London-Based Arab Paper Report on Possible Strike By BBC Arabic Section

Text of unattributed report headlined: “BBC Arabic section journalists demand improvement of human resources or reconsideration of extension of broadcasting hours”, published by London-based newspaper Al-Hayat on 7 September

The saga of the bumpy launch of BBC Arabic Television, which was delayed from autumn 2007 to spring 2008, does not seem to be over yet. Barely six months since the launch and before broadcasting is due to be extended from 12 to 24 hours a day by October [2008], reports have been circulating of the first move ever by BBC Arabic journalists to go on strike. The strike includes BBC Arabic television, radio and the Internet.

The journalists, most of whom are members of the British Union of Journalists, have threatened to go on strike unless the management responds to their demands by the 12th of this month [September]. The question is: would the BBC, the world’s most famous broadcasting corporation, respond to the journalists’ demands or would things develop for the worse, at a time when the BBC is planning to launch other satellite TV channels, broadcasting in languages other than English, of which BBC Arabic TV was only the beginning, to be followed by a BBC Persian [Farsi] channel?

The number of journalists, who voted for a strike as a last resort, was 145, all of whom are members of the National Union of Journalists [NUJ], out of a total of 250 that make up the editorial cadre, which includes BBC Arabic radio and the Internet.

In a communication with Nahad Abu-Zayd, head of the union branch at the BBC Arabic section, and in reply to a question about the causes of the confrontation with the BBC management, he stressed that the motivation behind strike action is purely professional and is focused on the level of performance and competition, especially as the date for extending broadcasting to 24 hours a day is approaching. He said: “Journalists are working very long shifts, especially at night, and human and financial resources are ‘meagre,’ and this doubles the pressure on journalists, the impact of which is more obvious when journalists are on leave.”

Asked for his view of the response of BBC World Service Director Nigel Chapman, who said that all BBC news-gathering centres are at the service of BBC Arabic and that the management had made concessions concerning the number of hours per shift, Abu-Zayd said: “The issue is not as simple as the management makes it appear. The reports we use have to be translated into Arabic and reconstructed with images and commentary by the editor. All this without the help of the support cadres that are available to other sectors of the BBC.” He added: “We are being asked to do double action assignments. The journalist on an assignment is expected to provide coverage for television, radio and the Internet, without any additional pay incentive. Alternatively, we have to send more than one journalist to cover an event. At the same time, we have the expected increase in broadcasting time, without human resources development courses, because there is no one to cover for them while they are on these courses.”

As for the reduction of night shifts from 11 to 9-1/2 hours, Abu- Zayd said that the reduction was made up for by increasing the day shifts to 12 hours, “which means exhausting the journalist and depriving him of interaction with his family and social environment.” Abu-Zayd considered that in doing so, “the management is making savings at the expense of human resources, or, as, NUJ official Paul McLaughlin put it to The Guardian “the BBC is trying to run the World Service on the cheap.” He added that “if they want to provide an acceptable service, they have to pay for it.”

Journalists with BBC Arabic Television believe that the demands made of them exceed those made of their colleagues in other sections of the BBC World Service, especially as the planning and news- gathering section is almost dysfunctional, a fact admitted by BBC management, which has set up a committee to investigate the reasons, headed by the deputy head of the Africa and Middle East section of the BBC World Service. But although some time has elapsed since the committee was formed, no positive steps have been taken to improve performance.

In reply to accusations of ‘meanness,’ Nigel Chapman, director of BBC World Service, said that the management was actually very generous and no one can say that a budget of 40m pounds is meagre. He criticized some of the demands that he said “would exhaust the budget,” including the demand for taxi fares for early morning or late night assignments, which would cost the taxpayer almost 650,000 pounds a year, and if added to the support cadre could reach 1.5m pounds.

To this Abu-Zayd replied by saying that the management exaggerates some issues such as the taxi fares, which they merely raise to heat things up. He believed that “the management is under pressure from the Foreign Office, the main financier of the project, that the budget should not exceed 40m pounds and that broadcasting time should be increased to 24 hours. Carrying out the project under the present conditions will be at the expense of the workers in the BBC Arabic Service.” He gave as an example that a work shift at present includes 31 journalists, which will rise to only 33 journalists when broadcasting is extended to 24 hours a day.”

But what about the generous offer which the management says it has made to the union’s representatives but it was withdrawn because it was rejected by the NUJ?

To this question, Abu-Zayd replied by saying: “The generous offer merely reiterated what already existed in the BBC World Service. The offer that the management calls generous is the same offer that was rejected by 80 per cent of the members.”

It should be noted that the Arabic section of the BBC World Service has an estimated 14 million radio listeners and Internet users in the Middle East and North Africa per week, but no statistics are available for the number of viewers of BBC Arabic TV, which was expected at its launch to compete with Al-Jazeera TV Channel, but so far has not done so.

The 12th of this month is the end of the period that the journalists union has given the management to show goodwill and understanding, in the light of which the date and form of the strike will be determined.

Summarizing the demands of the union, Abu-Zayd stated: “the decision to increase broadcasting time should be reviewed as it is disproportionate to the human and financial resources allocated at present and thus, either increase the human resources, or decrease the broadcasting time. Contrary to the accusation, we do not want to exhaust the British taxpayer; our demands are purely professional and we do not want to offer media services at a level below that of our competitors, which is bound to happen, if the management continues to overwork the journalists in this manner.”

Originally published by Al-Hayat, London, in Arabic 7 Sep 08.

(c) 2008 BBC Monitoring Middle East. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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