Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 61)



  40. Comprehensively?
  (Mr Byford) Yes.

  41. So it is a 100 per cent blackout?
  (Mr Byford) I do not think that would be accurate. Again I will give you an absolutely precise brief on that from the head of the Chinese service and our own technical staff, but it is absolutely clear that the Mandarin service itself is still subject to jamming which is more than just periodic. I am not sure if it is absolutely all the time but the English service is not jammed. It is also difficult to access our web sites in China from within China.

  42. If you can give us a further note as to the degree of success from their own standpoint that the Chinese Government are or are not achieving in jamming both your Mandarin service and the web sites, we would be glad to receive it. Obviously if there is any information in that that you wish the Committee to treat as confidential you are able to make appropriate arrangements to do that.
  (Mr Byford) I appreciate that, Sir John. What I would say again is that we are determined to produce our material and to try and get it to as many listeners in China as possible. We accept that we have challenges within that framework but we are determined to do so.

  Sir John Stanley: I am delighted to hear it.

Mr Olner

  43. Your service is seeking extra operating funds of £16.9 million over the spending review period to fund on line investment. Do you think this on line development is targeting cosmopolitans at the expense of the aspirants and the information poor?
  (Mr Byford) No I do not. If you look at the World Service four or five years ago the Internet was at its birth for us as a broadcasting medium and the World Service quickly recognised that it was going to be an important complement but never a replacement to the radio. It is interesting that even two years ago we were spending less than one per cent of our overall funding on the Internet. By the end of this period in 2006 we will still be spending less than ten per cent of our overall budget on the internet. I think it is around nine per cent by the end of the third year.

  44. What is the total BBC budget?
  (Mr Byford) The total of our own?

  45. No, the total BBC budget. It appears to me that you are doing a little bit of duplicating with other BBC services.
  (Mr Byford) We are definitely not doing that because our investments go into language services which I have indicated to you today enable all 43 of our audio services available on line, creating world-class web sites in Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese Hindi and Urdu. Those services are not funded at all by the licence fee. Where there could be some duplication in the English offer there is absolutely clear delineation between the BBC domestically and ourselves in that we are funding international news and information, which is our goal. For us the Internet is something that we want to complement radio. This strategy is not saying this is the really important thing, let us forget radio, far, far from it. Much of the investments you can see here today are about strengthening our radio impact and presence. I hope you would agree that the internet has been a very important dimension for us. We are now voted the best Arabic news site in the world. If we had not established an Arabic news site, CNN only recently establishing one, you would rightly say why have we not got into this important medium to complement radio. We are doing it seriously but still recognising that the vast majority of our money will be going into radio.

  46. Can you give us one example of how on line developments have targeted aspirants and the information poor?
  (Mr Byford) I do not think we are necessarily today targeting the information poor with our Internet offer. We recognise that today in 2002, there are nearly 500 million people connected to the net. Over the next three to four years that will reach well over a billion and those people will be in the cosmopolitan and aspirant groups. The vast majority of people connected to the net today are in the most developed areas of the world but, to go to the Chairman's point of reaching opinion formers and decision makers, people are using the net wherever they are in the world. One of the things that I remember in the context of 11 September (and I think I am right in saying that Mr Hind was there with the head of our Africa and Middle East Service) in Kinshasa that week we saw Joseph Kabila was using the BBC World Service web site to find the very latest news. To say our primary source of reaching people is the internet in that area would be completely wrong, but there will be certain groups such as opinion formers and decision makers across the whole world now that are using the internet site and increasingly so.

Mr Hamilton

  47. Do you not think there is a danger that when you have an on-line forum on the Internet on your web site that you are just encouraging people to share their prejudices?
  (Mr Byford) There is a danger of that. I will come in with Mr Chapman who runs the new media services for the World Service and in fact established the BBC's overall on-line service, so he is hugely experienced in this. We try to ensure in a context of openness and freedom that people are allowed to have their say, but at the end of the day we have got to also have proper editorial supervision. The greater strength is that people are able through the World Service on the Internet to engage in these discussions and debates about key global issues and themes through a forum on the World Service that they would not be able to do anywhere else. If we are able to have Hamid Karzai, King Abdullah of Jordan, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki through the World Service not just talking to the people of South Africa or Afghanistan but the whole world, who are able to answer them in an open discussion and debate, and for those debates to then be a permanent record of source material for you, me and for listeners and users across the world, I think that is marvellous.
  (Mr Chapman) We have to take considerable care in moderating contributions that people make to our on-line sites.

  48. That implies that you do not put every contribution on to the site?
  (Mr Chapman) That is correct. There has to be some selectivity here. You can end up libelling somebody. We are publishing the whole way round the world. You could easily libel somebody if you let everybody put up what they wanted by making some completely inappropriate comment or some religious prejudice which would be inflammatory and illegal in some countries. Great care has to be taken. The other point I would say is we are in the infancy and on the early learning slopes in terms of the whole business of world fora. On your point about combatting prejudice and misunderstanding, one of the main thrusts of this CSR set of proposals is to increase those world fora so we can have contributions from experts and academics in, effectively an on-air, on-line "think tank" which will then help people understand better these complicated issues. It is more than people posting their comments. It is helping them to understand the context of some very complicated issues. That is the thrust of a lot of the on-line proposals.

  49. Are you not going to get a lot of disagreements if somebody who is not an expert but simply has a view, albeit it may be a prejudiced view, puts that view down, and it is not libellous—although how you determine the laws of libel around the world when they are so different I do not know, but they try time and time again to put their view to you and it is ignored because they are not particularly expert or leading in public opinion?
  (Mr Byford) Provided they express their view in a moderate way and take account of the sensitivities of the audiences as a whole who are going to be using it then we are quite happy to publish it. We do stress a diversity of views. If you look down our web operation in any of the talking points we have been discussing with Karzai or King Abdullah of Jordan you get an amazing collection of opinions coming from all round the world, booth geographically and in the range of opinion, and what it has enabled us to do is to create a forum where diversity of views can be expressed and a greater community established to complement traditional radio broadcasts which tend to go to particular parts of the world in a linear way. The net can embrace communities whether they are the Arabic speakers in America or Saudi and create a new forum, a new community, which I believe increases world understanding.
  (Mr Byford) As Mr Chapman says, it is in the context of openness and range of opinion which are key values to the World Service. We would be hoping that that will be promoted through these very fora.

Mr Illsley

  50. Gentlemen, my apologies for my late arrival. One or two of the points I am going to ask you might have been touched on already. Coming back to the overall funding situation, the bid for the comprehensive spending review amounts to something like a 40 per cent increase. How confident are you of achieving that, bearing in mind that under the last CSR review the Government provided only two-thirds of the requested operating budget?
  (Mr Byford) The overall framework of this bid is for a 3.6 per cent real terms growth, so it is in a similar framework to the submission that we put in the last spending review period. I think we recognise that this spending review will be tough. It is a spending review period that will be dominated and prioritised around some of the key domestic spending plans, around health, education and crime, particularly health obviously, but we are arguing that for very modest investment overall in terms of government spend the World Service can continue to be a global leader for Britain. It can create a huge impact around the world in terms of the service that it provides and that with these developments, particularly the geo-political delivery enhancements, in FM expansion, and our on-line developments (which in reply to Mr Olner I am saying in the context overall are modest but vital for us) I would be hopeful that these bids can be looked at extremely favourably by government.

  51. The Arabic service is of huge importance. I understand that extra funding has been made available to a certain extent for the Persian and Pashto services. Has that been consolidated into the bid under the CSR to continue that increased level of funding of Arabic services? How important is it as part of your overall CSR bid?
  (Mr Byford) Mr Hamilton did ask about this as well. If I may repeat, we did receive some funding last year to enable us to move with agility in extending the services in Arabic but also Persian, Pashto and Urdu. This Spending Review bid starts in 2003-04 and the central part of that development programme for South West Asia and the Arab world is to maintain those programme extensions and build on them with greater depth of discussion and debate, maintain the extended programmes that we have already produced and then in the current year that we are in now it is important obviously in that context that these programme services are maintained. Moreover, it does come in a context where the Americans are investing strongly in extending their services to the Arab world and to Afghanistan, so for the World Service to stand still or to stop these services would be something that we do not want to contemplate at all.

  52. If there is a shortfall in the money available in the grant how are you likely to prioritise and is that a priority that would be continued anyway or is there a threat to it if the funding does not meet your targets?
  (Mr Byford) We would pause and think. If we did not receive the whole of this bid that we have made today for the three year plan, we would firstly see what the actual outcome was and then from that work on what our top priorities would be. If you said today which are the things from here that are likely to drop off, I am not going to answer because I do not know. What is clear is that the geo-political priorities for South West Asia and the Arab world—I am sure we all agree—are absolutely vital for the World Service. These are not "nice to haves", they are absolutely crucial for us to maintain, as are the enhancements to Africa.

  53. There is European Union enlargement of course.
  (Mr Byford) Everybody would say that. That is why we would say we have made a sensible and well-focused development bid. They are all important for the moment but what is absolutely critical is that over this period now and during three years we are able to extend the services as we have set out.

  54. Is there any possibility of any further efficiency savings?
  (Mr Byford) That is absolutely built into this plan. We have never said, if you do not mind me being straight, "please just give us the money and we will invest and bring impact". We say by investing we can create greater impact for the World Service but at the same time we will continue our efficiency savings programme. For the last five years we have produced, as you know, a 15 per cent efficiency saving. 90 per of our overall budget is now spent on content. Even in the context where we think we are a very efficient organisation, we will continue with efficiencies during this period in order to help, together with the investments we hope we will win, fund the overall plan.

  55. Do you think you are competing with the British Council for the same pot of funds?
  (Mr Byford) Competing is the wrong word. The British Council and the World Service through the Foreign Office are obviously putting in bids to government in the hope that they will realise that both organisations are worthy of investment so there is not a sense of us both in competition with each other. There is a sense, I am sure you would agree, that all government departments and the whole of government is trying to win money in order to invest for the future. What I would say is I am responsible for the World Service, that is what I am looking at, and we are confident that it is a very strong bid.

Mr Hamilton

  56. Mr Byford, can I move on briefly to the employment practices within the World Service. Some have accused the World Service, as many other British institutions, of institutional racism and sexism. Have you carried out recently a quality audit and what measures do you take to review working practices to ensure that you do not disadvantage any particular sections of your staff and society generally? How many members of the board of management are from ethnic minority backgrounds and how many heads of language services? I am clearly not asking about individual cases.
  (Mr Byford) Diversity is obviously a core value of the World Service but it also in practice is an essential part of the organisation itself. We believe in promoting people on merit obviously but a diverse organisation within the World Service is a strong organisation for the World Service and accusations of institutional racism or colonialism is a World Service that I simply do not recognise.

  57. So institutional racism does not happen?
  (Mr Byford) I do not believe so. As the leader of the organisation I believe we are an organisation that, yes, believes in promoting people on merit but also recognises that a diverse World Service is a strong one. In terms of language services I have been the Director of the World Service for less than four years, so I stand to be corrected on what I am saying now and I will give you a more detailed brief, but I think I am right in saying that ten years ago the vast majority of the language services were run by UK British citizens. Now out of 43 language services, including English, more than 30 are run by non-British people. On the management board of the World Service there is work to be done. I have made it clear to all our staff that a goal of my own in the leadership of the World Service is that on the back of that momentum of language services themselves being led by a much more diverse community than before that we can also now make the overall World Service management board, where I think I am right in saying two members of the group presently are within the categories that you had asked, an even more diverse group than it is today.

  58. Can we not forget that of course we can have people from minority communities but are British.
  (Mr Byford) Of course.

  59. I would not want to suggest for one minute that we have to employ people who are, for example, of Persian origin or Persian nationality simply to ensure that we have got the diversity. We have got the diversity within the United Kingdom.
  (Mr Byford) Absolutely. Within the specific categories the BBC uses and recognises in order to declare its performance, around 35 per cent of the staff are from ethnic minorities. It is a much smaller percentage of the World Service management board, but there has been huge momentum and development in the leadership and running of the language services themselves, which I am determined will over time then lead to a greater presence on the management board itself. But is the World Service, to use your words, institutionally racist? Absolutely not. We are absolutely committed to a diverse organisation.

Mr Olner

  60. Most of us who have dialects from around the United Kingdom find the BBC a little bit difficult in moving forward with correct presentation. Do you not suffer these same problems within the BBC World Service?
  (Mr Byford) It is important for listeners to be able to understand the broadcast in terms of clarity but we have over time wanted to give a greater range of voice within the English service. Some substantial changes on that score have been made over the last three to four years and with some success. As someone who within the building is often described himself as having a rather strange dialect from Yorkshire, I would want the whole of the United Kingdom voice to be represented within the World Service.


  61. Who can criticise pure Leeds? Can I on behalf of the Committee, Mr Byford, thank you and your colleagues and also leave a warm glow behind by congratulating the World Service which I believe won the prestigious 2001 award at the Sony Radio Academy Awards on 2 May, also in particular congratulating Mr Baqer Moin, whom Mr Hamilton also mentioned as head of Persian and Pashto Services, who won the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association top award of the year. Would you convey to him the congratulations of the Committee and indeed to your colleagues.
  (Mr Byford) We are very proud of those awards and it is great that you as a Committee have said well done.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Can we have your colleagues from the British Council to hear the view from the other shore.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 14 November 2002