Cuts, strikes, television and record audiences – farewell to my World

Nigel Chapman, who stepped down as head of the BBC World Service last week, looks back on his tenure and tells Ian Burrell why his decision to cut 10 language services was the right one
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The Independent Online

More than three years on and Nigel Chapman says he's still troubled by the anguished facial expressions of his staff, the victims of the most bloody cut backs in the history of the BBC World Service.

When Chapman took out his sword and severed 10 language services, including those in Polish, Greek, Hungarian and Czech, he did away with 200 jobs. "I can still see the faces of the people right in front of me now, their sad faces, proud but sad about having to leave the BBC," he says of the moment he called a mass meeting in Bush House in October 2005 to announce that he wanted to take the budget from those services and spend it on plans for an Arabic TV channel. "I got quite a tough time from them, as you'd expect. People felt angry and upset and that would only be human wouldn't it?"

Then again, he says, his decision was "strategically absolutely right". Chapman, without hesitation, embraces the suggestion that he has been a "radical" director of one of the most famous services in broadcasting and hopes to be remembered that way, after stepping down last Friday following five years in the post. "Yes, yes. I would. I think my record speaks for itself, if you look at the level of change that's happened. The arrival of Arabic television and the closure of the language services in 2005 was the biggest single change in the World Service's 76-year history. That's a fact. You might dispute whether it's a good change or bad change but the scale of it is on a different level."

And one the eve of his departure there was further unrest at Bush House, with staff from the Hindi, Urdu and Nepali services taking strike action last Thursday over Chapman's plans to transfer posts from London to Islamabad, Delhi and Kathmandu, as part of a plan to bring the World Service closer to its audiences.

These are not the subjects that Chapman most wishes to discuss. He would prefer to dwell on his record of driving up the World Service audience from 146m listeners to 183m, while transforming it into a genuine multi-platform offering with an enhanced website and controversial television networks in Arabic and Persian.

"If you said we can do all those things with the budget that we've got and when we measured our impact we were doing better than ever, I would have settled for that. Seriously," he says, assessing his own record. "The risk is that when you've got your mind on some very big ventures you can take your eye off the ball."

Chapman, 53, has left the BBC after 31 years to become chief executive of children's charity Plan International. Asked if there was a moment that made him think he should leave journalism for charity work he cites a moment in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, where he had travelled on World Service business and found a street urchin of about 12 in tears.

"She was very, very upset because she had had stolen from her the grain that she picked up off the floor from the market," he recalls. "I thought, 'What is going on here, what sort of world have we got into where small children have to eke out an existence on the streets of Dhaka, in the heat and noise and dirt, living off bits of rice that have fallen out of bags in the market?' It can't be right that."

It was, he stresses, the World Service, where he has been for eight years, that "opened my eyes to places and people that you would never have the chance to visit in your normal life", and with it the shifting international environment that he saw – both geo-politically and in terms of the broadcasting landscape – that convinced him that the BBC had to change shape to maintain its global relevance.

He seems irritated by those who remind him that the World Service is a precious vase to be protected. Chapman thinks of it as something more organic. "I've always believed in the end that you've got limited resources and have to examine the effectiveness of everything and be prepared to change quite radically," he argues.

The Eastern European language services played a crucial role in the Cold War years and were still relevant into the Nineties, until the break-up of the old order enabled new and independent media to flourish. "The BBC became less relevant, people were less dependent on it and audiences started to fall," suggests Chapman. "You've done your job and you have to walk away with your head held high, proud of what you've achieved."

In the Middle East, the BBC was being out-punched by Arab language television news. "How can we compete for attention in the Middle East without a satellite television news service? If we didn't have one we'd just be batting on with radio and new media, how could you compete with Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah in that way? You can't."

So last year Chapman launched the World Service's Arabic TV service, following it with this year's Persian service, in spite of claims by the Iranian authorities that the broadcasts were illegal, with the consequence that the BBC does not have a team of Farsi-speaking news-gatherers in Iran. But the Persian service (unlike the Arabic one) is not just BBC news and current affairs but a mix that includes documentaries and programmes on the arts. Iranians and viewers from the Persian-speaking diaspora are even treated to Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear with a Farsi voiceover. "It's going down a storm I'm told. The boy racers in northern Tehran think it's a great show," says Chapman, laughing.

"There's also a terrific interactive daily programme [Nowbat-e Shoma or Your Turn] where viewers can debate issues. So you get Farsi speakers in Europe and America debating with Farsi speakers in Iran and Afghanistan about Iran's place in the world, the nuclear issue, the Gaza story. That's a unique opportunity for them which they wouldn't have had otherwise."

In recent months, Chapman has endured further criticism over his management of the Russian service, the second largest in the portfolio. He has been accused by listeners and ex-staff, in correspondence with The Times, of "the destruction of the most valuable parts of the service", losing listeners and allowing growing influence from people who "had worked for the Soviet propaganda machine".

Chapman says the Russia-Georgia conflict demonstrated that the service needed to shift resources from its features department in order to become a genuine seven-day news operation. "I totally reject, in any sense at all, that there's any evidence whatsoever, that there was some sort of compromise about the editorial standards of the Russian service, this is a wild allegation put around by people frankly who have got axes to grind and it does not stand up to analysis," he adds, angrily, at the suggestion that the BBC has been desperate to retain local Russian radio partners.

His own commitment to defending editorial standards, he points out, was demonstrated by the recent withdrawal of output to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation after some of the World Service output was censored. "To critics who say 'Nigel is prepared to compromise on editorial matters in order that staff should work overseas, he turns a blind eye', I say 'There's a concrete example of where we don't turn a blind eye to those pressures.' We've actually been very decisive about it."

As Chapman heads off to work for Plan International he knows he will have plenty more tough decisions to take, as indeed will his successor, Peter Horrocks, who takes up the post as director of the World Service next month.