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Q & A with Director of the BBC’s Global News division Richard Sambrook. | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Q & A with Director of the BBC’s Global News division Richard Sambrook.

Q & A with Director of the BBC's Global News division Richard Sambrook.

Q & A with Director of the BBC’s Global News division Richard Sambrook.

Q: I was hoping to begin from a different angle, but in light of recent events, I feel I must ask you if you think that people still trust your organization? I am referring to the two recent ‘scandals’: The ‘Year with the Queen’ documentary, and the manipulation of results of ‘phone-in’ competitions. This is especially relevant since all these events took place only a few years after the famous Hutton report blow.

A: Absolutely… Yes, they can trust us. I also think it is very important not to lump a lot of different things together and think that they are all the same thing, because they are not. What is happening now in British broadcasting, not just the BBC, is a new level of transparency and accountability, which has exposed several things. In some cases, there are issues such as extorting money from members of the public  but this was not the case with the BBC.

However, it has also uncovered some misjudgments on behalf of some of our producers who were trying to improve their programs or keep their live program on the air. They mislead the public in terms of whether the callers were genuine or not. This is clearly very wrong and it should not happen, but it was due to the panic that accompanies a live program. We need to look at why these people feel that they are under such pressure and make them understand that they cannot act this way regardless of the pressure they are exposed to.

Also, recent events have resulted in igniting a debate on television production in general, and the fact that in television, like cinema, sometimes edits rearrange things in a different order so as to have a better impact. Likewise, sometimes trailers are produced differently than documentaries… Personally, in 99 percent of the cases I do not see anything wrong with that. However, this has resulted in sparking a debate on if we need to be more open with the audience so that they can have a better understanding of the process of television production.

Q: But television is very different from the cinema, movies are fiction anyways, but here we are talking about documentaries and news reports  surely that is a different matter?

A: I am talking about production techniques. For example, when ‘cutaways’ are used during interviews, you see an image of the interviewer’s head or of him asking a question during the interview. Often these ‘cutaways’ are taken at a different time than the actual interview, so would you consider this to be deceiving the audience? The answer is no. The other option is to take two or three cameras along to the interview, which will triple your costs. Also, this does not befit our status as a publicly funded organization since it does not demonstrate proper use of public money. So on one end, you talk about things like that, however on the other end, the audience needs to understand that there are things that are quite legitimate to do in television production.

Secondly, I am not defending the Queen documentary trailer at all; it is clear that something went wrong between the BBC and the independent production company it deals with, but trailers are sometimes cut out of sequence to show the best shots, the trailer is not the same thing as the actual documentary. Therefore, people must understand that trailers are made for promotion, and are not the same thing as a 30-minute or an hour-length documentary, which is what the integrity needs to be judged upon.

Q: Returning to the Hutton report and what happened with BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan. You were part of the management team at the time, how would you describe that experience and what were the lessons learned?

A: My reflection is that Andrew Gilligan as a reporter was a little bit sloppy, his notes should have been better and he should have been more disciplined as a reporter, but the story was broadly right. The government attacked the integrity and independence of the BBC, which was something we had to resist.

Then, we got to a situation where the government was defending its integrity; we were defending our independence, which is absolutely primary for us. It was a difficult situation with all those pressures, David Kelly killed himself. There was an inquiry, then there was the Hutton report, which was very critical of us, and we did not think it was as balanced as it needed to be. What I always say to people is that if you are going to read the Hutton report you need to read the Butler [report] as well.

Looking back on it; I think it was a truly unfortunate series of events, especially since a man had died. However, as I said I think the story was broadly right, and I think many people now believe that the government was misusing intelligence information. There have been several inquiries that indicated the same conclusion. We had to defend our independence and in so doing we had this huge row, and the chairman resigned.

Q: Why didn’t the BBC respond with a campaign to say that it had been right all along?

A: It is not in the BBC’s place to do so. We have never been a campaigning organization. We talk about impartiality and neutrality a great deal and we have to mean it. One of the hallmarks of the BBC is that we put the facts before the people and let them reach their own conclusions  we do not tell them what to think.

Q: Even when there are fingers pointed at you?

A: Especially when this is the case. This is when our standards and beliefs are put to the test. That is why during that period, I told our teams that they had to be as hard on us and on me as they would have been on anyone else, if not harder. I commissioned a Panorama documentary and told them that I will not interfere in anything related to editorial related and that I will answer any question they ask. I think this is how we demonstrate our independence, and in the long run people will have more trust in what we do.

Q: Well, reputation is important since you are about to launch two new channels; BBC Arabic Service and BBC Persian Service. What are the updates on those fronts; and have the launch dates been designated?

A: We will not commit ourselves to a launch date yet, but the Arab television will be launched before the end of the year. It will initially broadcast for 12 hours a day and then move to 24 hours when we get the full funding. As for Persian station; it is intended to launch in the first half of next year, and it will start with 8 hours of transmission.

Q: How will you deal with the prevalent attitude in the Arab world that is suspicious towards Western media? I am not referring to the BBC alone, however many people do not trust the Western media.

A: Well, we just talked about the Hutton report, and events like this demonstrate our independence from the government, we have a similar confrontation every 10 or 15 years.

In terms of the service itself, in the end the audience will decide. We have a strong brand [name] in the region based on the BBC Arabic radio service since the 1930s, in addition to our Arabic online service, which we are constantly modernizing.

All our research suggests that our television will have a strong audience. However, I do not expect to match Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera for audience person-to-person. There are people who say that we are out to beat them, I am not… we are an international channel and a foreign broadcaster in the region, we need to understand that we will not match them person-to-person in terms of reach and share. What I do believe and what we are trying to do is to be one of the two or three channels people go to in order to find out what is going on, and offer a strong and valuable service to the region.

Q: But there are several similar projects that have not been successful, or which haven’t achieved the success they had anticipated. Consider the performance of the American ‘Al Hurra’ channel and the Arabic services of ‘France 24’ and ‘Russia Today’  is that not indicative of something?

A: This proves what an important region it is for international broadcasters; we are going through unprecedented times in broadcasting competition. I think that what distinguishes us is that while ‘Al Hurra’ is set out to give the American perspective of the world and ‘France 24’ is set out to do the same with the French perceptive, the BBC does not want to give the British government’s perspective of the world. We always said we were independent and impartial; it is true that we are a British broadcaster and inevitably there will be a British flavor to our work, but we always sought to give an international perspective and to have an international focus, not that of the British government. In the end, let us wait and see what happens when the channel is launched.

Q: It is common knowledge that you are setting up bureaus in various Arab countries; but what about the Farsi Service, how will you manage without a bureau in Iran?

A: We will have extra resources on the ground for the service in Iran.

Q: And the Iranian government does not oppose that?

A: Until now, no.

Q: What do you mean by the “resources on the ground”; a bureau, reporters or freelancers?

A: The BBC plans to get content for its proposed Farsi TV service from Iran. The specifics of what we will need will be finalized next year when the project gathers pace.

Q: Back to the Arabic Service, there is criticism of the existing Arabic radio service and allegations such as those published in ‘The New York Times’ recently saying that its standards were different from those of the main BBC channels. For example, it was said that the BBC Arabic radio service was pro-Hezbollah during the recent war in Lebanon  how closely monitored is the Arabic radio service?

A: It is certainly monitored and reviewed constantly. I do not accept these criticisms and did not accept ‘The New York Times’’ piece, which was written by a person who is very pro-Israel. We rejected the criticisms he made  but that doesn’t get the same profile in ‘The New York Times’ as the original piece.

I don’t think we were pro-Hezbollah during the war last year, but we did what we always do, which is to give a full range of voices and perspectives. The fact that we do this more than other Western channels might perhaps have prompted some people to reach certain conclusions. Returning to the issue of independence and impartiality, we have to mean what we say; we will not just have voices that favor Israel or those in favor of Hezbollah, but both… In addition to other voices as well.

Q: There is another criticism regarding the BBC Arabic radio service, many people say that despite the presence of many nationalities, there is an Egyptian dominance at the service. I have previously written an article on this topic and the response I got is that your organization is against discrimination of any kind in employment. However, I was also told, “Egypt is the largest Arab country [in terms of population] with the largest number of educated and experienced media professionals, in addition to having a high percentage of English speakers, which is vital to the BBC. So, by default, there should be more Egyptians than any other nationality.” My question then is: Why not just call it BBC Egypt rather than BBC Arabic?

A: Because it is not BBC Egypt, it BBC Arabic … and as you have already said there are people from other nationalities and countries. I have no idea, and neither do I want to know, what the breakdown of nationalities on BBC Arabic is. Perhaps what you are saying is true, maybe, I do not know.

Our recruitment process, however, is not simply run by the Arabic Service or by the Egyptians; it is run independently of any particular service. It is fully monitored with regards to advertising and short-listing. We have written tests which are assessed blindly; whoever is assessing the written test does not know the nationality of the person who did it. And we have a professional HR operation that oversees the recruitment process, so we do have a fairly scrupulous selection process throughout the BBC, in order to prevent the things you are mentioning. I think people always try to find conspiracies, I do not believe in conspiracies.

Q: So where are the journalists from the Gulf, or Jordan; can you name one Arab from the Gulf region who is a star on your Arabic radio?

A: You may know people in the Arabic service better than I do, but all I can say is that there are absolutely scrupulous processes to try and prevent one person or one clique of people recruiting those who are of their own kind.

There are some Israelis who always ask us about the views and backgrounds of the people who work in our organization, and how what they studied at university will affect our journalism. In the end, we must push all this aside and be judged on what we broadcast. Where someone went to university, who they married… none of that matters. That is nobody’s business. The quality and impartiality of what we broadcast is what we should be judged on.

Q: You had to shut down about 10 of your Eastern European services to fund your Arabic Service, many people believe this was inappropriate as democracy is still new and vulnerable in Eastern Europe  was there any way to prevent this from happening?

A: No… It would be wonderful if we had unlimited funds, but we have a fixed budget and we have to make difficult decisions. The Middle East is becoming increasingly important; television has become an essential way to reach that region, so if we wanted to continue to reach that audience we had to get into television. We had a process of re-prioritization which included a number of things, such as audience size, geo-political considerations and the ability to access information freely in the region concerned. Based on those factors, the Eastern European countries fell away.

Q: But don’t you think that this makes the BBC look more like a tool in the hands of British foreign policy; it sounds as if you are saying “mission accomplished” in Eastern Europe and now it is time for the Middle East  is that right?

A: No it isn’t. If the Balkan war was still going on, we wouldn’t have been cutting our services. No one can say that the Middle East is not in the eye of an international storm currently; there is Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian issue, which are all hugely important to the world, so we must continue our presence and influence in this region.

Poland and the Eastern European countries are no longer important. They were during the Cold War and this is not simply a matter of British foreign policy, but rather the fact that the world has changed. With regards to the people who accuse us of being a tool for the British government; all I would say again is that our independence is formally and publicly written in the constitution of the world service. As for the notion that we are told what to do, we confront the British government all the time and there are plenty of examples to illustrate that.