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Television News Service

Volume 128: debated on Wednesday 2 March 1988

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To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations he has received seeking the funding by his Department of a television news service, to be operated by the BBC external services.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Tim Eggar)

We have very carefully considered a request from the BBC for public funds to start up a world television news service. We note that a British commercial world television news service has been started without public funds, and have concluded that the provision of public funds to the BBC for this purpose would not be justified.

Bearing in mind the role and unique international reputation of the BBC external service radio broadcasts and the fact that it constitutes an important national asset, is my hon. Friend aware that his refusal to back a three-year experiment for a world television news programme at a cost to the taxpayer of £1 million a year will be greeted with great disappointment?

I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend that we are not stopping the BBC from taking an initiative in this area. However, we do not believe that the provision of public funds for start-up or production is justified.

Did Foreign Office Ministers see the Granada "World in Action" programme entitled "The Taming of the Beeb", and especially did they hear Alan Protheroe's comments on the threat to the historical traditions of the BBC? Can we be sure that Foreign Office Ministers will do everything to protect those historical traditions and ensure that Mr. Protheroe's gloomy predictions are not fulfilled?

I did not see the programme to which the hon. Gentleman referred. This is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Does my hon. Friend recollect the considerable support from both sides of the House for additional Government funding of the BBC external services for satellite television news? That was exemplified by an early-day motion before the election which attracted nearly 250 signatures, many from Conservative Members, and by the debate in July. Is my hon. Friend aware that many people will see his announcement as a shortsighted and somewhat doctrinaire decision and, above all, a waste of an outstanding international asset that we are privileged to have?

I recognise the strong feelings that my hon. Friend has on the matter. I agree that the BBC external services and its radio section have a fine record, which we applaud, and which we have recognised by increasing the funding available for the external radio service by a considerable amount over the past seven years. However, that is not justification in itself for making additional public funds available for a world television service.

Is the Minister aware that much of the intransigence among the people of the Falkland Islands stems from the fact that the media of the Falkland Islands is, in effect, in the hands of one person, and there is no television? Do the Government not realise that if they want some flexibility from Falkland Islanders they could do no better than ensure that a full television service is provided for them so that they can see what is going on in the outer world? I put that proposition to the Minister in all seriousness. By that experience they might learn to trust some of their neighbours in a way that, hitherto, they have found impossible.

The hon. Gentleman has raised that point before. The BBC external service "Calling the Falklands" and the world service are available in the Falkland Islands and are listened to widely.