Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1700 - 1718)


Lord Carter of Coles

  Q1700  Chairman: It also matters does it not that if the Foreign Office was to say our priority was to get better relations with China—which it might well say—would it then be legitimate for the Foreign Office to say to the BBC World Service we are having a bit of trouble with your reports out there, would you mind modifying them? Would that be legitimate or not?

  Lord Carter of Coles: I should think there would be a constitutional crisis.

  Chairman: I am glad you replied in that way. Let us go to Lord Maxton.

  Q1701  Lord Maxton: I would like to switch a little bit to the governance of the World Service within the BBC itself where there is of course the Governors' World Service and Global News Consultative Group. You are not quite critical of it in the review, but you believe it is (a) too small, do you, and (b) that it does not seem to have any input really into decision-making, it is an advisory body. Would you like to see it beefed up?

  Lord Carter of Coles: Yes, I think so. It meets twice a year as I understand it—

  Q1702  Lord Maxton: It is entirely made up of governors, is it?

  Lord Carter of Coles: No, it is not, it is actually made up of outsiders. They commission work and then review it at the second meeting, so it is infrequent and it did not seem to me to be one thing or the other in governance terms. The sense, I hope, from the report is that we would like to see that strengthened to offer more input.

  Q1703  Lord Maxton: How would you like to see it evolve? What should happen?

  Lord Carter of Coles: First of all I am not sure how transparent it is and with the coming of FOI these things are going to be accessible to people anyway and the questions it asks should be a matter of public record and available, and the whole discussion going on within the World Service about what its priorities should be. I see this body as quite important to that.

  Lord Maxton: That almost leads you into the next group which is about where the World Service goes next, but that is for someone else.

  Q1704  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: I notice in your report that you state that the Review Team questioned whether a radio service in 43 languages was still relevant. What was your personal view about this in relation to the existing services and how has the BBC World Service responded to your proposals that there should be a continuous review on a country by country basis to make the case for funding for each service, which seems to put a much bigger onus on the BBC than previously?

  Lord Carter of Coles: Starting with the fact that resources are finite, I would come from the position of how would you prioritise this. We were obviously working on the review and talking to the BBC before their announcement in October of the reduction in the number of stations. My own sense was that the money could be better deployed elsewhere; I did not have a specific view about which services should or should not be continued, I think that is for the BBC to discuss with the FCO, but I suppose you could argue that post the Cold War the shortwave service in Czech probably was not the best way to spend the money and we should spend that somewhere else. That is the constant thing for me, it is the continual reprioritisation because if we look back 20 years the BBC was broadcasting on shortwave into Eastern Europe with a very specific aim, 10 years ago we were actually in a sense in a transition with the accession countries of Eastern Europe, it was a different message, and going forward from there who knows, 10 years on. The case for broadcasting in the sense of the recipient countries has changed and, secondly, the technology has changed and we have the question of whether we put more into TV or in fact into electronic media, so we have such a dynamic situation, that is why I was making a recommendation that this thing should be continually under review by the BBC, and it is for them to do this.

  Q1705  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: Can I ask you a little bit more then about the actual continuous review. Are you thinking of every year or every five years?

  Lord Carter of Coles: Probably every two years, but looking at it I think the wave of information leads us to the question of how do you rate success of the BBC? Is it by audience numbers, is it by the segments of the people you are trying to reach, the target audience, or what? That needs to be clear and then in the case, for instance, of services to Thailand, it was clear that the service was declining rapidly, people were not listening to it, so it seemed to self-present if you wanted to reprioritise. I think the BBC will just continuously look at it in some way. It is not a matter of every week, but presumably every year as they come through their budgetary cycle they look at it and say is that a good place to spend money this year? If for three years you get declining audience numbers and it is not explicable or reversible, then probably it would lead to a question whether that should continue.

  The Committee suspended from 17.06 pm to 17.16 pm for a division in the House

  Q1706  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I wanted to follow up with a question on the decision that the BBC ultimately makes about exiting from 43 countries. I just wondered to what extent in the representations the Government must be making they dwell a little on their own inclusiveness programme because of course there are people who would be listening to the BBC in areas like Thailand, for example, only able to understand it in their own language, who would be disadvantaged. Therefore, how much weight really would be given to that?

  Lord Carter of Coles: It is very difficult to get that balance, and if you are trying to get an objective measurement of that it really comes to the point—as in the case of Thailand where it was declining so steadily—where you say if that trend is going to continue and we cannot reverse it, we should stop. It is very interesting to look at the Voice of America who actually made the same reprioritisation three years before. I do not know whether it was less consultative, but it was certainly quicker.

  Q1707  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Obviously, the lack of being able to access "independent" news or information would perhaps have greater priority for somewhere like China because there are other reasons, but nevertheless that particular aspect must have some weight, though not a huge amount.

  Lord Carter of Coles: That is where the internet becomes important because that is not country-specific. Although there is a language issue, at least actually you can get access to those services, and I suspect that is the way it might go.

  Q1708  Lord Kalms: Lord Carter, it is not entirely within the remit of your committee but I wanted to raise the issue of Arabic language television because you have made several comments and it seems to me that there is a fair amount of ambivalence about your own comments—I think you were being tentative. We have had quite a lot of discussions around this table with others who were talking about setting up the service, and one of the conclusions was that it might be substantially under-funded and there were many doubts expressed about this whole venture, including who is going to fund it and the Government saying if they wanted the money they would find it from somewhere else. I thought you might just expand a little bit on this service. How do you judge this? This is potentially a very important enterprise by the World Service and/or dangerous.

  Lord Carter of Coles: It is important and I agree it is dangerous because it is the first step into foreign language TV and therefore it is important to get it right. In terms of success, I think that actually delivering it on time to the budget they have got at the beginning is probably quite an important starting point, and the second point is to get the audiences that they are setting out to get. They have made statements about how many people they expect to see it—I cannot recollect what it is and on what basis—and they have made very clear indications that they are prepared to be measured against. The most important thing, probably, to get back to the original point, would be the integrity of how they are perceived in the Middle East. They would be the three measures but how those trust ratings come through in this difficult situation would be the most critical. On the funding point, when we looked at this of course comparative funding for other stations like Al-Jazeera, or CNN, or whatever, it means that they look better funded, but of course this is a marginal cost to the BBC, they already have news-gathering systems et cetera and those things can flow through into this which makes them well-placed to do it. My own sense is to monitor it very closely and see how it goes in the first period, and see then what sort of audiences they get and whether consideration should be given to extending it to 24 hours; 12 hours is a very good place to start, the BBC feel it is adequately funded, and they are not going to come forward with an impoverished service they are going to come forward with something which is competitive and I think it stands a very good chance. But it is a crowded space and the dominance of Al-Jazeera is obviously well-established. It does not seem as if the American Alhurra has done particularly well, but that may be for content reasons and not for any other reasons or independence reasons.

  Q1709  Bishop of Manchester: Are there any projections about potential audiences?

  Lord Carter of Coles: Yes, I think there are. They did say what they are aiming for and perhaps I could come back to you on that. I think they are aiming for 30 million people a week within five years—it is quite ambitious.

  Q1710  Chairman: You really think that the budget they have been given is an adequate budget?

  Lord Carter of Coles: Their feeling is that they were prepared to start on that and felt they could actually meet the criteria and that audience, so on that basis, yes, given that it is marginal cost. If they were having to set up a whole news-gathering organisation—

  Q1711  Chairman: But you do have to translate everything, do you not? We have already had evidence which pointed out that the cost of this is not insubstantial.

  Lord Carter of Coles: That is absolutely true, that is a cost, but I do not have any idea what that specifically would be.

  Chairman: Thank you. Lady Bonham-Carter.

  Q1712  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Picking up on that, I am not sure quite how marginal it is. Television is very different from radio, much more expensive, and also this is not just about using foreign correspondents who feed into the rest of the BBC because we are talking about providing Arabic speakers and so on, so I wonder how marginal the cost is. In your report you said that you thought the BBC World Service was very slow in moving resources out of Europe into key regions in the Middle East. How do you think that could be improved in the future—in part picking up on the Bishop of Manchester's point about identifying China? You also talk about the need for the World Service to move from radio more into television—which I agree, having come back from Morocco and seen all the satellite dishes—and that does seem to me to imply the need for a lot more resource. Where is that going to come from?

  Lord Carter of Coles: That is always the question for TV. The reprioritisation, if you look at it, Voice of America was quicker; it made a policy decision that it would stop broadcasting in the native language to Eastern Europe and the BBC's numbers are, with the sort of savings they have got out of that, around £30 million a year. Looking at it simplistically, had we stopped doing it three years ago we would have had £100 million to spend on something of greater significance, so I do think there is a need to be really quick off the mark in reprioritisation, it is a very dynamic thing and you need to keep looking at it. On the question of BBC World, the strength of the BBC brand is so powerful and with the reliance of the world if you like on TV an English language TV station is of great value. What it should be I do not think I have a clear view on, but clearly we need to be in that space. If you look at the sort of standing it is held in where it does go through, people rely on it, people do like it as a service. Whether it is good enough is a separate issue.

  Q1713  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: When you talk about further foreign language television services, you are talking about using BBC World television.

  Lord Carter of Coles: BBC World is just English and I think that will always remain English, that is the way it is organised within the BBC. For further foreign language TV stations there are various options. The Americans have looked at Urdu and Persian, they have given some thought to that, and if the BBC saw that the Arab station worked very well they would have to give consideration to extending that, but I think one step at a time probably, you prove one point and then go on from there.

  Q1714  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Going back to the answer to the first question as to how to speed up the BBC World Service's decisions about moving its resources around, I was not absolutely clear as to who you thought should be doing that.

  Lord Carter of Coles: It is the BBC that should be doing that, but they should be asked a question in terms of their accountability down the chain, what are your priorities? Are you making these decisions quickly enough? It is really just the accountability, I think they should make the decision and they should be pressed to do it speedily.

  Q1715  Lord Maxton: You yourself mentioned the internet and broadband technologies and we have considered them as well, but to some extent do not the broadband and, probably more importantly mobile, wireless technology, to some extent make all of this, introducing television services, rather irrelevant? Certainly it is in China; you can put a firewall up against any form of landline but you cannot put a firewall up against wireless technology, so they should be into China and the Chinese should be able to get it. Is that not the future and is that not the way to go, and the BBC website is where we should be looking to see how we develop?

  Lord Carter of Coles: The BBC has got this tri-media strategy which I think is right. If you look back over 20 years, the BBC has successfully migrated away from shortwave radio, but if you look at communication patterns, the growth of FM radio and drive time radio in the United States and drive time radio in developed countries, I do not think it is a market you cannot be in if you want to communicate and reach the population. That is the distinct segment which I think will remain. TV is important, particularly in developing countries where you have got media fragmentation but the way in which television is watched still lends itself to investment in TV. As the thing develops and looking forward 20 years from now, significant resources will have to be going into the internet because with broadband growth and the growth of mobile phones, how people receive information, it is there. The BBC has done a very good job on that; if you go and talk to other governments about how they perceive us as a competitor in this area, people are quite envious about what the BBC has managed to do in electronic technology.

  Q1716  Lord Maxton: The great beauty of the internet as opposed to television or radio is its ability to link, but it brings us back almost to the question where we started and the Government's ability to influence in a way the World Service, because if in fact the BBC website has a story and says you can link to 10 Downing Street and watch the Prime Minister talk about this, is that not maybe defeating the purpose of the World Service?

  Lord Carter of Coles: It is up to them to decide that, they must make that decision. If they think that is good news reporting I presume they should be allowed to do that.

  Q1717  Lord Maxton: I think that a great strength of the internet is this ability to link from one across to different things—it will give you more news, more ideas, more thoughts on different subjects, that sort of thing.

  Lord Carter of Coles: The great strength of the BBC is content. What the internet is about is content and the BBC has got historically some of if not the greatest content in the world. That is what gives us this wonderful position and the coming of the internet actually gives us a real chance to leverage that.

  Q1718  Chairman: That sounds like an extremely good point to actually bring this to an end unless any of my colleagues have further questions. Lord Carter, thank you very much for making the report available to us and thank you very much for the manner in which you answered our questions. Perhaps if we have any other points we could write to you.

  Lord Carter of Coles: Of course. Thank you, My Lord Chairman.

  Chairman: Thank you.

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