Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1000 - 1019)

WEDNESDAY 30 NOVEMBER 2005

Lord Triesman

  Q1000  Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: I can only comment that the Arabs in my part of London, which is near Bayswater, seem to stay up all night already. Could I ask, and you may not want to answer this question, whether the BBC actually asked for more than £19 million to do this job?

  Lord Triesman: They wanted a 24-hour service; they have that ambition. I must say, to their credit, when we talked about what may or may not be the pros and cons, and there was an open discussion of that, not a sense of giving them a direction but an open discussion of it, they came back with a business plan which, as you know, dealt with various of the language groups and how they were going to generate resources inside the BBC, which indicated that, whatever their long-term aspiration, their recommended position at the moment is the 12-hour and we agreed that was the right way to go. Incidentally, I ought to make this point, and I do not mean to go on too long about it, there are two features of this, and I do think there are two and they are distinct. The first is, of course, that there needs to be proper balancing finance in order to make this thing work, but secondly that it was worth doing in its own right, that as we analysed it out it was the right thing to do.

  Chairman: Obviously, things have changed in Government. I have never heard of public spending negotiations being called an open discussion, up to now, in my experience. The Treasury at the end decides pretty firmly which way it is going to be, but we will leave that to one side.

  Q1001  Lord King of Bridgwater: You said at the start this has got to be well done and it is one of the criteria for the BBC in doing it. With the increased competition there is going to be, it could well be that the BBC find it is rather harder to recruit competent, Arabic-speaking journalists if there is competition for them and that they cannot do it as well as they hoped within the budget that you have agreed. Have you got any ability to ensure that it is properly launched if they hit trouble? Will the alternative be to postpone it, or will the alternative be to give them more assistance?

  Lord Triesman: I suppose I have not reached towards an alternative, Lord King, principally because, when the BBC have discussed the detail of this, one of the things they have felt very confident about was the quality of Arabic-speaking journalists, who of course principally will come from those countries, they have been really rather confident of that. I think it may well be that the burgeoning of the Arabic-speaking media has generated a very considerable number of competent journalists.

  Q1002  Lord King of Bridgwater: What, currently unemployed?

  Lord Triesman: Currently attractable to the BBC Arabic service. I must say that one thing which has to be said about the World Service is that, its world prestige, as such, there is a real desire, particularly among younger journalists who are very ambitious and of very high quality, a real ambition to work for the BBC, it is one of the great prestige steps on anybody's CV.

  Q1003  Lord King of Bridgwater: Tell us, because you have not told us this, which hours are the 12 hours?

  Lord Triesman: I have not got those hours in front of me. Do you mean the British ones?

  Q1004  Lord King of Bridgwater: You know that it covers 80 per cent of the listening time, so somebody must know the answer?

  Lord Triesman: Indeed, and I will make sure, my Lord Chairman, that we provide that. I think it runs from something like six hours before GMT to six after.

  Q1005  Lord King of Bridgwater: Continuous hours?

  Lord Triesman: Yes.

  Q1006  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Mine is a very quick bit of future-gazing. There is clearly a disparity between views about how much this is going to cost to be really successful, but leave that to one side. In its early days, if it is up and going, it is going brilliantly and everybody is absolutely delighted with it on all fronts but it is costing more, what then?

  Lord Triesman: That is a very tough question and I guess there would be a pretty tough negotiation and the Treasury—

  Q1007  Chairman: Another open discussion.

  Lord Triesman: The Treasury would engage in that open discussion, I think that is right. One of the things which I hope the BBC itself will continue to do, and arguably could have done a little earlier if they were realistic about it, is continue to review its output and ensure that it is using the resources that it has as effectively as it should. I am not, in that, hinting at other language closures, the plan we have got needs to bed down and we have got to be confident that it is working but, rather than encourage anybody's thinking, including the BBC, that the first recourse will be to go back and knock on the Chancellor's door, I think there is a key recourse, which is to make sure that, as they were, I believe, they are using all the resources they can, we have in that a sum just under £250 million next year, that they are using every penny of that wisely.

  Q1008  Lord Maxton: To ask you a question on these costs, the BBC of course already employ presumably a fairly large number of Arabic-speaking journalists on their radio stations; certainly in BBC Scotland the journalists move between radio and television. When you looked at the costs of this, was that taken into account, that presumably some of these journalists would either move over or would be employed doing both parts of the service?

  Lord Triesman: That was really my point in saying that there are synergies across the BBC and within the World Service. It is absolutely true, there are a significant number of Arabic-speaking journalists already in the BBC. I cannot say, I am not a broadcaster, I have never been asked to put together a programming system of that kind, whether all of those people are sufficiently telegenic, or whatever it takes, and they will have to make those kinds of professional judgments. They do start with a very, very good base resource and it is one which is a very flexible resource, that is quite true.

  Q1009  Lord Maxton: Which, of course, an organisation like Al-Jazeera did not have and will not have, that sort of double pallium, if you like, in terms of journalists?

  Lord Triesman: Interestingly, I think I am right in saying that it was BBC journalists, in a former attempt to get an Arabic-speaking service, who were largely the people recruited to be the journalists for Al-Jazeera, so I think Al-Jazeera benefited greatly from the BBC.

  Q1010  Chairman: I think we have heard that. Can I just sum up, before bringing in Lord Holme. I think one of the concerns is, and you expressed it yourself, that we were behind going into the Arabic service. The BBC is now going to have the authority and finance to introduce a 12-hour service, not a 24-hour service. You may feel that basically this is too little, too late?

  Lord Triesman: I do not think it is too little. As I have said, I think that is a proposition which will get tested in practice. My strong sense at the moment, having analysed the data that we had, is that the BBC were right finally to pitch at the 12 hours and the period that the Foreign Secretary was prepared to sign off. Is it too late, well, I think not. As I have said, I think that it would have been advantageous to have started this earlier. I think it has still got every prospect of working and I would not be an advocate if really I did not think that, because I have got no desire to see public money spent fruitlessly. I think it could work but I believe it will.

  Q1011  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: I think one of the very sad things about this development is the fact that, in scraping together the pot of money to do it—and I share the scepticism of some other members of the Committee about whether in the end it will be enough, because this I think is a high-risk enterprise, and the characteristic of high-risk enterprise is, in business, as Lord Kalms reminded us, not just they go wrong but they always end up costing more than you think they will, whether that is the case or not—we see the closure of some services which really have been extremely important in these countries. I happen to know the Czech situation very well and I think this will be a very great blow and I know that a number of leading Czechs already are very sad and worried that the Czech Service will be discontinued. I have to say, for some of the countries, I think it is a bit complacent to assume everything is fine now and the very need that existed originally has disappeared. I think there are real issues in a number of these countries about the nature of the democracy, the nature of civil society, the understanding of the sorts of values which the BBC represents, and those are very much valued by those who care about those issues, so it is a sad development I think. My concern would be that has been done in the worst possible way, "Oh, gosh, we've got to find the money somewhere so why don't we close down some services and that will pay for it," rather than being led by the real demands and the real needs of those countries for the sort of service that the BBC World Service offers. I would be really most grateful for your opinion, because when the BBC World Service made this review how far were people with sharp pencils in Government sitting over their shoulders saying, "Oh, you can cut that one"?

  Lord Triesman: I suppose I have started from some rather different working assumptions, but let me explore them briefly with you. I think that probably there was a convincing argument for a number of years before the BBC did this review to discontinue some of the services. A number of the countries are countries which have joined the European Union recently, they are now well-established, solid democracies, a number of them are in our military alliance, in NATO as well, they are not thought to be at risk in a general sense and one of the characteristics of not being at risk is that they have flourishing media. I know at first hand, and I have seen it with a number of parliamentarians in our own House but also, of course, in the House of Commons, that it is very easy to publish articles with strongly-held opinions on almost any subject and the Czech media is as good an example of that as you could get, it is very open media now in which you can fight out ideas without restraint. I do not think that necessarily we will be adding in some of those countries a great deal of value, and the indications that the BBC took as evidence that we were not adding that much value were that the levels of penetration that they were then achieving were falling to very low levels indeed. In many cases, people were picking up BBC broadcasts in English, in any case, because, fortunately, many people in continental Europe make much more of an effort to learn our language than we make to learn theirs.

  Q1012  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: That is probably true of the under-30s but not yet true universally in those societies?

  Lord Triesman: No, not universally true, but I think that, nonetheless, when we get to these very low levels of penetration and these very changed media profiles in countries there is a different picture. It was perhaps the same decision that is coming round again that was taken about Germany and France in the past. I think it is a pity, in a way, because, of course, there was some very high-quality work and it was done by some very exceptional people, and everyone will feel regret at that, but I think that the regret could be nostalgia now rather than the realities of the contemporary position. I do think it was the right review with the right outcome and it was not to get the money. That review, I think, would have had to take place to enlarge the new media, just to do the work that was necessary to get these new forms of communication with people going, they would have had to think about whether they were using all the money wisely. In the development of new media, I think that is an area where the BBC did grasp the nettle actually, and pretty early, and they have been doing rather well.

  Q1013  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: Would the BBC, with or without your advice, have discontinued those programmes had it not been necessary to find the money for this new Arabic service?

  Lord Triesman: I really do believe they would, yes. I think they would have held the reviews that they intended to hold and I think they would have come to the same conclusion.

  Q1014  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: The worry is, if the gloomy among us are right and the new Arabic service will end up costing significantly more than the present estimates, for competitive and other reasons, for establishing itself, will we see another tranche of countries brought into the column of "Oh, well, compared with the burning need of having an Arabic service, we can close those down as well"?

  Lord Triesman: In discussions with the BBC they have said that they want the new pattern to bed in. I have said, on behalf of the Foreign Office in those meetings, that I think it is very important that we do not simply go through one change after another without everybody being able to make what we have moved to work. That is the approach we are taking, in partnership with the BBC. I think that if the Arabic-speaking service turns out to be very different we are going to have to think about the whole thing. I do adhere to the point that it must be right for the BBC always to think about whether they can do other things and more efficiently, that would be true in any organisation. I could not say of any organisation they should not do that. I think if there are other big questions, well, they will have to be addressed, and the Comprehensive Spending Round is coming up and some of those polite discussions no doubt will take place.

  Q1015  Lord Peston: Just as a preliminary, of course I agree entirely, since the individual taxpayer has to use their budget wisely then it follows that public sector institutions should be subject to exactly the same rules. That is not a problem, as I see it, quite the contrary. I should think that the more they are told they can do this and cannot do that really the more efficient these public institutions would be. The fact still remains that one other aspect of this matter is that Britain is a country which has to survive in a very tough, global economic world. As I look at the list of the countries that are before us, several of them, I bet, very definitely, the Czechs, without a shadow of a doubt, are going to be very successful economies in the European Union and I am pretty sure that the Slovaks, the Poles and the Hungarians are also very important markets, where we will be competing like mad, where it is vital that we succeed. My only worry then is has that kind of consideration really had the weight put behind it that it ought to have had? Really it is not for you at the Foreign Office to tell the BBC "You must not give up the Czechs," but it just needs airing, do you agree, that one has to think often of these wider issues where, to go back to your point, the image of our country will also help to sell our goods and services?

  Lord Triesman: I have felt right from the start of my involvement in the exercise that the FCO did need to be clear about what it thought were strategic priorities. This is not to compel people but so that they understand our thinking that public diplomacy delivers the best possible results. You are absolutely right about the economies of some of these European countries, it is also true about some of the big economies in Latin America, and I think that the response to that has been quite a wise one. Firstly, we do anticipate being able to access through English language and that will have a continuing impact. Secondly, there are a lot of broadcast outlets which we have an involvement with, which are not BBC World Service but which we use, and we try to make sure that in view of, for example, economic work together, business opportunities are good, those are all there. Of course, the new media that I referred to a while ago are still going out as very important parts of that and in the business community, of course, that sort of worldwide web networking is tremendously important. All of that is still there. I would doubt that, if one looks at some of the levels of penetration, even in quite dynamic economies, let me choose Poland, 1.82 per cent of the available market, I doubt we were having the impact that, of course, you are quite right, we should want, and so, of course, we have got to find other means. There would not be any point in saying, "Well, we're not going to do that involvement and we're not going to do anything else;" we have got to find other means.

  Q1016  Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: This is a change of subject. In our first Report we recommended that the BBC as a whole should be subject to a regular set of `value for money' reviews by the National Audit Office. That is something that the Government and the BBC have always resisted, for fear, they say, of compromising the independence of the BBC. Of course, the BBC World Service is already subject to such reviews. There seems to be a difference between licence fee-payers' money and taxpayers' money in this respect. I wonder if there are any fears that the National Audit Office's work with the BBC World Service risks compromising the independence of the World Service, of the BBC?

  Lord Triesman: You are absolutely right, that the World Service does have, in the six agreed key principles, a requirement to go through an exercise on monitoring and I do not think that any monitoring, whether it is NAO monitoring, and I do not want to guess at what will be in Lord Carter's Report, if there is any notion of there being a general and heightened level of accountability for public money across the public diplomacy partners, I do not think any of those should compromise the independence of the BBC. What I do think the public are entitled to insist upon, that parliamentarians insist upon, is that if people say they are going to do particular things, that is their direction of travel and these are the milestones, they are entitled to insist that they know whether they are going along that direction of travel and whether they are passing the milestones. I think that is the least that the public should expect us to do. I think that we must do that, we must do it in a way which keeps at the forefront of what we are saying, "This is where we're going, we're not telling you what you should do in content, at any stage, in doing it." Those are the distinctions we maintain as our guiding principles.

  Q1017  Chairman: Does the National Audit Office, in its inquiries, in any way compromise the neutrality of the BBC World Service?

  Lord Triesman: No, I do not think any of these performance-measuring systems compromise that. I truly do not believe that they do and we must ensure that they do not.

  Q1018  Chairman: You do not think therefore there is some sort of conflict between the view on the BBC World Service as far as the National Audit Office is concerned and the view on the BBC generally?

  Lord Triesman: No, I do not, personally. We live in an environment, and I think it is good that we do, where people say, reasonably enough, "What is it you say you intend to do?" and then later say "Are you doing it?" I think that is a perfectly fair question to ask of us, as parliamentarians, or anything. The FCO has to be asked that. I do not think any of us are immune from it. I do not believe that the BBC could point realistically to a single occasion when such a question has compromised their editorial independence.

  Q1019  Lord Maxton: Could I bring together perhaps two things you have said, one about the growth of the number of people who speak our language, or maybe it is the American language rather than ours, across not just Europe but the world, and of course the new media. Is not the sense that the World Service is not yet irrelevant but that it is being replaced for many people around the world by the BBC website, which gives, of course, a much bigger and broader view of the world than just the BBC's World Service can give and it gives an impression of Britain which is open, democratic, liberal and has a whole variety of different things going on?

  Lord Triesman: I think the BBC's websites, of which, of course, there are quite a number, some of them highly specialist and many of them very intriguing, convey exactly the impression, Lord Maxton, that you describe and they have the added benefit that a number of them are interactive, you can get a discourse through them in a way you simply cannot by broadcasting outward. I think there are real advantages in all of that. It is also true that on the World Service, and at rather better broadcast quality than often you can get through the net, there is a huge range of cultural materials, of things which are deeply interesting and which rely on the specifics of the language that is used and of the music that is played, and so on. I use this just as an example. I listened to the World Service's material on the development of the jazz of Portuguese countries in Africa, maybe it is something that I am particularly keen on, but I could not imagine either anybody else doing it or it being done if you could not do it with a strong Portuguese element within it. I felt that it just demonstrated how a degree of specialisation mixed with a degree of real respect for the development of music, in this case, in a culture was again a great hallmark of a great broadcaster.


 
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