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Reply to Nigel Chapman

20th November 2008

Received from Robert Chandler
Best wishes
Ute

A FEW POINTS IN REPLY TO NIGEL CHAPMAN

1. Chapman seems oddly unaware of the idea of time-zones (more than a
little surprising given his position as director of the World Service). He
writes, ‘However, we are extending our high quality news and current
affairs at key times of the day. This is a very significant addition to
the schedule at a time when audiences will listen to us (italics are
mine).’ He seems to be thinking only of Moscow and Petersburg.

It is because of Russia’s size that, pre-2003, when the Russian Service
was more short-wave oriented, there were 3 – 4 current affairs programmes
a day, at intervals of around 3 hours. For the same reason, features
programmes were also always repeated several times. During the last few
years, however, the longer (25 min.) features have only been broadcast a
single time, while 13 minute features have been broadcast twice.

2. Chapman writes, “we are adding new programmes to the schedule” . This
is not true. According to his letter and to this official press-release
http://www.bbc.co.uk/print/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2008/10_october/08/russian.shtml
– ‘Utro’ (the morning programme) – will be increased to 3 ½ hours and
‘Vecher’ (the evening programme) will be increased p to 4 hours. These are
not new programmes, and they will be lengthened only through the inclusion
of more ‘interactivity’ – i.e more phone-ins from listeners. These
phone-ins are no different to the many phone-ins on other Russian
stations. World Service official policy for many years now has been to
create programmes as similar as possible to those produced by radio
stations in the country concerned. This is often described in such terms
as ‘bringing producers closer to their audience’. It is, of course,
obvious to everyone except World Service management that the only possible
purpose of the World Service can be to produce programmes that are
different from those already being produced in a country.

3. Chapman writes, ‘We are closing a number of feature programmes’ The
Russian service is in fact closing ALL feature programmes – according to
the BBC’s own press-release, which states, ‘Longer format feature
programming will cease; their themes and issues will be incorporated into
mainstream news and current affairs content.’

4. Chapman says that features ‘are not news and current affairs
programming and are not regularly bringing significant amounts of analysis
to the output.’ This is untrue; such regular programmes as ‘Magazine on
British Life’, ‘Citizen of the World’, ‘English Club’, ‘West-End’, along
with one-off features on such matters as the British Council and the death
of Politkovskaya, have contained a great deal of important analysis. It
is possible that such analysis has been of more importance, and influenced
more people, than can easily be quantified. Let me give just two
examples. Professor Silvana Malle of the University of Verona has written
to me to say, ‘I was formerly, for 11 years, head of the OECD Economics
Department Division monitoring Russia’s economic developments. We all
benefited from the BBC reports.’ And, with regard to cultural matters, I
have heard from friends who work at the important Russian journal
Inostrannaya Literatura (‘Foreign Literature’) that they were often
guided by the programme ‘Bookshop’ as to what English books to review or
translate.

5. Chapman writes about ‘increasing the investment to produce more
analytical programmes’. This is also untrue. Analytical items within
Current affairs programmes (they can be heard on the site
www.bbcrussian.com) include packages, interviews and discussions that are
usually around 3-4 minutes long, sometimes up to 5-6); these do not allow
the same depth of analysis as a 13 or 25 minute features programme.
Russian service features continued a tradition unique to the BBC. The
fact that they were pre-recorded enabled the inclusion of a far greater
variety of voices and viewpoints.

6. Chapman denies that the BBC is ‘largely dependent on the Russian
authorities’. Here he is right – but only because the Russian
authorities, on which the BBC chose to make itself dependent, have now
withdrawn their co-operation. The BBC had put all its eggs into one
basket, making itself dependent on the willingness of the Russian
authorities to rebroadcast its programmes on FM. It did not explore a
variety of other possible paths – e.g. broadcasting from satellites or
neighbouring countries, perhaps digital short waves – and it even
neglected the maintenance of its short and medium wave capacity. Its
development of a partnership with Bolshoe Radio was rightly criticised by
a parliamentary committee; in its 2007 Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Annual Report, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee concluded:
‘we can find no evidence to support claims that the BBC Russian Service
was weaker than the main BBC news. However, we also conclude that the
development of a partnership with the international arm of a Russian state
broadcasting network puts the BBC World Service's reputation for editorial
independence at risk.’ The BBC in fact went so far down the path of
co-operation with the Russian authorities as to sign agreements that
allowed a Russian government official, Boris Boyarskov, to claim in August
2007 that the Russian service is a Russian, not British media outlet.

7. Nigel Chapman writes, ‘But all our shortwave signals are affected by
the current cycle of sunspot activity that has diminished the power of our
broadcasts over the last 18 months or so and will do so for another year
at least. This natural phenomenon is outside our control. We are
negotiating to obtain extra and stronger frequencies.’ Here he
contradicts himself. Sunspot activity is not entirely unpredictable. Why
did he not negotiate sooner to ‘obtain extra and stronger frequencies?’

8. It is also strange that Chapman should respond to a draft letter. He
in fact phoned me late in the afternoon of 5 November in an attempt to
dissuade me from sending the letter to the Times. And on 6 November he
tried to dissuade the Times from publishing the letter. This,
unsurprisingly, seems to have made the Times even more certain that there
are important issues with regard to the World Service that urgently need
open discussion.

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