Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1000
WEDNESDAY 30 NOVEMBER 2005
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
Q1003 Lord King of Bridgwater:
Tell us, because you have not told us this, which hours are the
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:
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
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.
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 itand
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 notwe 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
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.
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.