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Don't let politicians or preachers tell you what to do: BBC director advises Egypt journalists

In an exclusive interview with Ahram Online, Director of the BBC World Services Peter Horrocks talks about the process of change in public media in Egypt and changes in his home organisation

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Saturday 13 Oct 2012
Peter Horrocks L
Peter Horrocks, director of BBC World Services (Photo: AP)
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Peter Horrocks, Director of the BBC World Service visited Egypt last week. In a time where state media in Egypt faces political and organizational dilemmas, Horrocks sat down with Ahram Online to share his perspective on Egypt's prospects of shifting towards public service media, stemming from his own reflections on the BBC's experience

State media in Egypt has come under scrutiny after the 25 January uprising, especially after the skewed coverage during the 18-days of protest, which was the pinnacle of how strong the government controls the public media.

In the wake of the uprising, journalists in print and audiovisual media started initiatives that aim to purge public media from the management and practices of the authoritarian regimes Egypt has been living under since the 1950s.

After Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, the Ministry of Information was abolished in the first cabinet reshuffle led by Essam Sharaf. The move was met with basic approval. Since the ministry in charge of media and information in Egypt was considered a crucial obstacle in the road to media independence in Egypt, especially in the case of state media.

But the controversial Minister of Information position was brought back in July 2011 when government claimed there were tasks only to be carried out by this position.  
Moreover, in President Morsi's first government led by Hisham Qandil, the Minister of Information was appointed to Muslim Brotherhood member, Salah Abdel-Maksoud, to which the president also belongs. This move raised critic's doubts about the party attempting to control state media.

During his short visit to Cairo, Horrocks made public appearances and spoke in seminars to print journalists, television executives and mass communication students. His talks revolved around the BBC's approach as a politically independent and long-standing public media organisation, and the importance of heeding the transformation from media that serves the state's interest to one that serves that of the public.

AO: How do you see the correlation between political and organizational reforms in Egypt's context where calls are escalating about the necessity for political independence and internal reforms?

PH: From my perspective, the organisation's independence structure should be set first so that the ministers are no longer directing the broadcasters. Then, the organisation, which would still be receiving funds from the government, should work out what it wants to do – editorially and financially. Probably the organisation will need to be smaller for cost-allocation purposes. I went to the state-owned ERTU [Egyptian Radio and Television Union] to do an interview and I had never been in an organisation where there were so many people waiting for the lift!

Also, whether certain facilities should be sold off or rented. This issue will be for the independent board to decide on. Independence is essential to a public service broadcasting entity. If Egyptian society decides it wants a public service broadcaster, then it would be very risky to institute this service before independence is established.

On another end, I am seeing editorial standards and quality improvement measures already underway in Egypt's state media; though of course they are still in an early stage. Yet, the structuring of the organisation is hard to happen until the bases of governance and funding are established.

AO: So political obstacles will keep getting in the way of internal reforms?

PH: The two things are completely interlinked. The point of a substantial part of internal reforms is to enable it to be editorially independent. So if demonstrable independence hasn’t put in place, people would resist change if they know that the ultimate control still comes from politicians. That has to change first.

Some state broadcasters around the world have supposed public service broadcasters, but the reality is that their government is still pulling strings in the background. One needs to implement independence proposals and judge the degree of independence being achieved. Then, the internal reforms will probably happen relatively quickly as long as people know that the fundamentals have changed, including in the editorial culture.

AO: What do you suggest would be the first step towards purging the media in Egypt?

PH: For the media sector as a whole, not just state-funded media, it is for journalists to work out for themselves how they want the media to work in an era where they have much more freedoms than they had before. What struck me the most was that suddenly it is taking time to adjust to having a real sense of such freedom. When people are used to living their lives within rules and then the rules are suddenly gone, they would not know what to do.

I would say the most important thing is having dialogue within organisations. Journalists should tell their editors "we want to run our newspaper in this certain way." After that, the management should see which ones are the good journalists who could create a momentum for change within the organization, possibly with assistance by outside organisations who could help with training and development, such as the BBC.

For journalists, the point is, do not wait for someone to tell you here is the code. Do not wait for a politician or a preacher to tell you this is how it is going to be. Journalists are the ones who should create the belief in the importance of journalism that serves the public interest.

AO: There are calls to form an independent board of trustees to oversee the work of public media in Egypt, somewhat similar to the BBC board. What aspects of the BBC approach do you believe could be applicable to the process of public media reforms in Egypt?

PH: First, someone will need to choose who the board is. If that's not the minister, it could be parliamentarians or members of the constitutional committee, civil society, academics, etc. Otherwise, some people could be appointed to appoint the people who will choose the board and then they could publish the criteria.

Some broadcasters have a public council, where members of the public join and vote on the appointments. You could have an elected board, but the problem with that is that political parties could take over the board. Then it would be less independent, but you could get around that through a referendum. The way that public council voting works in other countries is because of people who make special effort to get involved.  Hence, society can play a major role in achieving independence of the media.

You set up an appointment board, whose job is to choose the first board of trustees and then they put forward some proposals. The public debates the proposals and are changed, eventually leading to an established clear criteria by which the board of trustees is chosen.

For instance, say you need to choose three members from the syndicate to be on the board; what is the process by which they will be chosen? Publish the basis on which you will choose members. Have a transparent and open process as possible to try to show that the first board you appoint has as much public consensus as possible.

The key thing of public service is that it is broadcasting in the public's interest rather than the state interest. The two words are sometimes used interchangeably, but of course they are entirely different concepts. In countries moving from autocratic state control to democracy, people confuse the two because rulers always speak about 'public interest,' but they often mean their own personal interest or that of the state.

AO: After the uprising, Egyptians believed their voice was heard and the issue of Egypt's geographical, religious and ethnic minorities strongly surfaced. How has the inclusion of different British communities and minorities affected the organization of the BBC and the service itself?

PH: In sense of geographical structure, on the 12-person board of the BBC there is a place reserved for one member from Scotland, one from Northern Ireland, one of Wales and one from England. The national blocks of the UK are represented within the governance of the organisation. That means one third of the board of trustees has a regional perspective. You start top-down.

There is often criticism that the BBC is too focused on London in the way that the ERTU could be viewed as too focused on Cairo. If you have as much as one third of the members of the board who have a specific interest in regional representation, then you have strong regional representation.

In terms of narrower regional minorities, we have developed services in some minority languages such as: the Welsh and a small minority group in Scotland who speak Gaelic. Those services are also funded by public money.

There are other minorities relating to lifestyle such as religion, which doesn't play as much of a role as it does here, but there are programs for people of different religious views.

Also, sexual orientation, very often BBC comes under pressure from civil society organisations who say you need to do more for gay women, for example.

Another thing I should mention is where the money is spent in the country. It is a matter that has become quite important. It used to be the case that 70 per cent of the money in the BBC was spent in London. Now, it's about 50. We moved a number of our services from London to Manchester; we asked staff to move to there to make children and sports programs and we ended up building a whole new base in Manchester to decentralize the service.

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