Annual Review 2007/2008

Director's overview

A defining year for BBC World Service

Nigel Chapman

It was a broadcasting year that saw the launch of the first BBC television news channel for international audiences for a decade, improvements to our future media services and the retention of our global radio listenership after the large increases of the previous 12 months. In these ways, 2007/08 can be seen as a defining year; we demonstrated our ability to innovate while retaining the affection of audiences who have been loyal to us for a large part of our history.

We also celebrated our 75th birthday in December 2007 with a special season of programmes and events, which looked at the challenges free and independent media face worldwide.

Our ability to meet some of those challenges will be boosted by the significant extra funds we will receive over the next three years. Following discussions with the UK Government, the 2007 Spending Review granted us new resources to launch Persian television in the autumn of 2008, develop our web operations and extend our Arabic television service to a full 24/7 schedule. I am grateful for the continuing support BBC World Service has received from our stakeholders in Parliament and across Whitehall, in particular from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Treasury.

Strategic progress

With the launch of BBC Arabic television, our multimedia strategy took a giant step forward. That moment in March 2008 marked the successful culmination of a four-year journey to secure funding and deliver a high-quality television service in a vital region of the world. BBC Arabic television complements revamped radio and online services, enabling us to compete effectively as a trimedia broadcaster. The new channel investigates the issues that dominate people's lives in the Middle East and wider Arab world, from regional politics to global economics, from conflict to climate change. It is stretching the boundaries for interactive programming with the widest range of opportunities yet offered to audiences to participate in multimedia debate and discussion.

Kenya - man in front of burning car. Reuters

BBC World Service covered the Kenyan elections comprehensively with reports in English, Swahili and Somali coming in from reporters around the country.

In another historic move, BBC Arabic also became the first part of BBC World Service to leave Bush House to occupy studios in the new BBC News Centre in London W1. The technology is state of the art, integrating fully digital radio, television and online production systems. The editorial and technical teams have helped to pioneer new ways of multimedia working for the whole of the BBC. I congratulate them on the way they rose to the challenge on schedule and on budget.

The move into Arabic television symbolises the way we aspire to modernise all the major language services. Long gone are the days when BBC World Service could simply be a radio broadcaster with a single global offer. We are now tailoring services to each market. Where possible and affordable, we are focusing on multiple means of delivery, whether it be through increased FM relays, partner stations, streaming on the web, downloadable programmes or podcasts. We maintained the necessary pace of change in our future media portfolio by extending broadband video and Wap portals for mobiles into more languages and offering podcasts of selected programmes. At the time of writing, preparations were well underway for the launch of BBC Persian television in 2008. In the longer term, if we are going to compete seriously in regions like South Asia, and in parts of Africa, we know we need to offer a targeted television service there, too.

Audiences broadly stable

With the impact of Arabic television yet to be measured, BBC World Service's global audience held up well in the face of stiff competition in many markets. In terms of the number of people who use us every week, our target was to consolidate our position on radio and increase online usage significantly. These goals were broadly achieved. At 182 million, the radio audience was virtually unchanged from the record 183 million a year ago. As always, there are ebbs and flows beneath this topline figure. The estimate for Africa and the Middle East was up three million to 86 million, with strong performances in Nigeria and Kenya. Asia Pacific audiences were down by 3.1 million to 79.1 million, a decline largely attributable to Bangladesh, where there had been a major and arguably unsustainable increase during the previous year's political unrest.

"With the launch of BBC Arabic television, our multimedia strategy took a giant step forward."

Ratings for audience trust remained very positive. In a period when the BBC and commercial broadcasters in the UK had to address widespread public concern over this issue, BBC World Service's global reputation appeared unaffected. In all seven key markets surveyed, except Russia, the BBC scored highest for trust and objectivity among international broadcasters. We also did better than domestic stations in Nigeria, Bangladesh and three Indian states where surveys took place last year.

Mobile phone displaying BBC News mobile services

Expanding the means of delivery is extending access to BBC World Service content.

Online traffic grew by over 30% across the BBC's language sites funded by Grant- in-Aid. Investment in 24/7 news provision contributed to the success of sites such as bbcbrasil.com, which more than doubled the number of page impressions in a highly competitive market over a 12-month period. Another strong performer was BBC Urdu, which took advantage of the paucity of reliable and accessible media in Pakistan during the state of emergency, in the winter of 2007, to attract new users. By contrast, it was harder to make headway in South America, Russia and the Arab world with our Spanish, Russian and Arabic sites. It is not easy to find the right opportunities for partnerships to showcase our news content.

We achieved our objective of relaunching the bbcworldservice.com site to enable users to access the best of our English language radio content in a more effective way. It was gratifying that the site won the top award in the Radio category of the Webbys - the equivalent of the Oscars for the internet. The new Arabic site led the way in the use of 'embedded' video, offering users the increasingly familiar experience of watching video without having to open a new browser window. But we accept there is much to do to improve the size of our user base in the years to come and to keep pace with audience needs.

A reputation for quality

The quality of our journalism and programme making undoubtedly contributed to the maintenance of our global reputation and the depth of our audiences' trust. We also had strong external vindication of this when BBC World Service won nine awards at the 2008 Sony Radio Academy Awards, including four Golds.

Egypt - man walks past riot police. Corbis

BBC Arabic reported in depth on the unfolding story of social unrest and strikes caused by rising living costs in Egypt.

Special seasons of programmes extended the quality and range of our output throughout the year. One of the highlights was the Bangladesh by River journey - a centrepiece of the Taking the Temperature season on climate change - when journalists, including those from 17 language services, travelling in a floating studio were on hand to report on the devastating effects of Cyclone Sidr. This initiative won the Sony Gold Award for Multiplatform Radio activity.

In other focused weeks, we offered fresh perspectives on the state of democracy in Russia and the role of politics in China. The global economy was a major theme throughout the year. We investigated whether economies such as those of China, Japan, Singapore and India would be dragged down by the credit crisis in the United States in a series that anticipated the upheavals that followed later in the year. AT

The heart of the story

The most uplifting news of the year was the release of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston in July 2007, after spending 114 days in captivity in Gaza. His work was recognised by a number of awards: from the BBC World Service in its own annual awards; human rights group Amnesty International; and, the London Press Club. We were delighted when he became the new presenter of BBC World Service's edition of From Our Own Correspondent.

"The whole of the BBC, and its audiences, salute the bravery and dedication of our teams in the field who risk much to make sure important stories get told."

We continue to rely on the courage and dedication of correspondents like Alan to cover challenging stories. Among many whose work stood out was Owen Bennett-Jones and the rest of the English and Urdu language teams who reported on the death of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. Owen won a clutch of awards for his work on Pakistan, including the Sony Gold for Best News Journalist. In the violent aftermath of Kenya's presidential election, Karen Allen and her colleagues combined their analysis with a vivid picture of events on the ground.

The contribution of local reporters who work for all the language services is immense. In Burma, for example, exceptional coverage of the pro-democracy uprising in the autumn of 2007 stood out for the way sources on the ground were able to channel crucial knowledge of the story to all parts of the BBC, informing audiences in the UK as well as around the world, often at high risk to themselves.

Iraq remains a particularly difficult country in which to operate because of the level of violence and security restrictions. Our teams worked hard to extend coverage beyond day-to-day events, providing context and analysis for a global audience. Conditions are hazardous for correspondents and contributors in a long list of countries, from Afghanistan to Somalia. The whole of the BBC, and its audiences, salute the bravery and dedication of our teams in the field who risk much to make sure important stories get told.

Continuing challenges

It is regrettable that access to BBC news material is still obstructed in some parts of the world. In China, blocking of Mandarin radio and online content remains deep and persistent: access to online news material in English continues to be intermittent. In Iran, our Persian website is still blocked despite our best efforts to persuade the authorities there to widen access. When I visited Iran in November, I met key government advisers in preparation for the launch of BBC Persian television. They told me how, in contrast to the obstacles faced by ordinary users, the BBC Persian website is read daily by officials, some of whom brief senior officials in the government of Iran. It is our hope that the BBC's commitment to its Persian audiences will be matched by a more open climate and greater access to Iran for our correspondents in the future.

The theme we chose to celebrate the 75th anniversary of BBC World Service in 2007 is an appropriate note on which to finish this review. It was Free to Speak. Let us hope that more of the world will be free to speak, listen and watch in the year ahead.

Nigel Chapman

Nigel Chapman
Director, BBC World Service
June 2008