Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Effectively what you are doing is training your own competition, as it were, the people who are going to set up radio stations and broadcast in competition with you in Afghanistan?
  (Mr Byford) We do that. Sometimes members of the Committee have asked us that in the past, "Are you not therefore eating at your own impact", but we see that as part of our role. Obviously, at a time of deep civil unrest or conflict, we are providing the information source, but through our reconstruction programme we are there to help and support, if you like, those people to build their own capability.

  21. As a matter of interest, irrelevant now of course, did the Taliban not try and jam you?
  (Mr Byford) Not that I know of.

  22. Were there sanctions by the Taliban against heads of households who insisted on tuning into the World Service?
  (Mr Byford) I think it would be right to say that going round saying "I am a regular listener to the BBC" was not a thing which was well heard. I do not know of any direct evidence. I can give you a note on that from the head of the Eurasia Region, who would know that for sure, but certainly during my period I have never had anyone come to me and say that the services in Afghanistan have been jammed. We did have a correspondent thrown out of Afghanistan after our reporting of the Buddha statues being destroyed, and we are pleased she is now back in again but, to repeat, I do not know of any instance where we have been jammed.

  23. How many staff do you have in Afghanistan?
  (Mr Byford) We have in Kabul today two correspondents working, one for radio and one for television. We have a large number of staff who were working in Peshawar for the Afghan education project, who are likely to be now moving back into Kabul itself; upwards of a hundred staff working on those wider projects. We have Persian and Pashto producers now based in Afghanistan as well working for the Service.

  24. Given the clear importance that you have demonstrated you know of, that the Pashto, Arabic, Persian and Urdu expansion in the area has had a very important effect, are you confident that that funding will continue? Obviously, you had the immediate £3 million from the Foreign Office which enabled you to go in after 11 September, but it is not good enough to say, "We have done that, off we go somewhere else", you have to keep that up. Are you confident you will get it?
  (Mr Byford) I am hopeful. I would certainly agree with you 100 per cent the importance and the impact of those services are extraordinarily high. That is why they are such a key priority for our overall three year spending review as well, but obviously that comes into being from 2003, so it is absolutely critical the momentum and the impact we have already been able to generate on top of what was already a large impact in the area can be sustained in the coming year.

  Chairman: On the Taliban, I heard from your predecessor that the Taliban actually appeared on the World Service after some difficulty because they refused to speak to a woman in Bush House and eventually, when they were told they could only speak to a woman, they relented and did indeed appear on the World Service.

Sir John Stanley

  25. Mr Byford, as I have understood the position, you have made a bid for, in ball park terms, £75 million by way of increased operating funds and capital funds over the three financial years, 2003-04 to 2005-06, and you have done this to achieve the outcomes which you have set out on page 6 of your memorandum. What I am not clear about is the numerical basis we are standing at now in terms of those outcomes. For example, you say that you are in agreement with the FCO you are going to attract global World Service radio audiences of 153 million listeners per week. What is the figure today that is the equivalent of that 153 million?
  (Mr Byford) 150 million. Our record audience of 153 million was last year, the highest audience the World Service had ever had. Because of steep declining radio listening in India overall, that has had some effect on our own radio listening in India which has brought down the overall global figure. So when we submitted this document, before we received our overall global figure this year, it was standing at 153 million and we were saying as part of this plan, obviously in a world where there will be even greater competition and greater market deregulation and choice, we would aim to achieve that figure or the highest figure we could get in this current three year plan.

  26. So you are saying to us that the 75 million extra that you are bidding for does not achieve any material increase in the worldwide listenership to the World Service?
  (Mr Byford) We are saying as a minimum it will hold the position at a time of increased competition and choice, that if we are able to increase that figure as well, we will want to hold on to that increased figure over the current three year plan. But it is realistic, rather than to say, "We can go higher and higher and higher", in that world where we are seeing—and India is a good example—explosion of choice, decline in radio listening, that to hold that position would be strong. Also the actual bid for 75 million over those three years is not only about the global radio audience, it is about increasing our FM presence across the world, which is absolutely vital to hold our audience position, and in order to increase our impact and strength on line on the Internet.

  27. I understand that. Let us just take the other two numerical figures you have agreed with the Foreign Office. What is the equivalent figure to the 200 million monthly page impressions by 2006 that you have today from the global World Service on-line traffic?
  (Mr Byford) 75 million today. We had a target of achieving 50 million page impressions by the end of last year, 2001-02. At the moment it stands at 75 million page impressions. We have received an annual growth rate of 92 per cent on that last year. We are saying that by the end of the 2005-06 period, we will have increased that from the present position to 200 million.

  28. How far is that actually investment-related or just simply a reflection of increased use of existing facilities?
  (Mr Byford) Four or five years ago, we had no internet presence. The current three year plan takes us into all our radio services being available on-line and we are developing world-class sites in a number of key languages. What we are saying as part of this plan is that in the major language services that the World Service is providing, not just English but Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, these services because they have been launched cannot stand still. They must be strengthened and replenished all the time. Secondly, we want to create new interactive forums. The great thing about the internet is of course you are able to interact with it, so the more we are able to create these forums where world leaders appear, whether it is General Musharraf or Hamid Karzai as last week, through the World Service they will be generators of traffic too. So it is building the strength in our overall on-line sites, improving interactivity, as well as obviously an increase in the take-up of people connected to the internet over that period, which we believe will mean the World Service is able to generate that amount of traffic.

  29. Fine, but the actual capital investment and on-going expenditure that is required to do that must be a relatively small proportion of that 75 million you have been referring to.
  (Mr Byford) It is just under 10 million pounds, it is 9.3 million by the third year, building from in the first year 1 million. The majority of our investments is in geo-political content development, around extending our programming in South West Asia for Afghanistan and to the Middle East, for improving our content programming for Africa, a new business programme for China and East Asia in the context of China joining the World Trade Organisation. In terms of content investments that is the main bulk. We are also wanting to extend our FM presence across the world and the on-line investments, as I say, by year three will be 9.3 million pounds. So looking at the overall total of 35, one can work it out it would be about 25 per cent.[1]

  30. Can I just come to the other figure which is given in terms of your outcomes. You say you are going to achieve by 2006 FM presence across the world in at least 145 capitals, 75 per cent of the global total, what is the number of capitals as of today where you have an FM facility?
  (Mr Byford) Last year we were present in 120 capital cities. At the end of this year, we are in 129 capital cities of the world. As I say, we hope to extend that presence to more than 75 per cent and have 145 by 2006. I think I am right in saying there are 183 capitals in the world and it is harder and harder to extend that presence, or we would have done it before. So building the presence from where we are today, from 128, 129 capital cities, to 145 will be extraordinarily tough—that is a very tough target to set—but we are determined to do it, because if we build our presence in major conurbations and capital cities in the world, not only will we be able to hold our audience but, critically, to reach opinion-formers and decision-makers in those capital cities, they will expect an audibility of FM quality.

  31. It does seem to me from this exchange that a substantial proportion of the extra investment which you are seeking is really being used to protect your existing position. Basically it is defensive, and I understand that, against increasing competition. From the figures you have given, the numerical uplift and the outcomes for 2006 compared to what we are today is relatively small. I wonder if you could explain this to us further. There is clearly a substantial competition which you are now facing, where is it coming from, how threatening is it and how do you justify such a very large amount of taxpayers' money going essentially into protecting your existing market share rather than substantially enhancing it in numerical terms?
  (Mr Byford) The World Service is a global leader, that is its position today, and this strategy states that by 2006 we want to hold that position, if not build on it, as a global leader in radio and on-line in a world of truly exploding competition. Sometimes people say our competition is Voice of America, Radio France International, Deutsche Welle. They are, but they are our traditional international radio competition. Our competition is everything; it is anything where audiences across the world want a source of information and education but primarily information. All sources are, if you like, competition to us, not just those international radio broadcasters, and the World Service has to stand out for being special, distinctive, high quality, trusted, but with a depth, reliability and quality of journalism that is second-to-none. We are saying in this strategy that as the world order, if you like, dramatically moves forward, there are key areas of the world where the World Service has to extend its offer and its coverage in order to produce impact. That is why we have said in content terms we want to develop in Afghanistan and the Middle East. We have a strong news and current affairs presence in Africa but we want to develop our presence in development programmes for Africa to build audience. We want to build audience in China on the back of that daily business programme for East Asia. But it is absolutely critical as well that in terms of delivery we are able to extend our presence in FM. You said it was a defensive position, the actual challenges we face to produce these challenging targets are extremely challenging. All round the world wherever you are but chiefly in the developing world as markets deregulate, listeners have much greater choice and enjoy much stronger audibility than they have before. A World Service which stands still will decline, it will decline quite severely. These investments we have put in we think are rather modest investments but for very large impact. It is an overall 3.6 per cent real terms growth so it is a realistic bid which would retain the World Service as a world leader making fantastic impact across the world.

  32. Are you saying to us that people more and more are getting the information and sometimes the audio transmissions through the internet system and are becoming less and less inclined to turn on the radio?
  (Mr Byford) I think that will be a long, long journey. What we are seeing, even in the United Kingdom, in a world of multi-choice television and the internet is radio listening still being as high as ever. It is interesting that in the world we face, our radio listening figures remain still extraordinarily high, but we know the internet is complementary to our radio offer; it is a global medium, a simple click of a mouse means you can get audio in minimum medium wave quality sound, one can interact as we have shown over the last year, it is a really important dimension we want to develop. But our context is that we face huge competition everywhere across the world, most importantly in the developing world where, as I say, radio listener choice is much greater, and we are saying the World Service still has a major role to play in being a trusted broadcaster par excellence but it has to extend its services to perform and especially its delivery.


  33. Before we turn to on-line, Sir John and I have one or two questions on the categories of geographical outreach in terms of Europe and China. We have tried to understand the various jargon categories which the World Service has. Aspirants are those who aspire to improve their lives and for whom the World Service offers a vital link to the wider world; the cosmopolitans are highly educated decision makers and opinion formers; and the information poor are audiences who are deprived of free information for either political or economic reasons. Turning to Europe and the EU enlargement area, we note, for example, that in the last year you appear not to have achieved your targets in respect of the Czech Republic. You aim to achieve a weekly audience among aspirants in the Czech Republic of eight per cent and in the sample group you achieved merely 2.7 per cent. Is that general for the Central European countries and how do you intend therefore to increase the reach of the World Service not only to the decision makers but also to the aspirants?
  (Mr Byford) I am sorry and forgive me if it sounds like jargon. That is the last thing it is meant to do. What we are trying to do with our audience groups is not see them all as the same. It would be quite wrong for the World Service to say we are trying to reach audiences wherever they are and whoever they are and whoever we get, then fine. What we are disciplined about is segmenting the markets across the world, trying to work out which audience groups we are trying to reach, and then reaching them.

  34. What are the factors which determine whether you go for decision makers or the information poor and what is in the UK interest in respect of those?
  (Mr Byford) On the first part of the question we say that we want to attract opinion formers and decision makers—cosmopolitans—across the whole world—in the most developed areas of the world, the developing world and the least developed world. The aspirants, which are people who aspire to a global view, would come to the World Service because they want to inform themselves about the way world is moving, how it affects their own lives and they aspire to that, hence why they will connect with the World Service. As well as opinion formers and decision makers that group is a key group for us in the developing world and in the least developed world not only do we want to attract those two groups but we also want to attract the information poor as well—people who would come to the World Service for a core primary service of information. Afghanistan would be a very good example of that.

Mr Olner

  35. There are not many on-line in Afghanistan.
  (Mr Byford) No, we definitely accept that. We say that our primary source of broadcast into Afghanistan is through short wave and medium wave radio and in Persian and Pashto. In the United States, for instance, we are not saying we are trying to reach everybody. We are not stopping people listening but our target audience group there would be decision makers and opinion formers. It would be the same in Europe whereas in other areas of the world—Somalia or Afghanistan—there would be a much broader groupings of audiences that we go for.


  36. I can understand it is in the national interest to contact potential buyers in Austin or wherever. Is it in our national interest also that you reach into poor farmers in the Mid-West?
  (Mr Byford) As I said before, it is not our target audience group in the United States in the most mature broadcasting market-place in the world for us to be able to say we are providing everybody with information they would not get anywhere else. What we are really saying there, although we would not stop anyone listening, is that it is the breadth, the depth, the expertise and the calibre of our programming that will be attractive to opinion formers and decision makers. That is why one in four opinion formers and decision makers in Boston, Washington and New York overall are listening to the World Service every week, a staggering figure. That is why we segment the audience groups in that way. On the second part of the question which was—?

  37. In India there has been a decline in those who are listening to the World Service. If that decline were only in the opinion formers then one would be worried, so are you able to be more precise to show what is in our interest?
  (Mr Byford) We are. We segment our audiences as well and increasingly will do so to judge whether we are reaching the audiences that we are trying to reach. You talked about the Czech Republic. We have relaunched our programming and based much of our staff in Prague over the last two years and strengthened Czech programming with a flagship news, current affairs and analysis programme at breakfast focussed on an international agenda complemented by an English service which has seen our overall reach tripled from five per cent to 15 per cent in Prague. We have also been able to extend our FM audibility across the whole of the country. That combination of strengthening our programming and improving our audibility has seen a very substantial increase in our impact among cosmopolitans and aspirants.

Sir John Stanley

  38. On China can you tell the Committee whether it is your policy still to report on internal developments in China which would be viewed by the Chinese Government as having a political hue, issues such as what is going on in Tibet, those who are fighting for free, non-state trade unions in China, those who are fighting for freedom of religious expression, those who are seeking to engage in peaceful protest. Is it still the BBC World Service's policy to attempt to broadcast with its usually factual objectivity events that are in its view newsworthy that are taking place inside China and to broadcast that towards those who can attempt to try and listen in China?
  (Mr Byford) Without question yes.

  39. And what is your current view as to whether the Chinese authorities are having partial or near total success in jamming your broadcasts of that nature?
  (Mr Byford) Firstly to re-emphasise your own words of fair, objective reporting, that must be the framework within which the World Service is broadcasting to listeners in China. It is not a propaganda machine itself, it is there to provide accurate, trusted information, information that they may not be able to get from other sources. The Chinese authorities have in the past always denied that they jam our services, as you know, but there is still strong evidence that the Mandarin service is jammed in China, the English not so.

1   Note by witness: So looking at the overall total of 35 million pounds by year three, one can calculate it would be about 25 per cent of the total investments. Back

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