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Q&A: 'BBC World News' Editor Jon Williams

The Iraq war, at the height of its violence from 2004-2007, was an exception to Western news organizations' downsizing of foreign operations in recent years. News divisions spent dearly on bureaus there. But now that the country has become relatively stable, the ranks of personnel in the region is being reduced. Last week, ABC News announced that beginning Feb. 1, it would no longer keep a full-time correspondent in Iraq and would instead rely on the BBC for breaking coverage there.

For the BBC, which serves a global audience, cutting back on foreign operations is not an option, says BBC World News editor Jon Williams. Williams talks to B&C's Marisa Guthrie about the organization's expansion in the Arab-speaking world, the ABC partnership and why it is vital for BBC to be in Gaza.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently confirmed that the small contingent of British troops still in Iraq will be pulled out by next summer. Has viewer appetite for the Iraq war in the U.K. waned?

I'd be lying to you if I said that there's still a huge appetite for the Iraq story in the U.K. There is not. But there is still a huge appetite for it in the Middle East. The reason why we've invested so heavily in Afghanistan is because 56% of the population of Afghanistan gets their news from the BBC. So we are making our deployments on the basis of global interest in the story as opposed to just one market.

It seems foreign news in this country is a luxury that many have decided they can ill afford.

The thing that makes the BBC unique, I believe, is our reach around the world, which allows the BBC to take a global perspective on stories. We'd be foolish to start attacking that. We might as well switch off the lights.

So boots-on-the-ground reporting does make a difference?

We've got a correspondent who works between Ramallah and Gaza, And so our two local reporters have been on-air for the last week. [On Jan. 8] when rockets were fired into Israel from Lebanon, we were able to go to our Beirut bureau. We're able to try to make sense [of the story]. We have a Jerusalem bureau, a Ramallah bureau, a Gaza bureau, a Beirut bureau, a Cairo bureau. And we do that because we believe that in order to come up with the whole picture, you need to be able to put different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together.

And you can only do that by having people on the ground. Otherwise, you might as well just sit in London and report the story.

Yet some Western organizations seem to be doing just that, sitting in London, where they still have large bureaus, and deploying as few people as possible.

What it's about is smart use of strategic partnerships. The audience research that we have done on the U.S. election shows that the audience values the BBC's coverage of the U.S. election more than any of our competitors'. But we were only able to do that because we were partnered with ABC. For the inauguration, we will be side by side with ABC. And it is about choosing those alliances in a smart way so that you retain the money to make a difference.

There’s also a finite amount of time for broadcast networks to fill with news. And certainly we’re well past the days when the networks are going to pre-empt entertainment programming for news.

It would be far harder for us to have struck the deal that we have struck with ABC over Baghdad if ABC had a news channel. The demand on the bureau would be intense. The reality is that we’re talking about providing the content that we currently have for World News With Charles Gibson and Good Morning America, and tailoring that content to those shows.

Does there continue to be a lot of interest in President-elect Barack Obama?

In lots of ways, I think it’s a bit more interesting. When Tony Blair was elected as prime minister 10, 11 years ago, he talked about his challenges when the honeymoon was over as the “post-euphoria, pre-delivery phase.” I think we’re going to pretty quickly get to the post-euphoria, pre-delivery phase with President-elect Obama. I think there will be a lot of interest in the inauguration, and we’re going to be showing the inauguration live in the U.K. on our main network as well as the news networks. And there is no doubt that his profile and his presence have excited and energized people.

There is a perception that reporting about the Israel/Palestine conflict is pro-Palestine on U.K. networks and pro-Israel on U.S. networks.

There’s always an issue about perception. There is a degree of pressure and criticism that the BBC’s coverage [of the current violence in Gaza] has been pro-Israel because of the number of Israeli spokesman that have been making themselves available. I don’t think it’s fair, but perception is in the eye of the beholder. There are undoubtedly events in which, because we have our spread around the Arab world, we get more of those voices on than the U.S. networks do. I don’t think it’s about being pro one or anti another. I think it’s simply about telling a bigger story.

How quickly will interest in Barack Obama wane in the U.K.? Only at