The BBC World Service has announced plans to close ten of its foreign language services, almost all of them in Eastern Europe, in order to start an Arabic TV service in the Middle East. Is the move purely a response to marketplace considerations? Or are there other factors at work too? Bob puts the question to Jerry Timmins, who runs the organization's operations for Africa and the Middle East.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Recently the BBC announced a transformation that World Service director Nigel Chapman called, quote, "the most far-reaching since the BBC began international broadcasting more than 70 years ago." The Beeb is shutting down 10 foreign language broadcasts and opening an Arabic language television service in the Middle East. The new service will be available in 2007 and will be free for households with cable or satellite. Jerry Timmins is BBC chief of Africa and the Middle East, and he joins me now. Jerry, welcome to OTM.
JERRY TIMMINS: Thanks very much, Bob. It's a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: First I want to ask about what is being sacrificed, and that's the radio broadcasts in Eastern Europe. Why are they deemed no longer necessary?
JERRY TIMMINS: Well, we're not cutting all of the languages to Eastern Europe but a significant proportion of them are going. What we did was we looked at all of our language services and our English output as well, and where we identified that there had been sufficient change in a market so that there was more free media available and where, because of those changes, we were competing less effectively - you know, over the last years five hours audiences had declined rather than gone up - we took the tough decision to stop those particular languages.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's talk for a moment about the role that these Eastern European stations played during the Cold War because clearly they were an important source of information from the West across the Iron Curtain, where information was tightly controlled. And as a consequence, their Western news and information is widely credited for helping propel the fall of Communism. I don't know if there was an explicit political motivation to have those services there to begin with. First of all, was there and is there a parallel in the Arabic language television service?
JERRY TIMMINS: No, not at all. The BBC World Service is a fundamental part of the wider BBC, and the BBC's never had an agenda like that. The BBC's role under the law that set us up is to provide impartial, balanced, fair information. And people have a hunger for accurate and impartial information, and if the BBC provides that, it gives us a real competitive edge.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, on the competitive situation, leaving Eastern Europe, because there are plenty of other media options now available there, but going into the Mideast, where there are, you know, everybody and his brother already has a satellite channel, most especially Al-Jazeera, which is, you know, widely viewed and widely respected in the Arab world - does the Middle East need yet one more satellite TV channel?
JERRY TIMMINS: Well, we've done a lot of research recently exactly into that point, and the answer is a resounding yes. In the seven countries recently researched, 80 to 85 percent of respondents were saying that they would be likely or very likely to watch a proposition from the BBC in Arabic on television. And I think that is because the BBC has a trusted reputation in the Middle East. We've been on radio in Arabic for over 60 years. And I think if we do something that is similar in tone and style and adheres to the BBC's values around news, then it will be very distinctive in the marketplace and it will attract people to it.
BOB GARFIELD: I've read so much about how the Arab street regards the Western media as little more than the propaganda organ of, for example, the Bush and Blair administrations. Is it truly regarded in the Arab world as an independent voice?
JERRY TIMMINS: It's true that if you look at the research and you visit the Middle East and you talk to people, the BBC is a trusted voice. We've reported stories accurately that other stations in the Middle East won't touch and we've reported stories about the British government accurately and impartially and are highly respected for that as well.
BOB GARFIELD: Did the "sexed up" dossier scandal that so caused you problems in the U.K., did it actually work to your advantage in winning the hearts and minds of Arab listeners?
JERRY TIMMINS: Well, I think people looked at that story, looked at the pressures that were brought to bear on the BBC, looked at the reaction of the organization and the way in which the BBC reported it back to its audiences and made their own judgments about that. And it was hardly deliberate on our part, but it certainly didn't do us any harm in the Middle East.
BOB GARFIELD: In the mid-'90s, the BBC had an Arabic television channel but it closed amid some controversy. Can you tell me about what's changed since then?
JERRY TIMMINS: In the '90s, when the Arabic television service started on the BBC, it was commercially funded. It was funded by money from a Saudi company, and it ran for two years. It had to survive commercially, and we found that we simply couldn't do it. And the editorial pressures in particular that we found ourselves under proved to be intolerable and we closed the service down because we didn't want to succumb to those pressures.
BOB GARFIELD: The "he who pays the piper calls the tune" pressures.
JERRY TIMMINS: Yes. It was money from a Saudi company and they were particularly sensitive to some of the stories that we ran about the Saudi regime.
BOB GARFIELD: The money for this substantially comes from the British Foreign Office. How are viewers of the BBC Arabic satellite channels supposed to separate independent journalism from British diplomacy?
JERRY TIMMINS: There is no direct connection between British foreign policy and what the BBC does. We're completely editorially independent. We're legally obliged to be so. And the people who come to work for the BBC are very proud of that fact and wouldn't dream of doing anything else.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Jerry, thank you very much.
JERRY TIMMINS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Jerry Timmins is head of the BBC in Africa and the Middle East.