Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Third Report


4  BBC World Service

Annual Report

104. The BBC World Service published its annual review for 2004-05 in June 2005.[199] The report, with the picture on its front-cover showing some of the devastation caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami, provides an extensive account of the Service's activity and performance during 2004-05. We found the report to be well structured; chapters are ordered by market sector or activity, with one given over wholly to the Service's coverage of the tsunami. While annual reports are, of course, generally retrospective in nature, we found the inclusion of a chapter on future priorities a very valuable addition.

105. In its report, the World Service sets out its performance against public service agreements (PSAs) in a clear, straightforward manner. The Service's performance is measured by the FCO against five PSA targets: three of these have five regional sub-targets and one has two sub-targets. Three of the PSA targets were fully met. Its target for the amount revenue earned was met over-all but one associated sub-target was missed.[200] The Service missed its overall weekly audience target and its shortwave audibility target, which we discuss below.

Work in 2004-05

106. In its annual report the World Service describes how it has consolidated its position as the best known and most respected voice in international broadcasting.[201] Independent research conducted on behalf of the BBC Governors' World Service and Global News Consultative Group showed that the Service's reputation for trust and objectivity was higher than that for any other international broadcaster in virtually all markets surveyed. In addition to its reporting of events in Iraq and the Middle East, the Service provided extensive coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Darfur crisis, the Beslan school siege, the Afghan, Iraqi, Ukraine and US elections and the enlargement of the European Union. It won the News Output Award at the Sony Radio Academy Awards for its coverage of the Beslan crisis.

Audience figures and audibility

107. We were pleased to note that the World Service's audience, taken as a whole, grew in 2004-05. Its size rose by three million to 149 million weekly listeners in 2004-05, although it missed its target of 153 million weekly listeners. This was mainly due to lower than expected audiences in Europe. We examine below the Service's closure of some of its vernacular services in central and eastern Europe.

108. The World Service reports that in 2004-05 audiences fell in 22 countries and that the global audience in English was down by six million to 39 million listeners. Nevertheless, the Service achieved an increase in its overall audience despite tough competition from domestic FM broadcasters and satellite television stations. As Nigel Chapman points out, the Service had over 50 per cent more listeners than any comparable international broadcaster.[202] In 2004, the Service was the biggest speech radio service in Iraq and had 2.8 million listeners in Afghanistan.[203] It also saw rises in audiences in India, Indonesia and the USA.

109. One country where the World Service has had less success is Russia, where it reached only 0.8 per cent of the Russian adult population.[204] While awareness of the World Service had increased there, perceptions of its objectivity remained static and relevance declined slightly.[205] Given that the World Service identifies Russia as one of its key target areas we find its performance there rather disappointing. Nigel Chapman told us that the Service's performance in Russia was of concern to him but explained that as well as facing a very competitive market place there in terms of radio, the Russian audience was not "demonstrating a great appetite for international radio services."[206] He went on to say:

one of the ironies about this you could argue now, under the way media has been restricted in Russia increasingly under Putin, is that the case for having the BBC there is greater that it was five years ago.[207]

We discuss the case for the World Service's move into local language television markets and video investment below [paragraphs 152-63 and 178-81].

110. A medium where the World Service has seen remarkable growth over the last three years is the usage of its online services. Its PSA target for the international site was worked out using a 2002 baseline, but while this 2005 target was exceeded by a wide margin, the BBC accepts that this target was set too low. However, that said, we believe that the BBC's international news website receiving 324 millions hits in March 2005 alone is a clear mark of success. [208]

111. The World Service has continued in the last year to invest in Frequency Modulation (FM) delivery and reports to us that by March 2005 programmes were broadcast on FM in 146 capital cities (77 per cent of the world's capitals). This is a real success. The Service beat its target in 2004-05 for an FM distribution in 142 capital cities.[209] Conversely, the Service has failed to meet its target for the quality of its shortwave audibility. However, it needs to be borne in mind that long distance transmissions are affected by many different factors, some of which are environmental and entirely out of the Service's control. We discuss below the disruptions late last year to the World Service's Nepali FM service and how its Nepalese audience could continue to listen to its programmes on short wave even though its FM service was effectively switched off by the Government of Nepal.[210]

112. We conclude that 2004-2005 proved to be another successful year for the BBC World Service, which saw a significant growth in the size of its audience. We particularly commend the Service on the success it had in Iraq where it was the biggest speech radio station.

World Service's three-year plan and vision to 2010

113. In the run-up to the 2004 spending review the BBC World Service proposed the creation of a new Arabic-language satellite television channel and submitted a discrete bid to HM Treasury for extra funds specifically for such a news service. It sought an extra £28.5 million per annum to fund a 24-hour, seven-day a week, Arabic-spoken television news service.[211] However, the Treasury did not grant the extra funding requested but instead asked the BBC World Service to develop a new business case for an Arabic television service from its current resource allocation.[212]

114. Last year, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in its Green Paper, Review of the BBC's Royal Charter, A strong BBC, Independent of Government, affirmed that "the World Service should remain a Government-funded arm of the BBC, providing high quality, impartial international news to audiences who might otherwise not receive it."[213] It recommended that the World Service should explore how it could face up to the global ascendance of satellite television and proposed that the Service consider reducing its portfolio of languages, particularly in central and eastern Europe.

115. The Green Paper signposted to the World Service a need to shift its focus "eastwards and southwards" in particular to the Middle East, the Far East and parts of Africa.[214] This was a position that on the one hand backed up the World Service's ambition for an Arabic television service and, on the other, the Treasury's implicit call for a reallocation of its resources for this purpose. Accordingly, in October 2005, the World Service wrote to inform us that it was to make a major transformation to the shape of its services over the next five years. [215] We found the World Service's submission to our inquiry this year very useful and it was helpful to receive an outline of the World Service's reprioritisation plans following their endorsement by the Foreign Secretary and the BBC board of governors.

116. The proposals to 2007-08 consist of efficiency savings and a reprioritisation of resources representing 20 per cent of the Service's entire annual budget, equivalent to £30 million. Over a three-year period the Service will aim to reinvest these resources into new high-priority activities. When Nigel Chapman gave oral evidence before us we questioned him on his reinvestment strategy. He stressed what an enormous challenge lay ahead for the BBC World Service but seemed confident his plans to 2007 were achievable. On the feasibility of even further changes, he explained:

For any organisation that is a challenge, that is a tough call. We can do it, but I cannot keep on doing it. I cannot keep on doing 20 per cent, 20 per cent, 20 percent. You will end up then with no services left over, and that would not be appropriate.[216]

117. The headline changes announced were the closure of radio services in ten languages and a plan to launch an Arabic-language free-to-air satellite television news service from 2007. Other key features of the World Service's strategy highlighted in the announcement were: [217]

  • A commitment to be the world's best known, most creative and most respected voice in international news;
  • A continued wish to target influencers—opinion formers and decision makers—in every market and, in less developed markets, to target audiences who have a wider need for basic news and information;
  • An aspiration to offer "lifeline" services to audiences in areas of conflict or in failed states;
  • An aim to utilise further new media to deliver news reports in vernacular languages;
  • An aim to invest in the acquisition and management of distribution partners on FM and other emerging audio platforms;
  • Over three years to make over £33 million of investment in marketing the World Service;
  • An ambition to reach significant new audiences through vernacular television by 2010, and
  • By 2010, a joint aim with the wider BBC, to increase the global reach of its international news services around the world from over 190 million to over 250 million weekly users.

The World Service also confirmed to us that it would continue to achieve further efficiency savings of at least 2.5 per cent of it baseline funding each year up to the end of 2006-07.[218] Last year, the Service hit its efficiency target of £4.4 million.[219]

118. We conclude that the Government's vision that the BBC World Service should remain a service publicly funded through grant-in-aid is wholly right. We commend the BBC World Service for carrying out such an extensive review and reprioritisation of its resources ahead of the next spending review. This will enable it, among other achievements, to realise its proposal for an Arabic television news channel in 2007.

Reduction in vernacular services

119. From March 2006, the BBC World Service reduced its 42 language portfolio to 32 services.[220] It has stopped broadcasting on radio in Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Kazakh, Polish, Slovak, Slovene and Thai. These closures followed the direction given by the Government made in its Green Paper on the Review of the BBC's royal charter.[221] The World Service has also reduced investment in Portuguese for Brazil, with its presence there becoming mainly internet-based. There has in addition been a continuing tendency to move broadcasts from short-wave to FM frequencies. However, it is not clear to what extent this has affected individual vernacular services, for example whether it has involved a net reduction in broadcasts. We recommend that the BBC World Service publish full details of the effects on each vernacular service of changes in the broadcast frequency or medium of those services in the past twelve months, together with the anticipated effects of any further changes scheduled to take place in the coming twelve months.

120. The BBC World Service told us that broadcasts in English will remain its core "global offer" but, having assessed its existing services, other priority markets will be the Arab and wider Islamic world (including Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia), China, Russia, India and Spanish-speaking Latin America.[222] The World Service will also continue to serve less developed markets in Africa and Asia, such as Nigeria and Bangladesh, as well as a number of "information poor" markets.[223]

121. Strategic analysis which had been conducted by the World Service showed that the 10 language services which it cut no longer fulfilled its key criteria for investment. The radio services closed attracted fewer than four million weekly listeners for an annual spend of approximately £12 million.[224] In evidence before us, Nigel Chapman outlined the criteria he had used to evaluate the value and importance of the languages offered. He told us:

We did a very thorough review lasting about 12 months of all the 42 vernacular language services in the World Service against three criteria really; first of all, what you could broadly describe as geo-political importance; secondly the extent to which there is a free and independent media available already in those societies and how far that has changed over the last ten years; and thirdly the level of impact that those services currently have.[225]

122. Eight of the languages that were cut were in central and eastern European countries where there had been significant changes in the political and media environment over the last 15 years, following the end of the 'Cold War'. Despite reductions in services in central and eastern Europe, the World Service assured us that it will continue to serve a number of audiences in the Balkans and Turkey, but said that the strategic importance of these markets will be reviewed regularly.[226]

123. Referring to these eight radio services closed, Nigel Chapman told us that the press freedom index for those countries where closures had occurred showed a "very steady position" in terms of press freedom and choice."[227] He went on to comment, "In fact, some of those countries have a press freedom level which is as good as the United Kingdom if not better."[228] On the Thai and Kazakh services the World Service had assessed these services as being of "lower impact."[229] There are only about 40,000 listeners to the Kazakh service, this in part being due to the lack of FM distribution there owing to restrictions and to the fact that many Kazakh listeners tune into the Russian service instead. Nevertheless, there was opposition to its closure. The National Union of Journalists' general secretary expressed concern saying:

Does Jack Straw really believe that countries like Kazakhstan where intimidation of political opponents remains common and there is significant international concern that recent elections were rigged no longer needs the type of public service broadcasting offered by the World Service?[230]

124. In respect of the Thai service, we have received representations opposed to its closure.[231] The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand wrote that its closure would "mean that the Thai people will lose one of the few remaining independent sources of news."[232] We also note with some concern that in the last three years Thailand has slipped from 65th place to 107th in the press freedom index,[233] just above Kyrgyzstan, Rwanda and Bahrain.[234] In response to an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on the Thai service, Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, said that a key factor in the service's closure had been its small audience. However, the Minister confirmed that Thailand will continue to receive the World Service's English language radio service and the BBC's international online services.[235] Ideally, if there were not significant financial constraints on the Service's operations, there would be strong reasons for continuing with the provision of the Kazakh and Thai language services.

125. Nigel Chapman remarked, "if you have a sum of money to invest in international broadcasting you have to make difficult choices and you are making a judgment about it all the time … because in a fixed budget that is the reality of the position that broadcasters have to face up to."[236]

126. We conclude that the reduction in the BBC World Service's language range, which mirrored the direction given by Government, was regrettable. We recommend that the BBC World Service in consultation with the Foreign Office review regularly its language services for impact and financial value but do its utmost to preserve and extend its language services upon which so many depend for its trustworthy news and information. We conclude that this is particularly important in those countries where there is no properly functioning parliamentary democracy, inadequate freedom of the media and significant violation of human rights, and we recommend that the BBC World Service is funded accordingly.

English-language output

127. English language programming has also experienced recent change, with an increased focus on the provision of news and information. Last year the BBC World Service ended some of its non-news programmes, including some factual and music productions. Several popular cultural, drama and entertainment shows were removed from its schedule. The Service was portrayed by some of the press as evolving into principally a news and information only service.[237]

128. Nigel Chapman argued that the "death of the variety of the content" of the World Service had been much exaggerated.[238] He said that there would be no "philistinic dumbing" down by the World Service.[239] We were told that the Service had reacted to feedback from its overseas audiences who were largely coming to the Service for news and information.

129. The schedule was reorganised so that on weekdays there would be a greater emphasis on news but on weekends there would continue to be a wide mix of cultural programming.[240] The aim was to achieve "a wide range of speech-based programming of news and information which covers arts, culture, sport, business, religion, science, history." We were assured that the Service would not evolve into "a rolling news service", or a "CNN on the radio." Mr Chapman said:

Some of the things we have been putting out … just do not fit within that overall mix of what audiences now want. That is the reality. It is a very short-sighted director of the World Service facing that research who ignores it and ploughs on as if nothing is happening.[241]

In correspondence forwarded to us by Mr David Laws MP, Mr Michael Fox, a BBC journalist commented:

While BBC management speaks of maintaining the quality, breadth and depth of news coverage, including documentary programming, in-depth programmes such as Analysis are being cut in length, the Outlook programme is being scrapped altogether, and the idea of regular "slots" of British news is being abandoned—despite a regulatory requirement on the World Service to reflect the broad range of British life and opinion. In a rare outbreak of candour, the department's editor recently acknowledged that more material was likely to be repeated as a result of these cuts.[242]

130. We conclude that it is important that the BBC World Service's English output continues to include a significant proportion of programmes which promote British culture and Britain's creativity to overseas audiences as well as the first-rate, impartial news and information programmes. It is this mixture of programming which is the World Service's attraction and a characteristic of its success. We recommend that under no circumstances should the World Service's English language programming be allowed to evolve into just a news and information service.

Arabic satellite television news service

131. Developing a free-to-air Arabic-language satellite television service has been one of the World Service's highest priorities ever since television became the dominant news medium in the Arab world.[243] Following its review of priorities and resources, the Service is launching an Arabic television channel in early 2007, initially as a 12-hour service, supported by a text and audio service for the remaining part of the day, with the aim of going to a full 24-hour broadcasts if funds become available.[244]

132. After the failure of the World Service's bid for extra funds in 2004 for such a service, our predecessor Committee believed that it was a "missed opportunity" and that other international broadcasters would "take advantage of British inaction" to the detriment of the BBC World Service and the United Kingdom.[245]

133. The BBC's first attempt to set up an Arabic television news service, in 1994, was a commercial operation in partnership with a company linked to the Saudi royal family. The service was cancelled two years later, owing to disputes between the BBC and its partner, Orbit Communications, over editorial content.[246] Nigel Chapman did not consider the venture had been a complete failure:

We [the BBC] did not fail in one sense in 1996. We actually had quite a significant audience arising from the services in 1994 to 1996. We failed in 1994 to 1996, if you want to call it failure, because we defended our editorial principles and values.[247]

Following the station's closure, many of the BBC journalists who lost their jobs went to work for the fledgling al-Jazeera.[248]

134. The World Service told us that the lesson learnt from the 1994 venture was that it was not appropriate to fund an Arabic television service through a commercial partnership, particularly not for the BBC, and that the such a service was best funded through public money.[249] Mr Chapman told us:

if you want the sorts of stories that we feel we ought to do without fear or favour, if you have commercial partners you cannot do that because they then threaten you with pulling the plug on your funds and say that is not what you want us to cover, and that then undermines the whole basis of your operation.[250]

135. We asked Mr Chapman whether broadcasting through such a potentially volatile medium as television, in Arabic, in a region as politically sensitive as the Middle East, he had any fear of political interference by incumbent British governments. Mr Chapman pointed out that the Arabic television service, like the Service's long-established Arabic radio service and all other services fall under the broadcasting agreement that is in place with the Foreign Office. He believed that this agreement made absolutely clear that editorial independence of the BBC World Service's output was guaranteed.[251]

This service falls fairly and squarely within that [the broadcasting agreement] and, therefore, it will have to subscribe to our relationship with the Foreign Office in exactly the same way as the radio services do now. There is no different set of relationships here. That is why I have confidence that the Foreign Office, our funders, will respect that editorial independence, as they have done in relation to radio for many years, and new media as well.[252]

136. The new service will compete for viewers against commercial satellite broadcasters such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, as well as the US government-funded al-Hurrah. The increasing influence of al-Jazeera and its rivals in recent years and the dominance of satellite television in the Middle East mean that the World Service's Arabic radio service risks being outflanked.[253] BBC Arabic currently has approximately 12 million listeners per week. However, the radio service faces stiff competition from satellite television channels, especially in countries where FM broadcasting is not available to the BBC for its news output, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and the rest of North Africa.

137. The BBC World Service openly identifies the strong competition it will face in the Middle East from al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya but believes that there is an opportunity for it "to occupy a genuine 'high ground' in the market, away from the pro-US offer of al-Hurra."[254] Nigel Chapman told us that al-Jazeera is perceived to be a "regionally-based" Arabic news station concentrating heavily upon Middle East news affairs. It is not, he argued, a "genuine international station" and "definitively does not bring an international perspective" to world news.[255] We asked whether the BBC was going to be considered by audiences in the Middle East as propagating a western view. In reply, Nigel Chapman told us:

If you look at all the audience research… particularly in relation to radio, even in a society like Iraq where you would expect people to be very concerned about the point of view you have just expressed, they compartmentalise, if you like, the BBC's services in radio and television and new media from the World Service and other people in a different box from British foreign policy. They see British foreign policy as one thing and the BBC's activities as another. When we ask them do you trust the BBC, do you think it is independent, do you think it is independent of government, they give it very high marks repeatedly throughout the Arab world for this. Even in a society like Iraq, we get the highest ratings for independence and for trustworthiness against any other international competitor, despite the fact that British forces are involved in action every day in Iraq. I think that says something about the subtle understanding of Arab audiences…[256]

138. In five years' time, the BBC World Service expects to have at least 25 million viewers per week; this would be double the number of listeners its Arabic radio service routinely receives.[257] And, as part of an overall BBC tri-media portfolio (television, radio and internet), it aspires to be the largest international Arabic-language television news channel in terms of reach after Al-Jazeera.[258] It should be noted that the Arabic radio service went from a 12-hour service to 24-hours only three years ago.[259]

139. When Frank Gardner, the BBC's security correspondent, gave evidence before us last autumn he indicated that the World Service may well be entering the Arabic television news market too late as the likes of al-Jazeera were already well established.[260] Mr Gardner told us that it was a "pity" that the BBC could not have "got this right 10 years ago" when it first set up an Arabic television service.[261] He said since then others have "filled the vacuum", in particular al-Jazeera which had become a "major force" in broadcasting and international affairs.[262] On a new BBC Arabic television service he remarked:

[the World Service] has really got its work cut out for it. It's coming late to the party. It will be interesting to see if it works"[263]

On the question of whether the World Service was in fact entering the Arab news market too late, Nigel Chapman told the Lords Committee [on Review of the BBC Charter] that:

what people are telling us is that there may be more choice in the Middle East now— and Al-Jazeera is an example of that choice—but there is still a place for a television service which has the BBC values running through it, its accuracy, fairness, impartiality, covering a range of views, and there is a high ground, if you like, to be obtained and gained in this market. That is a very strong feeling that comes from the audience research, it is not just that people are likely to use it, they are likely to use it for those reasons, they see there is that gap and they want to use it, they want the BBC to do it.[264]

140. Following the announcement that the World Service was launching an Arabic television service, Nigel Chapman drew particular attention to the fact that the news in the Arab press of the BBC's planned arrival was universally welcomed. He commented, "If [the BBC's arrival] was too little too late, a lot of people would be writing that, they would be saying it and they would be criticising us for doing it. We have hardly had any criticism whatsoever…"[265]

141. The World Service has calculated that in 2007 a 12-hour television service will cost £19 million per annum to produce.[266] Nigel Chapman told the Lords Committee, "we are talking about around £6 million extra to move from a 12 to 24 hour service because once you have got the infrastructure and you have got quite a lot of content already it is not double the money… you are doing a top-up in effect."[267] In addition to the £19 million, there will also be an initial start-up cost of between £5 million to £6 million, which will be largely capital expenditure. The Service plans to reinvest the £12 million of savings made from the reductions in its radio services into the television channel and it intends to make up the £7 million shortfall from the efficiency savings in line with its 2004 spending review commitment. In written evidence, the Service said that it will bid for additional funding in the 2007 spending review to upgrade the 12-hour Arabic television offer to a full 24 hour service.[268]

142. Nigel Chapman told us that the station will need to employ up to 150 people to run the 12-hour service, the majority of whom we understand will be based in London where the production of programmes will take place. [269] As FCO Minister Lord Triesman has noted, the BBC World Service will be able to draw on considerable synergies and resources in terms of the wider BBC's newsgathering network.[270] The BBC already has a substantial presence in Cairo but the Service told us that it will need to expand its presence in Washington and Moscow and other key places which are really critical to the international agenda.[271] Referring to the costs of the new television channel Mr Chapman told us, "…if you draw upon the BBC's resources and you draw upon all that news reporting that is going on already, if you put the new investment alongside that, then I think we can do it."[272]

143. Nevertheless, we questioned the adequacy of the £19 million budget with the World Service. We were told by Nigel Chapman that al-Hurra's annual budget was in the region of $30 million to $35 million, an amount not "unadjacent" to that which the World Service was proposing.[273] We also asked whether a 12-hour service would be sufficient to allow the new station to establish itself in a market which was already fairly saturated and where some stations had been in operation for a number of years. Nigel Chapman argued that the World Service's strength would be its tri-media approach (radio, television and online services), which would at some point offer a "good platform" on which to build a 24-hour service.[274] Al-Jazeera, on the other hand, we were told, did not have a radio service nor did it have a particularly good web presence. Mr Chapman remarked:

I take some reassurance from the fact that we asked people about the 12 hours a day issue and they said, 'Of course we tend to consume television more in the evening and so if you are going to be there in the evenings when it is peak viewing time, and you are going to be there from the afternoon through the evenings early into the night, that is fine.' We still have a very strong radio service, which people tend to listen to in the mornings…"[275]

144. On costs, the World Service also pointed out that its programming for the Arabic television service would be on a rolling format whereby once a sufficient amount of material is collected it is repeated throughout a day. The schedule would not be like that of BBC2 where lots of "bespoke" programmes are produced.[276] Nevertheless, as well as news, Mr Chapman foresaw that:

There will be studio discussions, live link-ups with bureaux in the Middle East, there will be a lot of reporting on the ground, not just reporting on the ground from the Middle East—and this is very, very important—but reporting on the ground from the world as a whole. The BBC has a tremendous amount of material coming into London every day from those places, as I am sure you are aware, so you have got a good base on which to build."[277]

145. Mr Ian Richardson, the former editor of the BBC's first Arabic television service in the 1990s, has expressed concerns about the World Service's estimation of costs for the Arabic channel. In evidence to the Lords Committee he said that he had "great reservations" about the World Service's plans and thought it would be "seriously under funded."[278] He went on to say that an Arabic service would be at least a third more expensive to produce that an English television rolling news channel owing to translation costs. Mr Richardson was of the view that if the new service could not be done well, owing to insufficient funding, then it should not be done at all.[279]

146. The BBC is expecting to make significant savings in the way BBC News produces its output for the World Service.[280] This, the Service said, will involve a re-organisation in the way the news teams are set up and result in a number of job losses within BBC News. Mr Michael Fox, a BBC journalist, expresses concern at "scarce resources" being diverted to the Arabic television service from the World Service News and Current Affairs budget. Mr Fox indicates the BBC's plans to reduce the News and Current Affairs department's staff by 10 per cent could "undermine the quality" of news and programmes produced for the World Service.[281]

147. The Lords Committee recently concluded that the World Service's plans to launch an Arabic news channel were "ambitious and worthwhile" but believed that a limited 12-hour service would lessen its chances of success in the region. The Lords Committee concluded, "a 12 hour limit on the Arabic language channel's broadcasting time will mean the BBC competing for audiences with one hand tied behind its back."[282] The Committee recommend that the Government immediately provide the £6 million so that a 24-hour Arabic channel may proceed. Lord Triesman on the other hand told the Lords Committee that the Government believed the World Service was right to start with 12-hour programming in order to discover how that worked out in practice.[283]

148. BBC World, BBC's commercial 24-hour news and information television channel, is funded by advertising and subscription.[284] Although the channel is yet to operate at a profit the BBC forecasts that it will break even around the end of the decade.[285] Al- Jazeera is funded through a grant from the Emir of Qatar but it also receives income from advertising and through syndication of news and film footage to other news agencies.[286] We believe that there may also be a financial case for the World Service covering part of the new Arabic station's costs through generating income from advertising and selling its output to other channels in the region. Such commercial activity should not, however, be allowed to compromise the World Service's impartiality and independence.

149. In evidence to the Lords Committee, Mr Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC's Global News Division, explained that satellite television transmission gave broadcasters access to markets where FM distribution was extremely difficult.[287] There are many countries in the Middle East which will not allow the BBC to broadcast on FM, Saudi Arabia being a case in point. The BBC does not have a single FM transmitter from Morocco to Egypt. Mr Sambrook said that free-to-air satellite television would reach many people in these countries as the prevalence of satellite dishes regionally was very high.[288]

150. Nigel Chapman explained that because television had become the firm medium of choice for news consumption in the Middle East, the importance of World Service radio in the region would diminish in a number of ways. He said,

It will diminish in the pure number of users, so our reach will go down, and if our reach goes down then our reputation will tend to follow behind because if we have fewer people to listen, it will be less salient, less important and people will give you less credit for it."[289]

151. We believe that the importance of the BBC World Service's work in the Middle East and in the wider Islamic world is crucial in the current international situation. As Lord Triesman put it:

If we are to try, not by propaganda but by honest coverage, to offset some of the more extreme propositions that broadcast, every hour of the day, in the Arab-speaking world then we ought to get on with [launching the Arabic television service].[290]

152. During oral evidence before us Frank Gardner emphasised the need for the British Government to get more Arabic speaking representatives on to Islamic television channels in order to make the case for Western policy.[291]

153. We commend the BBC World Service for its achievement in funding the new Arabic television news service from a combination of efficiency savings and a reprioritisation of resources from the 2004 spending review provision. We conclude that the new service will be an important means of balancing the output of other Arabic language services. We further conclude that the BBC's impartiality and objectivity will be of paramount importance if it is to succeed. We recommend that the BBC World Service together with the Foreign Office review the new channel's funding and performance in the period leading up to its first anniversary to ensure it is adequately resourced and to determine whether extra funding should be provided by the Government to enable the channel to become a 24-hour service. We also recommend that the BBC World Service explore the potential for subsidising the costs of the new Arabic television service through generating income via advertising and syndication.

Expansion into other television services

154. The World Service acknowledged that it is evitable that it will experience a decline in its radio audiences owing to the evolution of television markets and media consumer habits around the globe.[292] In written evidence, the Service told us that it plans to examine the viability of priority television services in other languages, focusing on Russia, Latin America, and India, and will place an emphasis on leveraging partnerships with local and regional players, given the difficult financial climate.

155. However, we are reassured that Nigel Chapman told us that as long as he is director of the World Service, radio will continue to be the main means of reaching out to people.

I think in large parts of Africa, large parts of Asia, somewhere like Nepal, which we were talking about earlier on, it would be not a clever and strategic move to start off with multi-media services in that environment. Even at the end of this budget process, if you like, taking us to 2007-08, the World Service will still be spending 75 per cent of its grant-in-aid income on radio and related distribution; so radio is still going to be the vast majority of the expenditure.[293]

156. Beyond 2007, the World Service states it would like to provide a vernacular multimedia service in priority markets in the wider Islamic world including Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia; and also in China, Russia, India, and Spanish-speaking Latin America. One specific language service referred to is a Persian television service funded through grant in aid.[294] During oral evidence, Nigel Chapman told us:

In [the World Service's written evidence to the Committee] there is a mixture of a hard-costed proposal, which is going to become fact, if you like, as a result of the 30 million investment plan… and then aspirations, gleams in the eye, which need to be part of the discussions with Government in the 2007 spending round, and Persian television is in the latter category, not the former.[295]

He continued:

As a broadcaster, if we believe that it is really important that people have access to free and independent media in societies, then, looking at it objectively, the position of Iran at the moment, you make out a very strong case for Britain improving what it can offer in that regard. You also then have to look at the role of radio and new media, and, as I explained earlier on, one of the difficulties about Iran is that the access the BBC can get, both in news-gathering terms but also in terms of transmitting its radio properly to Iran, is extremely difficult. The notion that I can get an FM transmitter for the BBC Persian service into Iran is a non-starter at the moment. One of the ways you would be able to reach into that society would be through satellite television, because many people in Iran, increasing numbers, have access to satellite television. It would be one of the ways of making sure they were able to access the BBC's material and services. That is the broadcasting logic.[296]

157. It would appear that there is real appetite among Iranians for the news and information produced by the BBC. Nigel Chapman told us that Persian online services were "galloping away" in terms of audience impact.[297] BBC Persian.com has become the most popular of the BBC's non-English language news websites.[298] It is estimated that Iran has seven million internet users and BBC Persian.com attracts around one third of all users in the country.[299] It us frustrating to read reports that access to BBC Persian.com was recently blocked within Iran at the request of the Iranian authorities.

158. The Foreign Secretary in a speech highlighted the need to help Iranians make "informed choices … by helping improve the flow of information into the country". He continued:

we in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe need to think about whether there is more we can do to ensure that reliable and trusted news services are able to broadcast in all media, in Persian, to Iranians.[300]

159. The emergence of television was also considered by the Lords Committee on Review of the BBC Charter. The Committee argued that given the popularity of television in the developed world, and its increasing popularity in the developing world, the World Service will struggle to continue influencing world opinion unless it launches a television service in a range of languages. We concur with this view.

160. The World Service has had particular difficulty accessing key markets in India and China. In the last few year's the Service saw a dramatic drop in overall radio listening in India in part due to a ban by Indian regulators on local FM stations carrying news from foreign broadcasters.[301] This resulted in a drop of over 12 million World Service listeners between 1995 and 2002. The World Service told us that China is a critical market but that it saw no likelihood of better access to the television market there in the timeframe up to 2010. The Service will continue to lobby the Chinese authorities for better access.[302]

161. Lord Carter's review recommended that "the FCO should explore options for developing a television service arm of the World Service". He believed that consideration should be given to the potential role of BBC World. BBC World,[303] BBC's commercial global television outlet, has so far failed to generate sufficient revenue from advertising to cover its costs and continues to experience difficulty in competing with its larger competitors.[304] The Lords Committee recommended that the BBC should review all its international activities and that a strategy outlining the future of its public and commercial television, radio and online services should be published.[305]

162. As we discussed above [paragraph 134] the World Service believes that it is inappropriate to fund services such as its Arabic television service by commercial partnerships as this arrangement could be potentially threatening to its editorial independence and impartial reputation. We concur with this view. Nonetheless, we believe that World Service consider where appropriate the potential for generating extra income through advertising and syndication.

163. There remains in many of the priority markets identified by the World Service in its 2010 strategy a gulf of mistrust and misinformation among people owing to the lack of free and responsible press in those countries. We believe that it is vitally important and mutually beneficial to provide them with a source of reliable and trustworthy information through a non-government mechanism. We are convinced that increasingly in many countries the medium of choice is television and this should become in some markets the World Service's chosen means of delivery. Also, by using satellite transmission it is possible to step over to a large degree the problems encountered in delivery of radio and online services such as the blocking and censorship of programmes and the restrictions faced in FM distribution.

164. On 14 March 2006, the Government in its White Paper, A public service for all: the BBC in the digital age, said that the World Service should consider developing new "successful services" in television.[306] Nevertheless, the Government did not signal any new funding for the BBC World Service for further television services. It said, "it will be for the World Service, in discussion with the FCO, to decide its priorities and how expenditure could be prioritised to allow for the development of new services in priority countries."[307] Similarly, when we asked the Foreign Secretary about funding a new television channel in Farsi he said, "I would be delighted to fund it but I don't have the chequebook which is held in the Treasury."[308]

165. We recommend that in the run up to the next spending round the Foreign Office argue the case with HM Treasury for an increase in grant-in-aid funding for the BBC World Service so that it can introduce further priority vernacular television services in addition to its new Arabic service without being forced to make excessive cuts in its radio and media services.

Nepali radio service

166. Last October we were concerned to learn that following the assumption of executive power by King Gyanendra, the government of Nepal had barred FM stations from broadcasting news. This affected all private radio stations which the World Service used to re-broadcast its Nepali programmes. In November 2005, the Service wrote to us to reassure us that its Nepali service was "in no way affected" by the changes which has been announced in its reprioritisation plans. [309]

167. The World Service also leased a frequency on an FM waveband from the state-owned Radio Nepal, which transmitted its English language programmes.[310] It operated during the parts of the day when the state radio was off the air. We understand that all the World Service's English language programmes continue to be re-broadcast by Radio Nepal.

168. In October 2005, in a parliamentary written answer, Dr Kim Howells stated,

…The UK is deeply concerned about the restrictions imposed by the Government of Nepal on the media. We believe that these restrictions, including the new Media Ordinance, infringe unacceptably upon freedom of expression.

The British Government and the BBC have formally requested the government of Nepal to allow the BBC to broadcast unhindered. The British Ambassador in Kathmandu has also raised our concerns about media censorship directly with the King, in the context of our wider concerns about the erosion of democratic processes, institutions and civil liberties. [311]

169. The Nepali service clearly remains very important to the World Service. Nigel Chapman said, "The last thing on my mind is to cut [the Nepali service] back, if anything I want to strengthen [it]. [312] Mr Chapman went on to say, "The Nepali service… is an ever important service for the people of Nepal in a society which is deprived of free and independent information, it is close to my heart and I am going to make sure it remains a strong service."[313]

170. The World Service broadcasts its Nepali-language service in Kathmandu on FM through Radio Sagarmatha. But on 27 November 2005 BBC Nepali broadcasts were suspended. This came after the trailing of a BBC Nepali Service interview with Nepalese Maoist party leader Prachanda, despite the government ban on broadcasting news on local stations. In a note to us, the Service described how five Radio Sagarmatha staff were also arrested and their equipment confiscated.[314] The staff were later released. BBC World Service has expressed concern at this development.

171. There has also been censorship of the English output. Radio Nepal engineers were instructed by the Ministry to play local classical music to block out main news bulletins. The Service told us that Radio Nepal has been powerless to object or take on the Palace on this issue.[315]

172. On 7 December 2005, the World Service wrote again to tell us that the Nepali Service transmissions had resumed on Radio Sagarmatha FM.[316] This we understand came about after a petition was filed by the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists, a non-governmental group that runs Radio Sagarmatha FM. It had challenged the government's order prohibiting re-broadcast of BBC Nepali over the FM station. The Supreme Court of Nepal ordered the government to lift its ban on BBC Nepali pending a final verdict.

173. During the disruption to the BBC Nepali service through FM distribution all shortwave broadcasts in English and Nepali remained unaffected. Audience measurement undertaken in Nepal at the end 2004 (before the ban was introduced) indicated that the vast majority of listeners to the Nepali Service (719,000 out of 759,000) tune in to shortwave broadcasts, which have not been affected by the ordinance by the Nepalese government. Furthermore, the World Service stated that the reduced availability of news from domestic Nepali radio stations may have increased listeners' reliance on shortwave broadcasts.[317]

174. We recommend that the Foreign Office set out in response to this Report the latest position regarding the disruption of the BBC World Service's Nepali service and its assessment of the likely impact on the World Service's broadcasts in both Nepali and in English in Nepal if the government's proposed new media ordinance comes into effect.

Closure of the BBC World Service in Uzbekistan

175. In November last year the World Service had to suspend its operations in Uzbekistan owing to security concerns and the "harassment" of its Uzbek staff.[318] It closed its office in Tashkent and withdrew seven staff because of intimidation by the Uzbek authorities. The Uzbek Government had been cracking down on foreign journalists ever since their reporting of government troops' suppression of an uprising in Andizhan in May 2005.[319]

176. The World Service bureau in Tashkent handles material for the Russian, Kyrgyz and Kazakh services as well as for the domestic service. In a written note, the Service told us that it remained committed to covering events in Uzbekistan, and stated that the BBC English language correspondents would continue to seek access to the country and to report on events there as and when they are granted visas.[320] During oral evidence, Nigel Chapman told us that all his Uzbek staff had had to leave or resign from their positions for reasons of personal safety.[321] He said that the Service had raised the matter with Uzbek ambassador in London, who had denied there was any problem.[322]

177. Nigel Chapman explained that the World Service continued to provide radio services in Uzbek to the people of Uzbekistan through short wave and medium wave distribution, but that the degree to which the BBC could report events inside that country was severely restricted. In November, Mr Chapman had no confidence that the situation was going to get better quickly.[323]

178. We asked the World Service what pressure the Foreign Office and FCO Ministers were putting on their opposite numbers in Tashkent to ensure that the matter was righted as quickly as possible.[324] The BBC World Service believed that the British Embassy and Ambassador in Tashkent had been "particularly helpful and supportive since the start of the troubles."[325]

179. We conclude that the security and safety of staff must always be a top priority for the BBC World Service and we believe that it was right for the BBC World Service to close its bureau in Tashkent owing to the attacks and intimidation reported by its journalists last year. We commend the actions taken so far by the Foreign Office on behalf of the BBC and the World Service and recommend that the FCO continue to make strong representations to the Government of Uzbekistan. We further recommend that in its response to this Report the FCO indicate whether there is any near-term prospect of the World Service's bureau reopening in Uzbekistan.

Online services and new digital interactive services

180. In its submission to our inquiry, the World Service indicates a sizeable shift towards distribution via new technology platforms.[326] It wants to deliver broadband video news reports in vernacular languages and make them available as downloads on PCs, mobiles and other platforms.[327] Its high priorities for video investment will be in Arabic, Persian (Farsi), Portuguese (for Brazil), Russian and Spanish.

181. The World Service currently provides eight online language services in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Persian (Farsi), Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Urdu. Last year, approximately six and half million people a week used its online services.[328] Monthly page impressions to the BBC's international news site, including bbcnews.com, increased to 351 million in August 2005 from 284 million a year previously, an increase of 67 million.[329] Nonetheless, in his statement in the 2004-05 annual report Nigel Chapman noted that:

International traffic to the BBC's online services grew to 324 million page impressions in March 2005, up from 279 million a year earlier. Although the annual increase was lower than expected, the rise in the number of individual users was higher, growing 29% from 16.6 million to 21.5 million.[330]

182. We were told that some of the BBC's international internet services have found it more difficult to make an impact, for example in China, where the Mandarin and English-language services are routinely blocked by the Chinese authorities.[331] On the other hand, in Brazil online services now attract larger audiences than radio. Consequently, the Portuguese service in Brazil will become internet-only.[332] Nigel Chapman explained to the Lords Committee on Review of the BBC Charter that:

Our minimum position about audience … is that we want to reach out to decision-makers and opinion-formers, people who are actually going to influence … the future of that society, so we are definitely getting to a younger group of these people by new media investment. Obviously, we have withdrawn some funds from radio to do it, as in the Brazilian service, and there is a risk that some older listeners to the BBC's Portuguese service will no longer be able to access it. There is definitely a down side to that, but in the end this is the sort of juggling act that one has to do in making our priorities.[333]

In January 2005, the BBC's Brazilian website registered 14.3 million page impressions, up more than 120 per cent in a year. The World Service is also pioneering the introduction of video content in Brazil.[334]

183. We conclude that if the BBC World Service is to sustain its position as the best known and most respected international broadcaster it must take every opportunity to exploit new technology in order to keep pace with changing consumer preferences. We commend the BBC World Service's vision for new investment in digital services and believe that extra investment in new media will be vital in the future if the Service is to see a growth in audiences.


199   BBC World Service, Annual Review 2004-05, June 2005, available at www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice Back

200   Ibid, pp 28-31 Back

201   Ev 46  Back

202   BBC World Service, Annual Review 2004-05, June 2005, p 4, available at www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice Back

203   Ev 47 Back

204   BBC World Service, Annual Review 2004-05, June 2005, pp 28-29 Back

205   The BBC measures relevance by conducting national surveys in different countries to find out the percentage of listeners who say that the BBC World Service provides news that is relevant to them Back

206   Q 161 Back

207   Q 161 Back

208   Ev 48 Back

209   BBC World Service, Annual Review 2004-05, June 2005, p 31 Back

210   See paragraphs 173 Back

211   Foreign Affairs Committee, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2003-2004, Ev 110 Back

212   Cm 6415, p13 Back

213   Review of the BBC's Royal Charter, A strong BBC, Independent of Government, DCMS, March 2005, available at www.bbccharterreview.org.uk Back

214   Ibid, p 45 Back

215   "BBC World Service announces 'biggest transformation in 70 years'", BBC Press Release, 25 October 2005, available at www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/ Back

216   Q 126 Back

217   Ev 49-53 Back

218   Ev 53, para 3.4 Back

219   Q 159 Back

220   Ev 52, para 3.3.1 Back

221   Department for Culture, Media and Sport, A Strong BBC, Independent of Government, March 2005, p 45 Back

222   Ev 50, para 3.1.3 Back

223   Ibid Back

224   Ibid Back

225   Q 66 Back

226   Ev 51, para 3.1.3 Back

227   Q 67 Back

228   Q 67 Back

229   Ev 52, para 3.3.1 Back

230   "NUJ slams plan to silence 10 BBC language services", National Union for Journalists, available at: www.nuj.org.uk/i Back

231   See: Ev 82; Ev 85 Back

232   Ev 85 Back

233   The Press freedom index is produced by Reporters Without Borders, see www.rsf.org Back

234   HC Deb, 7 March 2006, col. 248WH Back

235   Ibid Back

236   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 842 Back

237   "Shrinking World", Sunday Times, 16 October 2005 and "World Service cuts to fund BBC's Arab TV", Sunday Telegraph, 16 October 2005 Back

238   Q 140 Back

239   Q 140 Back

240   Q 140 Back

241   Q 140 Back

242   Ev 83 Back

243   See: Foreign Affairs Committee, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2003-2004, Ev 109 Back

244   Ev 51, para 3.2.1 Back

245   Foreign Affairs Committee, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2003-2004, para 161 Back

246   Qq 127-28 Back

247   Q 127 Back

248   "In shift, BBC to start Arabic TV Channel", International Herald Tribune, 26 October 2005 Back

249   Q 131 Back

250   Q 131 Back

251   Q 132 Back

252   Q 132 Back

253   see: "BBC goes head-to-head with al-Jazeera", The Guardian, 26 October 2005 Back

254   Ev 51, para 3.2.1 Back

255   Q 180 Back

256   Q 181 Back

257   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 878 Back

258   Ev 51, para 3.2.1 Back

259   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 883 Back

260   Foreign Affairs Committee, corrected transcript of oral evidence, Session 2005-06, HC 573-iii, Q 160, available at www.publications.parliament.uk Back

261   HC (2005-06) 573-iii, Q 161 Back

262   Ibid, Q 160 Back

263   Ibid, Q 160 Back

264   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 855 Back

265   Q 78 Back

266   Q 76 Back

267   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 858 Back

268   Ev 53, para 53 Back

269   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 895 Back

270   HL (2005-06) 128-I, para 71 Back

271   Q 92 Back

272   Q 92 Back

273   Q 197 Back

274   Q 80 Back

275   Q 80 Back

276   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 897 Back

277   Q 87 Back

278   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 931 Back

279   Ibid, Q 967 Back

280   Ev 52, para 3.3.2 Back

281   Ev 83 Back

282   HL (2005-06) 128-I, para 74 Back

283   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 999 Back

284   Ev 70 Back

285   Ev 70 Back

286   "BBC goes head-to-head with al-Jazeera", The Guardian, 26 October 2005  Back

287   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 917 Back

288   Ibid, Q 917 Back

289   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 855 Back

290   Ibid, Q 995 Back

291   HC (2005-06) 573-iii Back

292   Ev 53, para 53 Back

293   Q 141 Back

294   Ev 50, para 3.1.3  Back

295   Q 124 Back

296   Q 125 Back

297   Q 142 Back

298   "BBC Persian.com online news site blocked", BBC Press Notices, 24 January 2006, available at www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases Back

299   Ibid Back

300   Iran: The path ahead, speech by the Foreign Secretary at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on 13 March 2006 Back

301   Ev 47 Back

302   Ev 50, para 3.1.3 Back

303   BBC World is primarily an English-language news service Back

304   Ev 70 Back

305   HL (2005-06) 128-I, para 75 Back

306   Department for Culture, Media and Sport. A public service for all: the BBC in the digital age, March 2006, Cm 6763 Back

307   Ibid Back

308   Foreign Affairs Committee, uncorrected transcript of oral evidence, Session 2005-06, HC 573-v, Q 219, available at www.publications.parliament.uk Back

309   Ev 54  Back

310   Ev 54 Back

311   HC Deb, 31 October 2005, col 752W Back

312   Q 136 Back

313   Q 136 Back

314   Ev 72 Back

315   Ev 72 Back

316   Ev 72 Back

317   Ev 54 Back

318   Q 138 Back

319   "'Harassed' BBC shuts Uzbek office", BBC news online, available at:www.news.bbc.co.uk/ Back

320   Ev 71 Back

321   Q 138 Back

322   Q 138 Back

323   Q 138 Back

324   Ev 71 Back

325   Ev 71  Back

326   Ev 51, para 3.2.2 Back

327   Ibid Back

328   Q 142 Back

329   Ev 48 Back

330   BBC World Service Annual Review 2004/05, June 2005, p 5 Back

331   Q 152 Back

332   Ev 51, para 3.1.3 Back

333   HL (2005-06) 128-II, Q 854 Back

334   Ev 48 Back


 
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