Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 984 - 999)


Lord Triesman

  Q984  Chairman: Good morning, Lord Triesman. I am sorry we have kept you waiting a little. We had three witnesses beforehand and it took just a little bit longer than we thought. I think you know what we are about. We have produced our first Report and published that and that will be debated in about a week's time in the Lords. We were conscious of the fact that there were a number of areas which we did not have the time to do full justice to and one of these was BBC World Service, which obviously was a very important part. I wonder if I could start in this way. I note that, as part of the Spending Review 2004 settlement, the Foreign Office agreed to undertake a review on the effectiveness of public diplomacy work. Lord Carter of Coles was appointed to carry out that review. The review has not yet been published but it does seem that the role of BBC World Service fell within the remit of that review. Could you explain why you consider BBC World Service to be one of the Government's public diplomacy tools?

  Lord Triesman: I think, if we are going to try to reach out into the world and convey a sense of what the United Kingdom is like, we need a number of ways of doing that and there are a limited number of options, apart from all the options in private society and business, and so on. The public options are the British Council, the World Service, because it has a presence pretty much everywhere in the world, and one or two other, very important institutions, including the Chevening scholarships and fellowships, which are important, which bring people into this country to get a sense of what we do. To make that successful, in my judgment, the services that we provide have to be seen in the rest of the world as being of first-rate quality and they have to be seen as having genuine independence. They may be pulling in the same strategic direction but in the content of what they do they have to have a sense of real independence, because if they do not have that people do not trust them and it is critical that they are trusted. I think it helps convey what we do but it does it based on, in the case of the World Service, dealing with issues throughout the world, in news coverage and cultural coverage and other forms of coverage, in a very, very responsible and very objective way which people have come to respect, I think, probably above all other international broadcasting players.

  Q985  Chairman: Really what you are saying is that any advantage that the BBC has in its programmes is an indirect one?

  Lord Triesman: I think it is a mixture, Lord Fowler, of direct and indirect. It is indirect in the sense that it is reputational, and the reputational elements are built out of the overall quality of what it does everywhere, and that is probably quite hard to define because it is a process which takes place over very, very many years, no-one gets a reputation on day one, it has got to be achieved over a period of time. I think it is then a direct one in the sense that people can look at this as a British institution and say "Is this a country that is capable of dealing with very complex issues, in very difficult parts of the world, with real objectivity, with impartiality?" and the answer is yes. Does that say something of us as a nation and as a people? I think the answer to that is also yes.

  Q986  Chairman: You think the independence of the BBC and the values that the BBC follows are a vast advantage, as far as the country is concerned?

  Lord Triesman: I think they are a huge asset and I compare them with other international broadcast media and I can see the difference between the two. The distinction that I would like to introduce, in response to that question, because of course it is the question at the heart of all of this, is that, I think, as Government, we have an absolute responsibility to stand well clear of the editorial independence of the BBC and the content of its programmes and its practice in programming. What the World Service and the other parts of public diplomacy need to do is face in a general strategic direction that is useful to the United Kingdom, because they are heavily dependent upon public finance and we have an interest for which we are answerable in Parliament, and should be.

  Q987  Chairman: You would not wish, under any circumstances, to interfere with the BBC's independence?

  Lord Triesman: Its editorial independence, no, I would not. If someone put the proposition to me that we should, I would fight that proposition very fiercely. Do I believe that we should try to have proper mechanisms to steer the strategy, that is the where rather than the what, if I can put it that way, and I do think we have a genuine interest in that and that is an interest that the taxpayers are entitled to see us exercise.

  Q988  Chairman: When Mr Murdoch quoted Mr Blair telling him in a conversation that the BBC World Service coverage was "full of hate of America," gloating about our troubles, that is simply an expression of opinion that anyone might make?

  Lord Triesman: Yes, and he does have robust opinions, I have noticed that, from time to time. I think it would be unfair to characterise the World Service in that way, but the World Service's decisions on editorial content are their decisions.

  Q989  Chairman: Alastair Campbell, or whoever has taken his place, would not get on the `phone to the World Service and say "This is the Prime Minister's view; you want to do something about this"?

  Lord Triesman: I am pretty confident that I can say no.

  Q990  Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: I just wonder if public diplomacy is the right way to describe this, because diplomacy implies kind of active work around the place and what you are describing is much more like a pervasive influence, that something about the British way or British objectivity is projected by the BBC World Service greatly to the advantage of Britain in its international affairs but, in a sense, indirect, in terms of government-inspired diplomacy?

  Lord Triesman: I was curious, when I was first appointed to the Foreign Office and found this in my brief, as to why the particular words had been chosen, because exactly those issues went through my mind. I have to admit, I have not been able to find better words. I suppose there is some justification in the content of the words, in that, in our discussions, the annual discussion in particular, with the BBC World Service, which Michael Grade attends, as Chair of the Governors, there is a good, strong discussion about where in the world it is useful to be. In that sense that is, of course, a political choice and I do not think it would be sensible to hide from the fact that it is a political choice. I believe that the BBC has reviewed the political choices made, the advice that it has given has been good, I think the Foreign Office has responded well to that advice and I think we have got the right outcomes. I must say, I hope we have got the right outcomes in a timely way, because some of these discussions seem to me to have taken so long that on occasions we are entitled to worry that we may be behind again.

  Q991  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: We have just heard evidence from the competitors of the BBC in the Middle East, from Al-Arabiya and from Al-Jazeera, and on the whole a very fair-minded response to the prospect of the BBC entering an Arabic service. The point was made that the good reputation of the BBC for objectivity, impartiality, balance, part of the values, if you like, of the British way of doing things, which the FCO has an interest in, could be tainted by the policies of the British Government. Clearly the BBC are in no position to do anything about the policies of Her Majesty's Government, but I think the flip side of that is what clear assurances and protection can the FCO and the Government in general put in place, not just to viewers in the Middle East but to people in this country whose money is being spent on this, that the independence will be absolutely assured and that there will be no tinkering and no hanky-panky? The reason this is important is that it could affect the trust which you talked about just now as being the key characteristic of the reputation, both of the BBC and of Britain, if you like, a trustworthy organisation and a trustworthy country, that could affect it fatally. I think the bit that is difficult is this word `strategic'. Strategic suggests geopolitical objectives being executed through public diplomacy rather than suggesting the rather more benign halo effect of a good image, British Council type work that you were also talking about. What have you got in mind to make sure, in terms of this new station being successful, that it is absolutely ring-fenced, because it is difficult enough in this country, with people biting the legs of the BBC, to retain impartiality, how much more difficult when there are these momentous issues in a very contested region? What are you going to do to make sure it is independent and is seen to be independent?

  Lord Triesman: The first thing I think any government has to do is make its position clear and make that position clear on the record. I have done so myself a number of times. I have made it clear, as I have today, on the record that any attempt, or any suggestion that there should be an attempt, to interfere in the editorial independence of the BBC World Service, whether it is radio broadcasting or its websites or any of the new media or the new Arabic television station, which is a very important venture, if that is compromised in any way then the whole of the objective would be foiled. I am wholly on the record, as are other members of the Government, that there will be no interference in the editorial policies. Incidentally, I should add that when Lord Carter approaches these same questions, and I hope it will be reflected in the Report when it appears, those comments will be made in just as robust a way. I just say that again. Secondly, it is a very difficult enterprise launching television in a market which is already reasonably crowded and where there are other stations which have had a number of years and have got going; they are serious competition. I think, if the BBC were thought to be a vehicle for propaganda, rather than a vehicle for impartial coverage, they would have not only the difficult hill to climb in taking on competition in a crowded media market but they would have failure built in from the beginning. I do not think it would be in anybody's interest for there to be any taint of that kind at all, if they are to succeed in that competition. The final point I would make, very briefly, is this. Of course people sometimes say that there is public money going in, does that not mean, as it does in other countries, that the government which puts in that money exerts some sort of an influence; well, I think it is right that public money goes into the BBC, possibly people will always raise that question. The only answer to it is, day by day, content by content, can you analyse what they do and say it is genuinely independent, clearly independent, reflects impartiality in the programmes that are broadcast. If anybody, as it goes forward, has criticisms on those latter fronts then I think we have got to be able to deal with them very strongly. We will not interfere in its independence.

  Q992  Lord King of Bridgwater: I think one of the problems you have got is that other governments do not believe you. I think I recall `The Death of a Princess', that the Saudi Government found it inconceivable that the British Government could not actually organise the BBC and that was a programme which was funded by the licence fee-payer, and the Government had that defence, that they did not have any financial role. Here we have a situation in which you are funding it, you are funding the whole thing. Does it occur to you that, and certainly the message that came across from our other witnesses just now was, you are supporting the launch of a programme at a particularly sensitive time in the Middle East, when the British reputation in certain areas is extremely low and it would be seen to be, to quote Lord Holme, in the strategic interest of the British Government to get a better image for itself and its policy there? You are going in there, and with much more immediacy, via television, risking the reputation of the BBC, putting it in a much more controversial area, where people will not believe that it is independent of Government?

  Lord Triesman: I think you are absolutely right. The fact is there will be some governments and some other media outputters who will never accept that the BBC conceivably can be wholly independent. On occasions I run into the foreign ministers of other countries who put it to me in terms that I should `phone the BBC' or intervene with the BBC and stop them criticising President whoever, and I say it is nonsense, and I try to say it as diplomatically as I can, of course, this is not the way we work and nor is it conceivable. As to timing, I think it is a very important issue. Personally, I would have hoped that we could have got to the position where we had an Arabic-language T.V. service rather longer ago. It would have required other changes to take place rather earlier, which is why I made the point about making changes in a timely way, anticipating events, but I am glad it is now happening. I think that what people will find is, in practice, whatever criticisms there may be and the anxieties, that in a media environment in which there is a great deal of misrepresentation of this country and of events locally, where there is often a tolerance of terrorism in broadcasting, the BBC is impartial in all of those areas, that it tells a truthful story. I make that point because, whatever the timing of the start of it, and often we do not get to pick the times exactly as we might choose, it will then take time to establish a reputation. Reputation is not established, as we know, overnight, but I would rather start now and feel that we have established a reputation over the next few years than wait until we feel there is a more propitious time. I do not know when that more propitious time will arrive.

  Q993  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: Can you explain to us how some of the grant in aid is set? Also, can you explain to us what the benefits are of the World Service for the UK taxpayer?

  Lord Triesman: Let me start with the benefits and then come on to how we fund those benefits. I think the benefits are that there is a first-class, international, high reputation broadcaster, as I have said, independent and known to be independent, even if there are squeamish people around in the rest of the world about whether it is, but where impartiality is the hallmark of what is broadcast. Also I think that, increasingly, because through digital radio you can hear broadcasts in this country, there is now a greater benefit, which could be greatly extended. I will just make the point, when I go home at night and turn on my radio the default station to which it goes is the World Service, which I find an extraordinarily valuable asset. I would like to feel that in many of the communities in, for example, the African diaspora there would be a lot more of that available to them than there is at the moment. I think it has got very, very high values outside and very high values inside the United Kingdom for taxpayers. The budget is set in an annual process. The process really goes ahead in blocks which correspond to the Comprehensive Spending Review periods so that there is some stability in overall funding but there is a review which goes ahead within that each year. For example, during the 2002 strategic decisions on spending there were decisions to increase the amount that was available by an extra £48 million, bringing it up to £239 million in this financial year, and in 2004 an extra £19 million to develop the new media services, these are web-delivered services and they deliver access in some of the ways which it is evident people are now more attracted to, or find easier to get hold of, and are very valuable assets as they are rolled out. There is a forward plan which gets adjusted as these new things come along. The consequence, just to put it in figures, for next year of the expenditure will be that there will be £246 million spent on the service next year. Part of this process involves a very thorough discussion in the annual scheme with the BBC and I have to say that the World Service comes forward with some electrifying proposals which will involve very much higher expenditure, and on occasions, valued as it is, we have to say we think that is going rather further than the taxpayer should allow.

  Q994  Chairman: Could you let us have the figures on perhaps the spending over the last 10 years, as far as the World Service is concerned?

  Lord Triesman: Certainly.

  Chairman: I think that would be quite helpful.

  Lord King of Bridgwater: I would like to raise a question about the cost of the particular funding of the Arabic service. We have just had evidence Al-Jazeera are launching an English service. They are raising, I think, $100 million to fund it. The unanimous view of the three witnesses we had before was that the funds available for launching this, which I think are £19 million, are woefully inadequate.

  Chairman: I am sorry to interrupt. We are coming later to that.

  Q995  Lord Peston: Could I still partly take us back to what Lord King started us off on a few minutes ago, about the whole enterprise here. To my knowledge, lots of Arab people believe that the BBC is strongly pro-Israel and is in the pockets of the Americans and is not to be trusted. Equally, many Jewish people believe, largely because of the history of the Foreign Office in this area, that the BBC is totally pro-Arab and traditionally so. I take the view that if the BBC has managed to offend both sides in this extreme way they must have got it exactly right, but, following what Lord King was trying, I think, to get you to say some more on, is this not a very dangerous area at this time for the BBC to decide to expand into? In other words, in terms of objectivity, in terms of what the BBC ought to be doing, is the probability of it all going wrong not so high that perhaps they ought to have stuck with the Czechs and the Slovaks, and all of that? Did you get involved in discussions exactly along those lines and do you have a view on that?

  Lord Triesman: I do have a view. The first part of that view, I agree with you, is that if everybody is disgruntled we are probably roughly on the right route. There is no question about it, whoever you talk to thinks the choices have been wrong. My view is really this, if I can elaborate very slightly on the points I made to Lord King, I believe that we should have been more attentive to the development of the Arabic-speaking world some time ago. I do not think we have missed the boat but I think we were in real danger of having missed the boat, and that is why I think it is right to do it now, and if I thought if we did not do it now would it be slightly more favourable in a year's time, I have no reason to think that in a year's time, or two years' time, it would necessarily be any easier. I think that is just the hard, political reality of it. In those circumstances, if we are to try, not by propaganda but by honest coverage, to offset some of the more extreme propositions that are broadcast, every hour of every day, in the Arab-speaking world then we ought to get on with that. Will that be of greater value than trying to broadcast in the former Soviet bloc? In my judgment, yes, not because I think the former Soviet bloc is uninteresting but because we did the fundamental job that was needed there at the time that it was needed and it had the impact that was intended, about opening the window on what the world could be like rather than the shuttered-off world in which those countries lived. That proposed change reflects, I think, modern objectives and I think it is right to do it. As I have said, sorry to repeat the point, had we done it three years ago I suspect the competition with Al-Jazeera and others might have been slightly easier; now it is quite tough but, tough or not, it is right to do it.

  Q996  Lord Kalms: I thought I would just pick up a point that Lord Peston made. The analogy between the fact that the BBC is seen often in this country as being prejudiced towards Israel, that is alright here because we are, in a sense, outside the conflict, but in the Middle East they are not outside the conflict, they are totally within the issue, and the fact is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is fundamental to all the Arab countries, they are, in effect, in total conflict with Israel. Is it possible, within those absolute dimensions, that the BBC can come in and somehow create a balance in the news that it gives? It would be a bit like saying that during the war the BBC ought to have represented Hitler's view; obviously, it could not, we had to see only the British view looking out. Now you are trying to put the BBC right in the centre of what is the major issue of the ideological battle between Palestine and Israel, and it seems to me that the BBC is going to get a bloody nose out of this. I cannot see the line it can take, it will naturally, inevitably, have to take the home side view, and that seems to me to be putting the BBC initially, or soon, at a disadvantage. Do you not see this as the great big danger of this whole concept, of moving into this area and taking a terrific reputation, which came out of every other witness, the terrific reputation of the BBC, and putting it on the line?

  Lord Triesman: I think that the BBC has put its reputation, in that sense, on the line many times. It did it throughout the cold war. It was routinely described by the regimes in Eastern Europe and by the Soviet Union as being no more than a mouthpiece for the British Government and it was attacked roundly and, in many countries when they could, blocked as a broadcaster. It is blocked to this day in China because it is simply a mouthpiece, as they would put it, of the British Government, and the Chinese take great exception to broadcasting freely. I just make that point to you, Lord Kalms, because I anticipate also that there will be a good deal of hostility on this occasion and this is a steep hill to climb, genuinely I accept that. What I think we should learn from the history of it though is that the BBC's capacity to build a reputation over a period of time finally overcomes those gradients and I think it will on this occasion as well. It will be very, very hard. As Minister for Africa, as I go round Africa, I meet politicians in Africa who say "The BBC World Service only appears to support the Opposition," and I say "What they cover is a matter for them," but, from what I have heard, that appears to me to be untrue, and I cannot follow all the languages that are used but from the ones I have heard in English that appears to me to be untrue. Gradually, over a period of time, you do find people who say, "Actually, I've got to accept there was coverage which seemed to be good and objective and reflects what you've said, what you've claimed for the BBC." It is very hard. Is it worth taking on something that hard; in my judgment, yes. Do I believe that the BBC will be able to step up to the plate and succeed despite it being that hard, yes, precisely because we have seen them do it.

  Q997  Lord Kalms: What we have heard from several of the people this morning were the words `high-risk strategy', that the BBC is now entering into an area of high-risk strategy. It seems to be a little bit that they are betting the company, one of the rules you make in business, you never bet the company on anything, you take serious, calculated decisions. In many ways we are betting the company, we are betting the BBC will come through this. If we get this wrong then our terrific reputation, which quite clearly has been established, is at risk, the words `high-risk strategy' come very much to mind. I emphasise it to you.

  Lord Triesman: The new service has got to succeed on a number of fronts. We talked about it reputationally and whether it will establish its credentials quickly enough and against pressure from others. It has also got to deal with this service financially. Broadcasting in the Arabic-speaking world has not been a secure financial project in the past, so there are big issues there. I think it is right to identify all of those issues. I do not believe it will fail because I think they will succeed in this and I think there is risk but I do not think it is an incalculable risk in that `betting the company' mode. Even if it were not to succeed on either the reputational route, and it did not achieve the right sort of coverage and penetration into the markets in the Arabic-speaking world, or indeed if it failed financially, the BBC World Service would still be there across the globe and successful across the globe, so I do not think the company goes down, in that sense. I do not want to finish on that kind of negative note because, it is very interesting to me, all sorts of other providers in the Arabic-speaking world have told me that it would be a disastrous enterprise to embark on. When a major competitor tells me something is a disastrous route, you would never open an electronics shop in the high street, would you, if you listened to the competitors.

  Chairman: I think, to be fair to our previous two witnesses, that was not quite the flavour of what they were giving to us.

  Q998  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Sorry, just to press you on this point. The fact is that television is a very different medium from radio and has the ability to be much more provocative and, as we have heard, this particular service is being aimed at the working people, not at the elite, so it is not quite the cold war analogy, where I think it was more the governments, was it not, who were objecting to what was being broadcast? Just to go back on this point, are you not concerned that the BBC World Service television channel, in an area which is rife with sensitivity, might undermine both the reputation of the World Service itself and the role it plays representing Britain.

  Lord Triesman: Just for clarity, I think that during the cold war period World Service broadcasting was aimed at all sorts of different strata. There was a very strong desire to get to the citizens of countries and open that window on what the rest of the world was like when others tried to keep it closed. In this case, it is true that the ambition is to get to what is called sometimes the Arab street; that is absolutely true, I think it is possible to do that. I think it will depend on some very astute programming that is likely to be appealing. I keep saying will sports be shown on it, but I am told that the cost of getting the rights is prohibitive. I can imagine all sorts of ways in which this can be more appealing to people if it has got the right spread, the right cultural mix, and so on. Will the Arab street start off even more sceptical than some of the Arab governments, I think there is a real chance of that. Wherever the BBC World Service has broadcast, I think over a period of time—I hate to use the words `ordinary people' because somehow it conveys entirely not what I want to convey—it has reached those audiences and has finally become embedded in those audiences because of its reputation. I do think that you make a very strong point about the difference between television broadcasting and radio broadcasting. One of the points I have made consistently to the World Service in the discussions on this project is, are you 100 per cent sure you have got the people who can do television; you have got expertise coming out of everywhere in radio but have you got that expertise in T.V. They are confident they have, they are bringing in people who do look very estimable but I am going to keep asking that question myself, because I think if anybody relaxes on the assumption that you can do television in the same way that you do radio they will fail.

  Q999  Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: We were told, I think yesterday, that £19 million had been allocated for the development of this new BBC 12-hour service and I have two questions. First of all, I wondered whether you had talked to them at all about the possibility of finding that extra £6 million so that it was turned into a 24-hour service; we gathered that was the extra premium that would have to be paid, as it were? The second point is the point that Lord King was beginning to touch on, are we sure that £19 million is going to be enough to finance this service? There was a reference to the fact that Al-Jazeera is putting something like $100 million into the provision of an English service. You are going to have to pay for a great many extra people, some of them quite expensive people, in those countries. Would the Government be amenable to the thought that in order to make this successful the funding will have to be a great deal more than either £19 million or £25 million?

  Lord Triesman: The BBC has put together what looks to be, in my judgment, a pretty robust business case. One of the things that is true about BBC World Service is that it does make use of synergies within the BBC and news-gathering, and so on, although of course it does need specialists in this area and they will be expensive. The synergies are probably a bit hard to cost in an organisation like the BBC, but nonetheless they are there and so I think that the plan looks reasonably sound. The difference with Al-Jazeera is that Al-Jazeera has decided to be a global broadcast station. It broadcasts 24 hours, it does it right throughout the world, not just in the Arabic-speaking countries. There is quite a high premium in doing that, as we know, with all of the big global broadcasters. That is a really tough business to get into, I think. That is why, in the case of the BBC World Service Arabic programming, we believe that it is right to start with the 12-hour programming and see how that looks. There is a very good, logistical reason for it. If you look at the time zones of the Arabic-speaking world, you can get, roughly speaking, 80 to 90 per cent of most of the hours that people are awake with a 12-hour service. It is a very narrow time zone band. Others may have made this point, my Lord Chairman, to you before, but it is a very significant factor. I think, in justifying a 24-hour service and any additional expenditure, whether it be £6 million or more, you would have to say, "Well, what do you really think audience penetration will be at three or four in the morning in the Arabic-speaking world with a television station?" I think that only solid research, showing that there is some serious value added by doing that, will be needed to convince people to go ahead.

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