Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 980 - 983)


Mr Mostefa Souag, Mr Mohammed Chebarro and Mr Ian Richardson

  Q980  Chairman: So the journalist bit on it?

  Mr Chebarro: Exactly. I said in the same soundbite that it is a welcome addition to the range of information, yet when I was asked specifically how the viewers will see it, it is always a double-edged sword, you do not know where it is going to fit, but there is, as my colleague Mostefa was saying, this high awareness, there is also high association. The public is aware of what is happening in Iraq and the public is aware that news gathering and news operation is not just an innocent operation of information. In some countries they call it fourth authority, in others they call it an objective tool and in others they call it a watchdog, basically. Yes, there will be especially I said that the American channel was seen as another extension of the policy of the US, whereby they say but they are losing in the information war, that the messages coming out of the Middle East are not taking on board hundreds of hours of speeches of President Bush on Al-Jazeera or even on Al-Arabiya, whereas they reckon that there is a problem of radicalisation within the Arab street that they need to address and reach out. So to speak, if the BBC enters the race for viewership, it could be seen as another propaganda tool. Traditionally, the BBC has always been seen as an independent, objective force, yet it is risking a reputation, but at various times of the history of information from the region it was maybe tarnished or put in question, so this is at stake today for the BBC.

  Q981  Chairman: Therefore, will it depend upon the quality of the service that is provided?

  Mr Chebarro: Basically, it is trying to reconcile 22 different Arab streets and 22 different viewerships available in 22 different countries of that region.

  Q982  Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: I wonder if I could go back just for a moment to Mr Richardson's expectation that the provision of this BBC Arabic Television Service will be much more expensive than they are reckoning. I think we were told that it was expecting to cost £19 million a year for the 12-hour service which they will be projecting. Do you think that is a gross underestimate?

  Mr Richardson: I think it is a pretty serious underestimate because I see, yesterday, was it, the Managing Director of Al-Jazeera talked about the hundred million dollars that go into Al-Jazeera Arabic each year, and I have been told, and I think probably it is pretty accurate, that a hundred million dollars is going into Al-Jazeera English, the channel which is being launched next month. I understand that Channel Four News, which is about 40 minutes of content five days a week, has got a budget of £20 million. It is a serious underfunding, in my view. Now that there is the competition with Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya and other channels coming along, it worries me.

  Q983  Lord Maxton: When they were here yesterday, the BBC told us that they intended to stream their new Arabic service on the internet service as well and also, more particularly probably, if you are talking about a bigger audience, onto the new mobile `phones as well. Do you do that, or are you intending to do that as well, or do you see the BBC maybe as gaining an edge on you in that?

  Mr Chebarro: I think we have internet streaming. You can tap into the address and you can see basically our broadcast up to the minute. There is what you call revenue, and this is all aimed maybe at revenue, I understand, from the mobile `phone, which is up-to-the-minute information via mobile `phone. That needs subscription and is another way of measuring who is tapping into your information and service. Yes, we are already giving to mobile telephones and I think Al-Jazeera does the same.

  Mr Souag: Yes, the same thing.

  Mr Chebarro: I think also the streaming on the net as well of the broadcast, so it is something which is already being done.

  Chairman: I am immensely grateful. Actually we could go on for very much longer on this but, as you understand, we have another witness waiting. I think it has been totally fascinating and thank you very much for the way you have given your evidence. Thank you.

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