Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. Things are not totally critically costed.
  (Mr Hind) They are costed and it is done on the basis of fair values. We look at the value to Radio Four, the value to the World Service and the equations are broadly equal and we are happy with that.

Mr Rowlands

  121. I am sorry to be flippant but I cannot bear the jingle on your 1am news.
  (Mr Byford) It depends which one you are listening to. If you are listening to the World Today, which you would sometimes listen to, you may not like that jingle, but then again others do.

  122. I am a 1am listener. Let us go back to Serbia. When Milosevic turned you off, do you know what sort of audience you managed to maintain through short wave?
  (Mr Byford) No, I do not specifically know because there has not been specific audience research.

  123. Any anecdotal evidence?
  (Mr Byford) What we do know and what I am very conscious of is that our Serbian audience has been in decline because of only being on short wave. A person behind me has been leading a strategy task force on our future Balkans provision, where it is clear to us that not only do we have to look at the right content in the new regime, but also increasing audibility, as I stressed to you before; not just to hold our audience, but to build again. I cannot give you a specific, that we lost X by them pulling rebroadcasters. Most certainly it would have been more difficult to listen, but one could argue that it was even more important that the World Service was listened to during that period as well. I shall obviously bring the next research programme we do in Serbia to the Committee and you will know where we are.

  124. During the war itself do you know whether you suffered as a result of the unpopularity of the bombing and were you seen as the enemy? Did you receive any comments?
  (Mr Byford) We had some specific e-mails welcoming the objectivity and impartiality of the World Service in what was a conflict which was also involving NATO and the British Government. I remember on the first night of the bombing one direct e-mail coming from Belgrade welcoming the impartiality and impact of the World Service. For me that is obviously very cheering to read. During that period listenership to the World Service will have been higher because what people want in that period is the ability to come to us with our reputation for objectivity and impartiality and listen. It will not be everybody, but there will be more people listening.

  125. Did you receive any criticism from the British Government or from NATO about your editorials and the information you were providing?
  (Mr Byford) Personally, to me, no.

  126. Not you personally but were there no representations that you were impartial?
  (Mr Byford) There were plenty of representations to the BBC during that period as there are from any politicians, but there was nothing to me about the World Service output and I would, as you would expect, defend that resolutely. That is the absolute essence of the Service.

Dr Starkey

  127. Your impartiality would be more ensured if you had had some complaints from NATO.
  (Mr Byford) Sometimes it is argued among journalists that if you do not get complaints it is either that they are not listening themselves or that you are not important. What we would not want to have is pressure in terms of our output being determined. That is what I think Mr Rowlands is getting at. Absolutely not did we.

Mr Rowlands

  128. There was none.
  (Mr Byford) Absolutely not.

  129. So you managed to hold this balance successfully in a wartime situation in terms of both your audience, as best you could, and also the degree of impartiality and independence which is seen. Are there any other occasions in the last two or three years where you have been cut off as dramatically as Milosevic cut you off?
  (Mr Byford) In terms of FM or medium wave we have had an issue with the Uzbek service.
  (Mr Hind) In the Congo 18 months or so ago we were taken off FM overnight.

  130. What prompted that? A broadcast you did about the situation?
  (Mr Hind) No, just the civil instability in Kinshasa, riots.

  131. That was a physical thing, that was not a conscious decision by Kabila.
  (Mr Hind) No.
  (Mr Byford) I can think of none off hand where we have. There is one thing I would say to the Committee which is very, very important and rightly emphasised by yourself. No FM rebroadcasting deal is worth compromising our values, ever, ever. Through Mr Hind, Mr Chapman my deputy, who police each and every rebroadcasting deal very, very carefully, we go into that with our eyes clearly open. If it meant that we should have in any way to compromise editorial output, we should come off it and remain on short wave because the values of the Service are more valuable than any delivery mechanism.

  132. Even in the case of a really big audience like China?
  (Mr Byford) Absolutely. I have said to all my staff and I say it to myself that the values of the World Service are non-negotiable. Accuracy, impartiality, objectivity, trust is what makes or breaks this Service. If anyone ever said we had increased our audience by half a million but lost the very things we stood for, I think we would be finished.

Sir John Stanley

  133. That is a very good lead-in to a very broad policy issue I want to raise with you which is the contribution of the World Service to international media freedom. As you have said, the foundation of the World Service's repute round the world, which certainly in our Committee's view in successive reports is a greater repute than any other radio broadcasting organisation, is grounded on your reputation for accuracy and objectivity and total freedom from any political slant. Around the world sadly there are very considerable numbers of very brave people in the journalistic and media profession who are on the line in terms of their physical security, even life as was shown during the Kosovo campaign and certainly those risking major jail sentences for trying to reflect the sort of values which you take as the basis for your own organisation. As an organisation, do you think that your contribution to media freedom round the world is sufficient just simply by you being there? Do you regard that as a sufficient discharge of your responsibilities or do you have within your policy any sort of role which you are seeking to play as a massively influential organisation in the worldwide campaign to try to establish media freedom worldwide? Is that part of your agenda or not? Do you contribute to the various international media and journalistic organisations who campaign, for example, for media freedom?
  (Mr Byford) It is a very good question. Firstly, the World Service itself, and what I mean by that is our radio output and our internet coverage, has to be careful not to be a campaigning organisation. We have to be careful in that because the very act of impartiality means being careful about campaigning about whatever. Obviously openness, freedom, lack of freedom in terms of press, is something which is of value for the World Service so my first answer is that by the very act of the World Service and its esteem one hopes we are contributing to that openness. There is no question about that. That is the impact of the World Service in many of these suppressed areas. The World Service Trust, which is a complementary trust foundation for the World Service, does do other work outside of straight content in terms of journalistic values, journalistic debate, whether it is in Nigeria, whether it is in central Africa, whether it is in the Balkans. Through the Trust and our journalism training programmes we hold workshops, seminars, training programmes, which do discuss openness, democratic society, civil societies, election coverage, all those things which are done outside of the output itself, but using the esteem of the World Service brand and our knowledge and expertise through the Trust to then enable areas around the world and fellow journalists, not to be taught by us, but to discuss with us and understand our experiences, our values, our ethics.

  134. Coming back to this issue of media freedom and your own staff, you were asked earlier about the instances where you had actually been shut down for political reasons. You said these are very small in number.
  (Mr Byford) On FM.

  135. To get a fully balanced picture, is it not the case that there is a significant number of countries round the world where BBC World Service correspondents cannot get access? For example, try to tell us how much access you get in a place like Iraq. In the countries where you do have correspondents, can you tell the Committee how commonplace it is that your staff get threatened, pressurised, told that if they go down particular routes, they will not be able to get government consent or government passes to travel to different parts of the country? There are all sorts of ways in which you can apply pressures and sanctions against individual journalists who are trying to do their job in a particular country. What are the countries where you find those sorts of devices of negotiation combined with threat against your individual correspondents to try to pressurise them to avoid particular areas which the government in question would rather not have exposed?
  (Mr Byford) On the specific of Iraq, we do broadcast from Baghdad with our own reporters at times. We obviously have to get visa access in as well, but it is not an area we have never broadcast from in the last two years. Indeed we did some recent coverage from Baghdad itself on the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War. Some of our journalists are put under pressure by the environments they work in, not just in their ability to have access across a place, but also pressure in telling their stories. They themselves have as much commitment, if not probably more, in the face of the field than our goodselves in that commitment never to compromise their own journalistic standards. On specific countries where there has been direct pressure in the last year, I cannot give a case example to be honest but I can certainly let you know, in liaison with my own newsgathering teams, whether there are specifics where things have been compromised in terms of journey, access to the country.

  136. Do you have occasion where you have journalists who are nationals of the particular country, resident in their own country, who get intimidatory threats which may be directed against members of their family in consequence of what they themselves may have reported?
  (Mr Byford) Yes. We had a circumstance which I am still having discussions about which indeed involved a death in Sri Lanka of one of our stringer reporters after his house had been attacked. They are the kind of pressures that some of our people are put under. Obviously our own teams and our regional heads are accessible for advice when that happens to people in the field.

  137. When you get these blatant pressures to try to intimidate members of your own staff or threaten them or possibly even commit acts of violence against them, is that an issue which you as an organisation try to deal with directly with the government in question or do you involve the British Government? Is that a plus or a minus to involve your host government? I can see you could argue it both ways, but I should be interested to know what your policy is. If it is to involve the British Government, how satisfied are you with the degree of support you get from HMG in post when you are trying to seek their help in supporting your journalists who may be coming under harassment, threat or worse?
  (Mr Byford) You are right to bring out the challenge and dilemma. If one of your key values is independence and impartiality, then you have to be careful about utilising the British Government to get your voice heard. On the other hand, if one of our correspondents—"if" is the key word—is under deep pressure or has been attacked and the British Ambassador does not even know, I would say that there is a point of information alone, he or she should know about it. The first premise would be that the BBC World Service and the BBC itself would be communicating with that government first hand about what it was facing.

  138. It would be very helpful if we could take up Mr Byford's offer to provide a further paper to the Committee with some actual details of the way in which their own staff may have come under pressure or threat, perhaps coupling with that the obvious point that if there are specific points that they would not wish to have published in the interests of protecting the individuals concerned and they indicated that I think the Committee would understand that absolutely.
  (Mr Byford) If you do not mind me saying, I am pleased Sir John has made the latter point as well, because that obviously is a factor in being able to be fully open.

Mr Mackinlay

  139. Flowing from that, and it relates to an earlier inquiry we undertook and questions put down at the time, I understand there was a correspondent—and I understand a correspondent is not an employee but somebody who is an agency member of staff, I assume ...
  (Mr Byford) It depends who it is.

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