London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Working with BBC for over 20 years, Nigel Chapman, Director of BBC World Service, is responsible for the overall editorial leadership and management of the international radio broadcaster and its new media operations.
With a track record of senior management positions and editorial posts in television radio and online, Chapman’s emphasis is on news and current affairs.
One of the BBC’s latest ventures, BBC Arabic television will go live on March 11, initially broadcasting 12 hours per day and will become a 24-hour service later this year.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: What are your aims, what are you hoping to achieve with BBC Arabic Television?
A: Obviously we want to start with a good solid launch to the channel, next week on March 11. Our position to launch the channel is based on very strong evidence that we have that people in the Arab world would like a television news service from BBC. Obviously we had one briefly in the 1990s and that stopped and we were disappointed about that. We believe that by putting that alongside our radio and new media services, we can have an even bigger impact than we already have in the Middle East and around the Arab world.
In terms of editorial impact, however, obviously we are talking about when the people will use the service. At the moment we have about 14-15 million people using the Arabic services (internet, radio, television) every week, we would like to increase that significantly, say up to 40 million people within five years and obviously television would be the drive for growth in that area.
Additionally, we would want to make sure that the people who use our services thought that we were trustworthy, independent, fair and impartial then they could compare us with our competitors in the region. So it’s a bit of a success score if you like, in terms of the number of people but also about what they think of us.
Q: You stated that you always strive to be impartial, but don’t you think that what many people are expecting is not impartiality at all but rather the exposure of corruption and conflicts in Arab states and to discuss issues that other channels avoid? Do you agree that in the absence of democracy in many of the states that what is required is a “campaigning broadcaster” not impartial media as such?
A: That is a very interesting question. The BBC is not a campaigning broadcaster; it does not have a view about issues in the Middle East or anywhere else. BBC’s job is to report them fairly and accurately and to reflect the relevant points of view in relation to them.
Regarding corruption, obviously nobody in their right mind would advocate corruption, except the people who are guilty of it. Therefore, if we encounter corruption in the Middle East in a government or an institution or any other body and after we have verified it, we will the report about it. If governments don’t like that, that is their issue, we are not going to let our agenda be dictated by parties in the Middle East or anywhere else.
Q: In light of the charter* recently published by the Arab League, do you think it is going to affect your work? How are you going to deal in the event that some countries might ask you to leave or close down your bureaus?
A: That would be their decision in the end, it won’t be our decision. If hypothetically a country kicked out a BBC reporter, the BBC will be striving in every possible way to ensure that it covers the big events in that country or region fairly, reflecting the point of view of the government where relevant. That is part of journalism – it is what we do for a living, we have always done that.
The BBC reports “without fear or favor” even if that means upsetting governments. We always believe in the end that we speak for the public interest, we are a public service organization rather than an organization that helps a particular section in society or particular groups or any other party – that is not our job.
Q: That is certainly true of the mother BBC brand; however there are many criticisms that the BBC Arabic Service does not have the same values or editorial values as the mother BBC brand. There was an article published in ‘The New York Times’ last summer [by Professor Frank H. Stewart] entitled “The Biased Broadcasting Corporation” accusing the Arabic Service of broadcasting content that did not reflect the mother BBC channel’s standards and values. What is your view on that?
A: The Arabic BBC website is widely available for everyone to view and we always have many listeners to Arabic radio in the Middle East. I have not had any complaints about our coverage; I’m sure that if there was a serious issue or a lack of impartiality and independence or if people believed that we were being one-sided about it, we would have had a lot of complaints about it and we haven’t had any. ً
Q: But this was published in ‘The New York Times’…
A: Right, you are talking about the Frank Stewart article, I hadn’t realized you were referring to that; we did some detailed analysis to the stories that he cited and we, I believe, refuted his position emphatically. That was one column in one paper. Even these attacks are quite rare on the BBC, most people think that we are fair and impartial and that is one of the reasons that they trust us so much.
Q: If there were indeed any discrepancies then it would appear on television since it is more visible than radio, which is blocked in various countries – do you agree?
A: Clearly the visibility of television and the fact that it is a free to air service and thus may be viewed by anybody who comes to the Middle East – by anyone I mean any person who has a satellite television service. Of course it puts it under the spotlight and subjects it to great scrutiny but we’ve got to have confidence in our convictions. We believe we can launch a good service that can share the same values as the rest of BBC and that includes the BBC Arabic Services and if we get something wrong or if people have complaints to make, then they have to make them and we will deal with them and we will be open and transparent about that. That is the BBC way.
Q: To go back to the question raised during the conference; BBC will initially be broadcasting 12 hours a day not 24 and I am sure if you had sufficient funding at the right time you would have launched it as a 24-hour service. I know for a fact that Al-Arabiya launched with US $30 million and for the first two weeks they broadcasted six hours a day and then became a 24-hour service because of the Iraq war situation. That sum is much less than what is available to BBC, US $50 million, so what’s stopping you from launching a 24-hour service?
A: Because we do not have the funds (funded by the UK Foreign Office) available until midway through the next financial year and to take that money from other allocated areas would mean a dramatic overhaul and I am not prepared to do that. We have already made a lot of changes; we had to raise money to fund the BBC Arabic Service and I think we have to balance things and hopefully by the summer, which is not too far, we will have a 24-hour service. Obviously if there was a huge story, like the Iraq war then we have to consider what to do but no one is anticipating a war in the Middle East on that scale.
Q: But we are no longer in 1996, you have a lot of competition from channels that are already established, don’t you think that more efforts are required to get the funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office immediately?
A: All I can say is that a lot of efforts went into it and I personally held discussions with them in 2006 and I raised the issue. They agreed to give the funding but not the whole funding in the first year – about half of it – and then the full funding later on. I did my very best and if it’s not enough for you, I am very sorry but we could not have tried harder.
Q: It’s not about me. In the conference you talked about the BBC “adding credibility to Britain” in the Middle East by funding this service, don’t you think that is worth a few more million?
A: It does add credibility to Britain because it projects certain values about journalism and the way the news is reported. As for the funding, that is something you have to take up with them [the Foreign and Commonwealth Office]. All I can say is that I did raise the case and we did get the money but not the whole amount of money at once – it’s not the end of the world.
Q: There are a lot of questions surrounding the employment process at BBC Arabic Services. It has become clear that MBC Group (includes Al-Arabiya) is disturbed by what has been described as your deliberate approaching of the network’s high-ranking employees in an attempt to recruit them, what is your view on that?
A: I do not accept that. The jobs for the BBC Arabic Service were advertised openly and transparently. Many people, hundreds of people applied to them and we picked the very best – no matter where they come from, which part of the world, regardless of their religious views and nationalities or who they work for. Obviously if they have a good track record in television it helps but we did not go and target a company. These people applied openly and we picked the best. This is the way BBC recruits people for everything, not just for the Arabic Service.
Q: The MBC’s claim stems from the fact that a key member of staff here used to previously work for MBC and word is that he has been in contact with former colleagues to try and recruit them, is that true?
A: I don’t have any evidence for that but what I do know is that we got a good response to our very open process of recruitment; journalists, producers, writers and people in production but also for our presenters and correspondents.
Q: There is a rumor circulating in the journalists’ community that there is an Egyptian majority in the Arabic Service. I have personally followed up on this story more than once but it was always impossible to get a percentage because of the informal nature of the process. Do you think that now since things have reached a more stable and final stage that we can now get a final answer on this matter?
A: That would be approaching it from a completely wrong perspective. We, in the end, recruit people on their merit, on their journalistic track record and on their ability to develop over time so I’ve got no idea how many Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians or any other nationality there are in the Arabic service. It is not an issue that really bothers me because in the end I know broadly that we have the best people working for us that we could possibly recruit, picked on merit, irrespective of where they come from.
I have heard this rumor and don’t accept the hypothesis. And secondly, if you look on what’s on the screen the television presenters that we recruited for the Arabic Service come from a wide range in the Middle East; they come from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt etc.
Q: I’m going to quote something you said in your speech “transforming BBC World Service to a digital age” (October 2005), you mentioned seven capital cities across the Middle East and added that studies “indicate that 85 percent or more of the target group are likely to watch.” Obviously “likely to watch” does not mean that they will continue to tune in; I am assuming there will be further studies conducted later on?
A: What we will be doing is once we’ve launched the channel we will be conducting regular audience research in key Middle East countries – I’m not precisely sure which ones yet but they will be within a reasonable range. We do that already with our radio and online to see how they’re doing and obviously we will doing that for television as well once it has been established. We will definitely be conducting research regularly from day one and we are very transparent about that and do not hide it.
* Charter published by the Arab League mid-February 2008 calling on broadcasters to avoid insulting Arab leaders, respect Muslim values and to uphold cultural and social traditions. It moreover condemned satellite channels for disrupting social harmony, national unity, public order and traditional values.
REACTIONS TO THE LAUNCH OF BBC ARABIC SERVICE
“CNN has served an Arabic audience for a number of years with cnnarabic.com as part of its portfolio of award-winning and top-rated digital services. We continue to investigate possible TV joint ventures in the region but have nothing to announce at this time.
In the meantime, we have been confirmed as the leading English language international news channel in the region according to the latest available data (Middle Eastern Business Elite Survey 2006), which points to the appetite in the region for our existing service.”
‘Arab viewers would have to hope that Breaking News only occurs in the 12-hours during which BBC is broadcasting! Otherwise, they risk not knowing about it at all, or getting it too late if they were to only rely on BBC Arabic TV for their information, news and breaking news. As far as the launch of the BBC Arabic television service is concerned, they are in fact making a ‘comeback’ after they’ve decided to ‘close shop’ and leave the region, in the first place. We hope they will stay the course and show a greater commitment to the region, its genuine people and real issues this time.”
Regarding BBC poaching staff from Al-Arabiya News Channel: “Don’t tell me that people simply applied for jobs on the internet! It’s one thing to post a job advert on the net and quite another to individually handpick and approach selected individuals, using insider information, and engage in a systematic poaching process. We would have thought actions like this beneath the professional ethical work practices of the BBC.”
MAZEN HAYEK – MBC’S GROUP DIRECTOR OF MARKETING AND PR
“Alhurra welcomes the arrival of BBC to the vibrant Arabic television marketplace. Just as Alhurra’s programming has added to the variety of voices and opinions available to Middle Eastern audiences, so too will BBC’s Arabic product. Both Alhurra and BBC Arabic television come from long, well-tested, journalistic traditions. More journalistic media choices can only further empower viewers in the Middle East who are seeking accurate and objective news and information.”
BRIAN CONTIFF, PRESIDENT OF MBN WHICH RUNS ALHURRA CHANNEL