Q973  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You do; I am sorry. Do both of you have full access to all the countries you broadcast to, from the point of view of the signal being reached, people being able to watch your programmes, whatever?

  Mr Chebarro: Yes, absolutely. I believe that there is no restriction on the signal. Nobody could jam your signal, it is free-to-air and it has obviously catered for the tools and the machines of the state there.

  Q974  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: The BBC will be able to reach everywhere it wishes to reach?

  Mr Chebarro: I believe that. If they pick up all the relevant satellites which are picked up free to air there should not be a problem.

  Q975  Lord Maxton: You buy satellite time, do you? How many satellites do you use?

  Mr Souag: The technical part I really do not know, but I know that, for Al-Jazeera, for example, in Saudi Arabia we cannot open an office there, we cannot even send somebody to report from there.

  Mr Chebarro: In Qatar, they revoked the nationality of our reporter in Qatar and kicked him out of the country as well. They took his passport and citizenship.

  Mr Souag: It could be. I do not really know what happened.

  Mr Chebarro: There is an information war in the region.

  Q976  Lord Maxton: Could I ask also, however, which is quite important, because we are talking rather glibly about the people in the street across the Arab world, but presumably that is going to be neither the BBC's audience or, to some extent, your audience, if you are talking of 30 million, or 50 million even, out of the 250 million, it is still a relatively small part of the population and presumably it is the professional, middle-class audience that is watching both your services and will watch the BBC services. To what extent are you or the BBC likely to reach down to, if you like, the man on the street, the average person living in fairly poor conditions in parts of the Middle East?

  Mr Souag: Talking about Al-Jazeera, I think actually a portion of our audience is from these poor people, because the only entertainment, practically, in the Middle East is television.

  Mr Chebarro: It is cheap.

  Mr Souag: Cheap, and people are very politicised, people are very aware, even the people who have never gone to school still can talk to you about the international issues with quite a lot of knowledge. Actually, this is another issue. I have noticed that from the beginning you have been concentrating on the BBC in the Middle East, how it works in the Middle East and reporting from the Middle East. A television channel of this kind is not going to be reporting only from the Middle East, the Middle East is just a small region. In Al-Jazeera, sometimes, if we have a one-hour bulletin, it might take half an hour in the Middle East because most of the explosive things are in the Middle East, but very often you might have 45 minutes of nothing about the Middle East, about the war, because this is an international channel, it is not a channel about Arab issues.

  Q977  Chairman: To interrupt you, I am not sure that the vision of the BBC would be much different from what you are saying?

  Mr Souag: Exactly, and the audience would look into not only what is reported about the Middle East or from the Middle East but also what is reported about the war then how it is reported. The BBC has to compete for its reputation with what it does.

  Q978  Lord Maxton: The BBC, in order to get down to that audience, will have to spend quite a lot of money presumably on marketing as well as just on putting out the service, will they not? Will they not somehow have to get the message across that this service is now available?

  Mr Richardson: I think the message will get across very quickly, apart from the radio side of it, certainly they will know about it. One of the things that Orbit was most concerned about was that once you start broadcasting in Arabic you do get to the people in the street. They are not worried so much about CNN or BBC World because that gets to the elite, and the elite are judged to be smart enough and wise enough to take this sort of information. When you get into Arabic and it gets right down into the slums or into just ordinary working-class areas that is what worries them and when Orbit started off they charged $10,000 as a subscription, to make sure that it was an elite channel.

  Q979  Chairman: Can we go back a moment to Mr Chebarro. I have got down here a quote of yours, and I think I quote it accurately: "People will look with cynicism to the new venture" that is of the BBC "if it takes off, especially given the British position as a strong ally to the US and the US and coalition military situation." There you are equating the BBC with the British Government, and is that the point that you are making?

  Mr Chebarro: That was part of an interview and only a soundbite was taken out, as usual when one is under pressure of time.


 
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