Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Blizzard.]
I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship.
I am delighted to have secured a debate on the BBC World Service. There has not been a general debate on the subject since I was elected to the House in 2005. During that time, however, there have been two half-hour debates on related topics, both initiated by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). I shall return to those in a moment.
I had considered entitling today’s debate “The Future of the BBC World Service”, but I want also to reflect a little on its past. My first contact with the World Service came when I was at university. The man who taught me Czech at Cambridge was the late Karel Brusak, who frequently broadcast on the Czech service. At various times, he dominated the Czech language service. He worked as a news commentator; he wrote original radio plays and adaptations, and a satirical review about communist Czechoslovakia; and he reviewed books, films, theatre and the latest achievements of science and technology. In every sense, he was a genuine all rounder. I lived in Prague for a summer during communist times, and the Czech service was invaluable in allowing me to keep up with the outside world. Indeed, it was a rather strange experience being able to listen to one’s own teacher on the radio almost every day.
My interest in the matter comes not only from my personal past but also from a general interest in broadcasting, mainly as a constituency issue. I also have an interest in cultural diplomacy, or what is sometimes called soft power, and a strong interest in all things connected with central and eastern Europe and Russia.
I mentioned earlier the two half-hour debates on related topics initiated by the hon. Gentleman. One was last year; it was a half-hour Westminster Hall debate on the BBC world news service. The other was a debate on the ending of the Thai service by the BBC World Service in March 2006. My brother works as a journalist in Bangkok, and he can certainly attest to the importance and utility of the Thai service to the people of Thailand.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what has happened in Thailand since then reinforces the case that it was a mistake to close that service? It was the most marginal of all closure decisions. Would the hon. Gentleman encourage the BBC World Service to consider the matter again in the light of events and to consider restoring the Thai service, as it once was in the past?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I hope that the BBC will consider it as a matter of urgency before the infrastructure, especially the human resources, withers away, as must inevitably have happened, at least in part, over the past two and a half years. The axing of that service was definitely a mistake.
The World Service is at a turning point. On 25 November its director, Nigel Chapman, announced his departure. It is an important position. According to a written parliamentary answer, it commanded an annual salary of £228,000 in 2005. Will the Minister reassure us that the advertising of the position will be open, and that the process will include external applicants?
Now is a turning point for the service in other ways. The Arabic television service has begun, we understand that the Persian TV service is about to start, and the existing Russian service has come under fire—at least in the press here. I shall focus mainly on the Russian service, but I shall also reflect on what the BBC World Service has decided are its other main priorities—the Arabic and Farsi TV services.
I said that I wanted to speak about the past of the World Service. One point that I wish to return to is the retrenchment scene in 2005, and the cutting of 10 language services, including Czech, to which I have already referred, and Thai, as well as seven other eastern European languages. As I said, the Thai closure was a mistake, but I and most others supported—perhaps with regret—some of the other closures. It no longer seemed reasonable to have a Czech service in 2005, some 15 years after the end of the cold war. The same went for the Polish service. There was definitely an argument to be made for moving those resources to other languages.
I turn to something that I said at the time. We need a memorial of some sort to those who served on the World Service over those 50 years. There was a great number of unsung heroes, including my former teacher Karel Brusak. Brusak died in 2004 from natural causes, after many years on the Czech service. Others were not so lucky, none more notoriously so than Georgi Markov, who was murdered by the Bulgarian secret service as a result of his broadcasts on the World Service.
In 2005, I tabled early-day motion 956, in which I called for a memorial to those who have served on the World Service. It attracted 78 signatures. It noted the closure of the eastern European language services, and then further noted that
“these radio stations have been in operation since September 1939, and acted for 50 years during the Second World War and the Cold War as a beacon of hope, liberty and democracy to the nations of Central and Eastern Europe under totalitarian control; and urges the BBC to consult relevant organisations with a view to building an appropriate physical memorial to those who worked on these broadcasts, perhaps including a statue of Georgi Markov, who was assassinated in London on 11th September 1978, by the Bulgarian secret police due to his broadcasts on the World Service.”
The motion did not seek to dictate what the memorial should be. I know that placing a statue in central London is not nearly as straightforward as we would all like to think. Instead, I left it to the BBC and the Foreign Office to determine what action might be taken, having seen the considerable amount of interest among Members of all parties for something to be done. It is extremely regrettable that no action was taken by the BBC and that no consultation was launched.
I wish to examine in depth what is happening with the Russia service. Similar things are happening. The Russian service is being cut, essentially to fund Arabic and Persian television stations.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it was not so much a financial decision to cut the Russian service but that the BBC has taken a political view, as it does not want to upset the Russian establishment? That is lamentable, given the present misunderstandings between Russia and the UK.
The hon. Gentleman is partly right in that, but I shall examine some of the political background in a moment.
In hindsight, the Russian service had an inauspicious start. It started in October 1942, but broadcast for only seven months before the Soviet Union pressured us to take it off air. Even in those short seven months, the broadcasts were personally vetted by the Soviet ambassador to London, Ivan Maisky, and the news bulletins were read by the TASS London correspondents. The service was restarted in 1946; it then started to make a huge contribution to encouraging freedom and democracy in the Soviet Union. It would be ironic if the service were to return to the days of Government vetting and control by Russia.
As we know, the situation with regard to democracy and human rights is bad in Russia at the moment. That is not the subject of today’s debate, but there is something of a consensus across the parties about the dire situation there, especially about Anglo-Russian relations. However, it is worth pointing out that the media situation in Russia is especially bad.
The litmus test for a healthy democracy is freedom of the media and of the press. On that test, I am sorry to say that Russia fails comprehensively. Since 2000, we have seen a steady erosion of the media’s freedom, particularly in television and radio broadcasts, which are the main source of information for most Russians. Those journalists courageous enough to stand out against the regime have been subjected to personal intimidation, harassment, violence against their persons and their homes, jailing, and in some cases even straight murder. The murder of Anna Politkovskaya is perhaps the most prominent example. She was working on what is commonly regarded as Russia’s main, and some say only, independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, which has recently stopped reporting anything about the Russian secret services and is under great pressure more generally. The BBC Russian service should be seen in that context: the lack of press freedom in Russia.
The stated aims for the government of the BBC represent grand ambitions for its Russian service. In response to a written parliamentary question, on 26 November, the Foreign Secretary told my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague):
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office supported the recent changes that will assist BBC Russia in its mission to be the most trusted and influential international news provider in Russia”.—[Official Report, 26 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 1788W.]
I have had extensive meetings with Nigel Chapman, the outgoing director, who listened politely to my concerns and kept me updated on changes to the Russian service. Nevertheless, I think that Mr. Chapman’s views were driven by what most of us would recognise as being purely the concerns of a commercial radio station: listener numbers and penetration. I often got the feeling that he was ignoring the wider mission statement and the political and cultural importance of the service.
The Russian service is in a very sorry state. Although it is third in budgetary terms, after Arabic and Persian, the number of listeners has declined very rapidly, and in my view the quality of the programming has been in decline, and its overall impact has been greatly lessened, especially since the previous round of changes to the service in early 2006.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the decline in listener numbers has anything to do with the Russian authorities taking away from the BBC World Service agreements on frequency modulation transmission? How would he characterise the decline and who is responsible for it?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which I am afraid I think is only partly true. The decline is due in part to the action on the FM transmitters and also in part to a change in the content of programming, which I shall come on to in a moment.
In October, Mr. Chapman announced another round of cuts to the service, all of which are misguided. They were branded as a “refocusing” and included a greater focus on peak-time audiences, more news and fewer cultural programmes, strengthening the online service at the expense of radio and cuts in London staffing in favour of Moscow.
I have seven main criticisms of the current service, most of which have increased since the October changes. First, the BBC Russian service is managed by people without a comprehensive knowledge of Russia. That was the case with the outgoing director and the regional head, and somewhat the case with the head of the Russian service, at least before she took up her position. As I understand it, none of those three office holders speaks fluent Russian, including the head of the Russian service, who I am told had to attend language classes after taking up the position. Inevitably that has increased the reliance on those immediately below and around them, who happen generally to be former Soviet-era journalists. For whatever reasons, they seem consistently afraid of broadcasting anything that might offend the Kremlin. Furthermore, the position of head of the Russian service was not advertised externally. British experts on Russia, of whom I know a few, of varying political persuasions, had offered their help and advice to the Russian service in the years following Putin’s rise to power and the deterioration of British-Russian relations. However those offers were dismissed.
Secondly, the Russian service attributes its decreasing popularity to the unwillingness of the Russian authorities to allow the BBC to broadcast on FM. When the local partnerships were set up in 2006, many people warned that they were an operational hostage to fortune, and that the overall joint venture with Russian state broadcasting through its Radio Bolshoi network would compromise editorial independence. Indeed, the Foreign Affairs Committee, one of whose members is here today, voiced its concerns in November 2007:
“However, we also conclude that partnerships with state broadcasters could be seen to undermine the BBC’s independence. While recognising the difficulties of the current Russian media scene for the BBC, we recommend that the World Service pursue an independent FM broadcasting licence and that it seek to improve and expand its medium wave transmissions, in order to reduce the Service’s dependence on FM broadcasting through Russian partners”.
That forecast turned out to be very accurate. The Russian Government’s intervention to stop the local FM partners broadcasting the BBC’s output is reprehensible and regrettable. However, Soviet or Russian regimes before Putin—those of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and so on—had been even more hostile to the BBC, but the service still got through, and the Russian population in those times held the BBC in great respect. It was the most popular voice among the foreign stations.
For me at least, and many others, the fall in popularity of the Russian service can be at least partly explained by a shift in the BBC editorial standards on the service. In the past the Russian service understood its mission as
“providing alternative information and analysis”.
However, today it feels it necessary to ensure the constant presence of the “Kremlin point of view”. Normally, in journalism, we would laud that desire to put forward all points of view. However, that is difficult in Russia, because whenever Russian officialdom refuses to comment, which is a very common and acknowledged experience, the alternative point of view—the opinion of the westerners, the opposition, critics, political prisoners and so on—cannot be broadcast either. Those are the things that in the past made Russians tune in to the BBC Russian service. It is stated that broadcasting such reports without the Russian official point of view, which I am afraid is ubiquitous in Russia because of the total state control of television, would be a
“breach of the BBC editorial guidelines”.
That would be akin to having not broadcast “The Gulag Archipelago” in the 1970s and 1980s, because there was nobody from the Soviet penal system available to present the other view. That is fundamentally misguided.
Thirdly, there has been a misguided move away from cultural programming, even though the BBC Russian service has been famous for its cultural and literary programmes. By closing features and making its most experienced and educated staff redundant, the Russian service loses all that and dramatically lowers the cultural and linguistic standards of its broadcasts. By metamorphosing into a news-only service, it loses some of its cutting edge. I shall deal with the FM partnerships in greater detail in a moment, but ironically the FM partners particularly liked the excellent cultural features, which are now the victim of the “news only” dogma that appeared to affect the whole of the World Service under Nigel Chapman. With a news-only service, it is difficult to examine even political issues in depth. For example, how can it explain the complicated situation in Abkhazia without the use of a longer, feature programme?
My fourth criticism is about the move from radio to the internet, which sounds like a technological step forward. However, that is not necessarily the case. In Russia, the internet is less accessible and more vulnerable than radio. We need to recognise that despite appearances, in Moscow at least, internet penetration in Russia remains low. Indeed, according to official Russian statistics, only 20 per cent. of the population have used the internet in the past year. Among them, very few have broadband access, and yet the BBC Russian website features a lot of video streaming and audio clips, which look impressive to a UK audience, but which are of more doubtful utility in the country of the target audience. Added to that is the ongoing speculation that the Russian authorities are seeking to adopt a Chinese-style firewall, which would have the potential to render the whole internet project obsolete. As with the FM decision, with this internet decision the BBC is putting all its eggs in one basket.
My fifth criticism is about the rise in the number of live discussions on the revamped Russian service. They sound great in theory, but effectively they discriminate against a large number of people who might appear on the Russian language service, because to take part in a live discussion, it is necessary to be fluent in Russian. That means that inevitably the BBC fails in one of its missions: to have a broad base of people appearing on its programmes to reflect a wider variety of points of view.
Sixthly, the Russian service generally avoids sensitive issues—for example, the refusal to publish Politkovskaya’s book on the site—which is especially true of any references to the security services, but it is virtually impossible to cover Russia properly without any discussion of them. Incidentally, among the Russian online articles published since 2001 are just two interviews with the late Russian journalist. Surely, she should have been interviewed more often given her importance to events in Russia. When she came here for the last time, in July 2006, the Russian service current affairs programme interviewed her, but did not broadcast it. Moreover, the Russian service provided feeble coverage of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. “Panorama” did a far better job in exposing what went on.
My seventh and final criticism is the refocus on peak times. That sounds fine in theory. We all love our broadcasters to focus on the times when we are most likely to be listening. However, such a time is less obvious in a country of 11 time zones. In a letter to me, Nigel Chapman talked of peak morning and evening drive-time audiences. However, there are three time zones in European Russia, with populations of 99 million, 65 million and 24 million respectively. Therefore, they need a comprehensive 24-hour service to cover Russia properly. That is one of the reasons for the larger number of repeats, but Nigel Chapman extolled the changes by saying that they would cut the number of repeats. None the less, repeats are essential on the BBC Russia service.
Doubtless, the Minister will argue that such issues are operational matters for the World Service, but he must recognise that a flourishing Russian service is a very important tool of foreign policy, and that we need to make better use of our cultural diplomacy assets. The BBC acquired from the Foreign Office powers over languages and broadcasting hours relatively recently—I think that it was in the late 1990s. The Government must take action if those powers are now not being used responsibly and, if necessary, take them back. We have also seen cuts in the number of monitors of Russian broadcasts. In Caversham, the number has been halved in the last two years and is down to 15 people.
On the Russian service, therefore, we need to explore all the options and to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket with just an internet service, as we previously did with the FM service. We could start exploring partnerships with other foreign broadcasters, such as one of the French companies or Deutsche Welle. The Minister for Europe recently confirmed to me in a parliamentary answer that no discussion of that nature had taken place, either on a governmental level or between broadcasters.
For FM, we need to explore the possibility of broadcasting from just outside Russia, from places such as Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine and the southern Caucasus. We also need to get the three medium-wave transmitters upgraded. We were told that that would happen, so I would welcome a progress report from the Minister on the upgrading of those three transmitters. We also need urgently to examine the potential for satellite radio broadcast. Therefore, there is a lot more that we could be doing. At the moment, we are in a dangerously exposed situation with our reliance on the internet.
I promised to turn briefly to Arabic and Persian TV. I cannot pretend that I have any real expertise on the matter, but I have a few comments to make. Arabic TV started in March 2008. It was the World Service’s first vernacular TV service. It is still too early to tell whether the service is working well, but it has been a long-standing BBC ambition. However, it is worth saying that the 2005 Green Paper, which sparked all the changes that we have seen in the World Service in the past three years, stated that the challenges of an Arabic TV service are “enormous”. It went on to say:
“However, any new grant-in-aid funded operation will find it hard to compete for audiences against local competitors, and other established global broadcast operators”—
presumably meaning al-Jazeera and others.
It is recorded in the Green Paper that the BBC asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to fund the Arabic language TV service, but received a negative answer. I am not sure whether the FCO shared the confidence of the previous World Service management in the service’s viability. I very much support such a service in principle, and although it is too early to tell whether it is working, I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about its first nine months of operation.
We need to recognise that TV throws up a whole set of issues that are separate from radio. Most of the differences are obvious, but some are less so. One of the most important differences is that while it has been proven that it is perfectly feasible to operate a radio service in exile—as most of such services were in eastern Europe and Russia for 50 years—it is much harder to envisage operating a TV service without having access to scenes, backdrop, native speakers and news in the home country in question. Let me give an example. God forbid, but if there was another Iranian earthquake, it is hard to see how one could operate an effective TV station aimed at Iran without having access to the scene of that particular news story. For practical purposes, one needs easy access to the country for a television service and, almost certainly, a large presence in the country. It also means that one needs employees who can travel freely into and around that country and who will not have their visas refused at short notice. Like myself, many hon. Members have been refused a visa to Iran at short notice. I dare say that that is something that might afflict the BBC Persian service. For the Arabic-speaking world, it is less of a problem given the wide variety of choice of destination countries available. The Farsi service faces more of a problem because it is the native tongue of only Iran and parts of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. To make a successful service, one needs to have employees who speak Farsi and can travel freely.
I have concerns about the existing Persian radio service. A Farsi-speaking listener wrote to me. I am not able to test out this hypothesis personally, but I wanted to make the Minister aware of it. The listener said:
“Over a long time we have noticed that the BBC Persian service behaves and sounds like the official radio of the Islamic republic of Iran. For example the expressions they use are exactly the same as the expressions used by the official voice of the Iranian government, calling Israel ‘the occupied country’ or glorifying Ahmadi Nejad and prior to that Khatami etc. There are examples of this in their website.
Also in terms of their recruitment, (BBC Persian) are recruiting only from Iran and refuse to recruit British-Iranian applicants. The application states that applicants have to be able to go to Iran any time they want to. This means they have to have an Iranian passport (otherwise they have to get a visa, and this could be refused them).”
The listener goes on:
“Thus if they have a dual nationality and go to Iran and the Iranian government arrest them, the British embassy can not take any action because they entered Iran with the Iranian passport. So it means the BBC put people’s life in danger by sending them in with an Iranian passport. As you know it is easier for them to sack people who are not British. Just cancel the work permit!”
That letter raises a number of issues that the Minister needs to address. They include easy access to Iran by the staff from the Persian service, and matters relating to visas.
I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the Persian radio service. I am sorry to hear that his visa to Iran was cancelled at short notice. Mine was not, and I was in the country just a year ago. A number of ordinary Iranians whom we spoke to thanked the BBC World Service for its language broadcasting and news. It helped them to understand what was going on outside the country, and when they listened to the English-language service broadcast into Iran, it helped them with their English language as well. Will the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that that is extremely important, and contradicts, to some extent, what he has just said?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is correct in what he says. I was quoting from one correspondent who wrote to me. I said that I was not in a position independently to verify what they said. None the less, a number of issues have been raised both from what actually happened and from the theoretical situation that would pertain more particularly to a Persian-language television station.
The TV station was slated to start this autumn. In July, Nigel Chapman said that £15 million would be invested in it. I should like an update from the Minister on what efforts are being made to ensure editorial independence.
Let me return to the point where I started. My former Czech teacher Karel Brusak broadcast for decades on the Czech service, both under Nazi and then Soviet domination, and all without visiting the country. That was both possible and logical. However, it would be hard to imagine that if it had been a TV, rather than a radio service.
In conclusion, I broadly support the new TV services, but I have some doubts about how far editorial independence can and will be maintained. We need to be watching them very closely indeed. Returning to my major theme, the Russian service is in desperate need of urgent attention. I have made various suggestions on how it might be fixed, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response in due course.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble, and most apposite, as I shall explain.
First, I should like to tell the Minister that I will be neither questioning the competence of BBC journalists under parliamentary privilege in my brief remarks, nor recommending that the BBC seek the advice of my hon. Friends and I on any of its appointments, now or in future. I will not comment on countries that I have not visited, or opposition journalists whom I have not met. When I met the Iranian opposition, including the students at Tehran university who threw Ahmadinejad off the campus, the trade unionists who have had an ongoing dispute against the Iranian regime—not least Tehran bus drivers—and independent journalists, they stressed above all that they welcomed any shift in the direction of BBC resources to providing an enhanced service in that country and the region. I congratulate the BBC World Service on the moves that it has made in that regard.
The reason why it is apposite that you are chairing the debate, Mrs. Humble, is, of course, that Blackpool exemplifies the real output that the world wants to hear from the BBC. In 1953, via a grainy radio production, we heard the Matthews cup final, when Sir Stanley Matthews and Mortensen bedazzled Bolton Wanderers. The world listened, through the BBC, to the first real major sporting event broadcast on the radio. Everyone I speak to about the BBC World Service likes the fact that it provides access across the world to commentary on English football—I appreciate that there are finer arts in some people’s perspectives—which is by far this country’s most successful export over the past five years. The BBC’s expansion of the service to allow the business and culture of English football to spread to every remote region of the world is testament to the fortitude of the BBC and is an appropriate priority.
Therefore, I have a proposal to make to the BBC through the Minister. In 2012, we will have the London Olympics. When we last had the Olympics, in 1948, radio was in its infancy, and the BBC could not carry the games in great depth. As the plurality of London helped us to win the Olympics, and given the range of visitors who will be coming, I would like the BBC World Service to broadcast across Britain during the games in a range of languages, which would not only provide a service to tourists but reinforce the pivotal role of the BBC and the World Service in British society, and put it at the heart of our cultural celebrations for the Olympiad. I hope that that message gets to the BBC, and I shall write to it if it does not. The Government ought to give the BBC World Service the opportunity to broadcast across the country during the Olympics so that visitors—wherever they come from and whatever language they use—can hear exactly what is happening to their athletes in the games. That would be a magnificent broadcasting contribution to the cultural olympiad.
For personal reasons, I shall be making only a brief contribution to the debate. I promised some people that I would contribute, and I intend to keep that promise. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) for his masterly presentation of his concern about the state of the World Service in general, and the Russian service in particular. He has an extremely long track record of interest in the matter, as we heard, and I do not pretend for one moment to be able to match the depth and detail of his knowledge.
I wish to contribute to the consideration of the underlying philosophy that I believe has motivated the World Service in the past. That philosophy ought to motivate the service in future but, as my hon. Friend indicated, it may be in danger of being lost in a more modern, commercial environment. If our relationship with Russia had remained as positive as it was at the end of the cold war, that would be understandable. However, that cold war confrontation shows signs of slowly creeping back, and no one regrets that more than those who were involved, as I was professionally, in anti-Soviet-propaganda activities. It seems to me that the BBC World Service has been behind the curve on that, and that it is running frantically to keep up with a previous development, namely the growth of the threat of what I call un-Islamic extremism. It is so busy doing that that it does so at the cost of the effort that it should continue to make in Russia, particularly in view of the fact that the future of Russian society is, if it is not already once again set on a downward path, on the cusp of being sent in the wrong direction, by the people in charge of that great country.
I was particularly alarmed by what my hon. Friend said about the attitude of the senior officials to whom he spoke on the question of objectivity and impartiality. The strength of the BBC’s broadcast to foreign countries, whether to foreign countries with which we are at war, as was the case from 1939 to 1945, or, more subtly, countries with which we are in confrontation, as was the case for half a century during the cold war, is that it tries to be objective, even in trying circumstances. That objectivity should be objectivity with a mission to promote the values of western democratic civilisation. It should not necessarily convert those in what I unashamedly call target countries, but it should give heart to people in oppressed or un-free countries who inherently believe in ideals of liberalism, freedom and democracy, but who need external reinforcement to encourage them to hold fast to and develop their ideals, so that they do not give in to the incessant, narrow-minded propaganda that they receive domestically.
There has been a worrying trend in the BBC more generally to move away from what used to be called the concept of due impartiality. It was not absolute impartiality—impartiality between the arsonist and the fire brigade—but due impartiality between the mainstreams of opinion that are represented across the spectrum of politics in a democratic society. In recent times, even domestically, the BBC has at times moved towards saying, “Well, perhaps we ought to give more air time to fascists and communists because it’s only fair for them to be able to balance their views against those of constitutional democrats, even though they are not democratic.” I reject that opinion, and I am concerned that we are now importing it to an external body, when the whole purpose of the BBC’s broadcasts to foreign countries should be to promote the values of a free, democratic and liberal society.
How do we know when we have crossed the line? We have crossed the line when the editorial policy of a service that broadcasts to a foreign country is shaped by former senior officials in the propaganda network of that country. I am not an expert on the Russian service and am less of a specialist on these matters than I was during the cold war. However, I have been informed that a former deputy editor of Izvestia, who was a specialist correspondent in Iraq, and that a former senior functionary at Radio Kiev—an English language Soviet propaganda station of the cold war—are deeply involved in advising senior people in the Russian service and the World Service on editorial policy. I have no reason to doubt that information, given its specificity. If it is true, clearly the service has lost its way.
It is not often that historians of Russia of the distinction of Antony Beevor, Orlando Figes and Simon Sebag Montefiore, literary figures of the distinction of Doris Lessing and D. M. Thomas and a playwright of the distinction of Tom Stoppard—whose devotion to the cause of freedom in central and eastern Europe is beyond question—join a recent British ambassador to Moscow and a former British ambassador to the USA to write to The Times. The letter, published on 7 November this year, deplores the cuts and trends implemented by the BBC in the Russian service. It states:
“At a time when in Russia misunderstanding and mistrust of Britain has reached a height unprecedented since the end of the USSR this deliberate reduction in the role of the Russian service seems a perverse concession to those authorities in Russia who have been doing their best to curtail the activities of all British cultural institutions (the BBC and the British Council in particular).”
Like my hon. Friend, I am troubled by the idea that journalists and analysts of an external service of the BBC should be moved to the target country. I make no excuse for calling it that because the targeting is not adversarial, but gives people the option and the benefit of understanding how western, liberal, free societies operate and gives an insight into our values and culture. To move broadcasters to countries where in the past broadcasting dissenting views has cost broadcasters their lives is insane. It is a recipe for intimidation and self-censorship.
In conclusion, there must be a review of the policy of the World Service by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Preferably that would be public, but otherwise I would like an undertaking from the Minister that there will be such a review internally. There should be particular reference to the future of the Russian service, a restatement of the strategic role of such services and an assessment of the relative effort to be made in respect of each country, and it should be underlined that the philosophy of due impartiality does not mean impartiality between liberal democracy and the enemies of liberal democracy. There should also be investigations into the co-opting of former employees of Russia’s media into the Russian service and into the naive and irresponsible decision to move independent broadcasters to the target countries.
I am a Member of Parliament for a multicultural west London constituency. A number of my constituents work at the BBC and some in the World Service, and most have a direct interest in it.
Kofi Annan called the BBC World Service the best gift to the world from London. Some of us worry that that gift is under the threat of diminution by the policies of the BBC management. The outgoing director of the World Service, Nigel Chapman, said that he wanted to outsource at least 50 per cent. of World Service programming to the respective countries. That sounds like any other outsourcing, but it threatens the quality, standards and objectivity of the broadcast service. The World Service is an independent international broadcaster and is famous for the refrain, “This is London calling.” Without the geographical distance, it ceases to be independent.
Members of the National Union of Journalists and the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union from the south Asia region of the World Service are campaigning to save three language services that are under threat from plans to offshore their jobs and the output. The BBC Hindi, Urdu and Nepali services will be seriously undermined if those plans go ahead. Staff have resisted the plans for over a year and through negotiations have sought an agreement that preserves the fundamental World Service principles: quality, integrity and, above all else, independence. Those talks are ongoing but seem likely to stall this week as management want to forge ahead with its plans without agreement.
Under management proposals, editorial control will be ceded from the UK in favour of localised output in Nepal, India and Pakistan. Questions have been raised over the BBC’s ability to retain editorial independence. Staff discovered a deal struck with the Pakistan regulatory body to give authorities in Islamabad the power to hear bulletins prior to broadcast. Although the management claim that no such arrangement exists, it is important that nothing be done that jeopardises the BBC’s editorial independence. Those allegations warrant further investigation and there should be an independent Foreign Office investigation.
The reputation of the World Service has been built over decades. Millions of listeners rely upon the World Service because they trust it to be an independent voice. Localising editorial control in countries such as Pakistan and Nepal will bring unacceptable pressures to staff in those territories. While we believe that all BBC staff will fight to maintain its independence, it is in the strong interests of the BBC to ensure that its staff can act free from external influence. That is difficult enough even in this country with the constant political pressure. The threats are more direct from foreign Governments in some areas of the globe.
The BBC has set up private companies in India, Pakistan and Nepal that pave the way for localised commercial businesses. Such businesses will have to comply with local commercial law and will not be governed from the UK, as they are now. The NUJ and BECTU have been asking for details of those companies and their planned and present activities. Management have thus far failed to give any meaningful information or assurances. If the BBC offshores not only output but editorial control to overseas territories, that too will have to comply with local media regulation. The fear is that the freedom of the press is variable in such territories, and that that will impact on World Service output.
Staff who have served the BBC and the country well for decades are anxious that their professionalism and independence is under threat. If we do not act now and if the Government do not take a serious interest in this matter, we will live to regret it in future years. There must be a review of the policy of localising editorial control and an end to the dismantling of the World Service in certain parts of the globe, which we have seen over recent years. The Thai service is just one example of where we have lived to regret the withdrawal of a service in a key part of the world. It must be asserted that editorial control over World Service output will be retained in the UK and there must be an end to outsourcing in this way. Any job losses in the UK need to be negotiated to ensure that at least there is no compulsory redundancy or loss of editorial integrity and that BBC management goes forward with the wholehearted support of employees and the confidence of the wider community.
I welcome this debate introduced by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). After the debates of my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) in recent months and years, it is important to keep debating what the World Service is doing and why it exists, and monitoring its progress. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reading a quote from the recent Foreign Affairs Committee report in which I took part. I agreed wholeheartedly with what we wrote at the time, and he is absolutely right that a lot of it has come to pass. We were concerned at the time.
As Members may know, the Foreign Affairs Committee has an oversight role for the World Service, which comes under the auspices of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and we therefore take a great interest in it. We were concerned that the hon. Gentleman would raise the issue of the Russian service, an issue that has been raised with me on recent visits to Moscow, where I am a regular visitor, as I know he is.
I wanted to understand the rationale. I, too, have spoken to Nigel Chapman, the outgoing director. I received responses to the concerns, and I will quote a couple of them. First:
“The BBC will continue its strong commitment to the BBC Russian Service and to its role as a trusted, influential and editorially independent news provider.”
Secondly, because I too was concerned about this:
“Far from dropping analytical and cultural programming, as has been claimed, the BBC Russian Service is strengthening the provision of journalism about politics and culture, and giving it space within high-profile programmes seven days a week…We are also increasing the current affairs reporting of British cultural and social affairs.”
I am not a Russian speaker, so it is difficult for me to monitor what is going on. I can find out only on my visits to Russia, which are reasonably frequent.
We should not underestimate the problem of not having an FM partner. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to it and to ways of getting around it, and I hope that the World Service will look into them, but if the Russian authorities and Russian FM partners have withdrawn co-operation, that makes it a lot more difficult, as he acknowledged. I hope that the World Service will continue to explore the suggested alternatives.
We should not underestimate the potential of internet broadcasting. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, saturation of broadband and internet access is low, but there are quite a number of internet cafés in major population centres that have good access. That would not allow as much penetration as is wanted throughout the whole of Russia, but it would allow broadcasting in certain population centres where people have access to the internet. That is part of the whole picture. I would not underestimate the importance of using the internet, although, as has been pointed out, of course we should not put all our eggs in one basket.
Shortwave still exists but is a dying medium, and medium-wave broadcasting is not listened to nearly as much as FM. Only if we strengthen FM through other collaborations, perhaps outside Russia, will we again increase listening figures for the World Service. However, I am glad to hear from the World Service itself that it is still committed to Russia. It is important that we take up the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to ensure that we do not give up our editorial integrity. We must maintain that integrity from this country and ensure that it is not sent offshore, as he pointed out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made a good point. I support totally his proposal regarding the Olympic games. It would be good for the World Service to enhance its output considerably during the course of the games.
I shall touch briefly on an issue that the hon. Gentleman talked about and on which I intervened: the Arabic TV service and the forthcoming Persian language TV service. I had my reservations when the idea of a Arabic service was mooted, and I had a number of discussions with Nigel Chapman and his colleagues at the World Service to express my concerns and hear their responses. As we all remember, al-Jazeera comprises people who used to work for the previous BBC Arabic TV service. After that was closed down, they moved to al-Jazeera, which has been hugely successful in the Arab world and outside it.
It is important that the values of democracy, openness and freedom of speech that we espouse and take for granted here in the west, and which we practise so well in Britain through the BBC, should be broadcast. Despite my initial reservations, I wish the Arabic TV service well. I hope that it becomes a genuine competitor of al-Jazeera to provide much-needed diversity in the Arab world.
When I first came across the World Service’s Persian language broadcasts—that was a few years ago, when I joined the Foreign Affairs Committee—Baqer Moin, an award-winning journalist, worked there, although he has since left. People might remember him, as he won many awards for his work. He did a lot to promote the Persian language radio service as a precursor to the Persian television service.
To expand slightly on my brief intervention earlier, we spent a week in Iran. From travelling outside Tehran and talking quite freely to a number of people in the two centres that we visited, Tehran and Isfahan, it was clear that the BBC World Service is not just an important source of alternative news to that supplied by the state-controlled media in that country. For a news-hungry and inquisitive population who want to know what is happening outside their country in the rest of the world, BBC English language broadcasts are an important resource for learning and understanding English in Iran. There is a huge hunger to speak English, learn English and watch English movies—not just American ones but British ones as well—and a huge respect for the World Service. Indeed, when one of my colleagues and I were looking around the stalls in a bazaar in Isfahan, a young man, perhaps 20 years old, came out and started talking to us in very good if slightly broken and heavily accented English. I asked him, “Where did you learn that English?” He said, “I listen to the BBC World Service.”
I leave the Minister with this thought: we often underestimate the importance of the World Service to many countries. I will not repeat what was said about the Thai service. In hindsight, it is regrettable that it closed, and I hope that that will be a lesson. However, the BBC World Service is trying to adapt to difficult times, often in difficult circumstances—we know how difficult it is in Russia at the moment—to maintain the broadcasts and services that populations find so essential, as has been repeated many times in this Chamber. Long may it continue. We must adapt. I hope that the World Service will listen carefully to this debate, and that the Minister will respond appropriately.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this debate and on the detail that he used in questioning the Minister and the BBC World Service. He made some serious allegations. Other Members made important points. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a significant contribution about the localisation of editorial control, which I hope will receive an answer from the Minister in due course.
I have one concern with some of the remarks made. As a relative newcomer to the issue, I have had two meetings with Nigel Chapman. The issue that I wanted to focus on with him was how independent the BBC World Service was of the British Government. Clearly, there are financing streams, and money comes from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget, but as we insist on the BBC’s independence in this country, I would be concerned if the World Service were a mere pawn of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. None of the hon. Members who have spoken today has suggested that that is the case. However, it is important that the BBC World Service be independent from the British Government of the day.
When I was pressing Nigel Chapman on that point, I tried to see how responsive the BBC World Service could be in its budgets and in its services to political trends in the world and different foreign policy challenges. The BBC World Service talked of the new services in Arab countries and talked of BBC Persian, and clearly they are very welcome developments. Arguably, however, they have taken quite a while to feed through from some of the foreign policy challenges that are facing the world. Inevitably, therefore, the BBC World Service is slightly delayed in its reactions, which is probably correct, to ensure that the trends are real and genuine and that it is not having to shift major programmes and major schedules around because one major event has happened. So, in discussing foreign policy and relating that to the vital role that the BBC World Service performs, we need to bear in mind how immediately responsive we think that the BBC World Service should be.
That is particularly apposite to the issue that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham has focused on, namely the BBC Russian service. That is because for quite some time it looked, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) quite rightly reminded us, as if the trends were going in the right direction. It is arguable how recently those trends have been reversed. Clearly, however, last summer we saw the biggest reversal, with the crisis in South Ossetia. What I am trying to say is that we should not expect the BBC to react to that development immediately. It needs to consider it in its long-term planning, and that is appropriate.
Despite all of the cuts, for which there need to be answers and justifications—I absolutely accept that point—let us remind ourselves that the BBC Russian service remains the second biggest language service within the BBC World Service. That is as it should be, but it is important to have a balance in this debate and remind ourselves that, after all these changes, the BBC Russian service is still one of the BBC’s premier language services.
I accept that hon. Members were concerned about the future and also about changes that are happening now that might affect the quality of the BBC World Service in due course. However, when I have looked for evidence of how well the BBC World Service is carrying out its tasks, the evidence suggests that it is doing incredibly well. Survey evidence shows that audiences across the world have very positive feelings towards the BBC World Service. It has a global reputation that remains unaffected.
When one looks at some of the key markets that the BBC World Service works in, the BBC briefing that I have—I confess to colleagues that I am reading from a BBC briefing, but that does not mean that it is not impartial and well-sourced—shows that, in seven key markets in the world, the BBC scored highest among international broadcasters for trust and objectivity. That is a fact. Therefore, we should show some degree of caution before we completely downplay the quality of the BBC World Service.
I was particularly concerned by at least one remark made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham, when he was talking about the professional journalists within the BBC Russian service. He was making a point, which was fair, that the current leaders of the service are not all fluent Russian speakers, that they have not had their language skills improved and therefore that they were more reliant on what he described as Soviet-era journalists. The impression that he was giving was that somehow those journalists were not as professional and independent as other journalists. Perhaps he was not intending to give that impression, but certainly those of us who were listening to him got that impression. I regret that, because he had no evidence for making that particular accusation.
The other issue that has been completely missing from this discussion is budgets. These services cost money and it is almost as if colleagues were thinking that there were no financial constraints whatsoever. We know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has got the money that it puts towards the BBC World Service on a tight leash. There is a 3 per cent. annual savings target, which amounts to £23 million in efficiency savings that must be found in the next three years. That is quite a high proportion of the budget for the BBC World Service. Those savings either have to come from somewhere or colleagues must say that they want to see that budget increased.
Ultimately, it is a question of priorities. Things are changing across our world. We are seeing the very important rise of China, which the BBC has been responding to. We have seen the issues in the Arab world and in Iran, which colleagues have quite rightly focused on. So the BBC World Service, like other organisations, must choose its priorities.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham talked about some of the detail of the technology involved in producing the BBC World Service. However, he was relatively dismissive of the move towards the internet. As I understood it, his argument was, first, that few Russians have access to the internet and those that do have lower quality internet access than we are used to in Britain and, secondly, that there was a danger that the Russian authorities could copy the Chinese authorities with respect to constructing firewalls, thus reducing the impact of the internet.
I must say that I am surprised by both of those arguments. The use of the internet is rapidly rising in countries such as Russia, and there is quite some evidence for that growth. First of all, the internet is the future technology, so the BBC is right to reprioritise resources towards it. Secondly, the idea that the Russians will be able to copy what the Chinese do is quite farcical. I had a very interesting trip to Beijing this summer and I talked to some of the Chinese so-called communists about the way that they are managing not just the media but many aspects of change in China. I must say that their ruthless efficiency, discipline and control are in absolute marked contrast to what one sees in Russia today. I really do not think that the concerns that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham expressed are valid. What was also interesting in the readings and discussions that we had in relation to that visit to Beijing was how the firewall itself is not as effective as the Chinese authorities would like it to be.
The other issue that I feel has not been raised enough in this debate is the challenges that the BBC World Service faces on the ground, including the intimidation that it receives from Governments and the technological challenges, all within restrained budgets. When we debate the BBC World Service, of course we are right to hold it to account and to urge it to meet the highest possible standards of journalism and objectivity—“objectivity with a mission”, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East put it—but we also must understand the dilemmas that it faces. We should be praising some of the journalists and managers of the BBC World Service who operate fantastically well in such difficult circumstances.
My final point links a little bit to this issue of the challenges on the ground but it also relates to a foreign policy issue that I wanted to place before the Minister, given this opportunity, and I hope that it will have an echo in the BBC World Service. That issue is the crisis that is about to erupt in Ukraine. This story has not been covered well in the British media and it has not been voiced very well in this Parliament, but there are increasing concerns that Ukraine is facing a political, social and economic meltdown, which could happen at any time in the next few months, with massive implications for the security of energy supply and indeed for the stability of the region. I have been receiving quite a lot of messages from Ukrainians who believe that even their own Government are not aware of what a knife-edge Ukraine is currently on. I wondered whether the Foreign Office is doing anything about that issue and making representations, both within the EU and elsewhere, and whether the BBC World Service, in its Russian service, is reflecting that issue in its broadcasts.
I believe that it is right in a debate such as this to challenge the BBC World Service, but it is also right that we balance our questions with our wholehearted support for the excellent work that it does.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing the debate and on the questions that he put to the Minister, about which he feels strongly.
Like the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and all other hon. Members who have spoken, I think that most people regard the BBC World Service as a national treasure. It deserves ringing compliments on the services that it offers, especially given the difficult circumstances in which its members work and the financial constraints that apply, of which we are all aware. That should be placed on the record.
Equally, however, as my hon. Friend has said, a number of questions need to be asked. Some of those questions have come out of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report, and some come as a result of feelings that Members genuinely hold. They are meant not as carping criticism, but as a way of expressing our deep concerns about some managerial aspects of the World Service. We recognise that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a role in this issue, although I do not believe that it is trying to control the BBC World Service, even indirectly, through its budget. However, I pick up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made: it might be time for the Foreign Office to review budgetary and managerial aspects of the World Service, as well as the service’s relationship with the FCO and other Departments. This is not about setting up a patsy; such a review would probably do both the World Service and the FCO a lot of good, and I hope that some positive things would come of it.
I have referred to the World Service as a national treasure, and perhaps it could employ another national treasure who has recently been sacked by another part of the BBC—Mr. Ed Stourton. He is a serious and heavyweight commentator who actually allows people to get a word in edgeways when he interviews them—I see the Minister is nodding—and he is no patsy. In terms of adding a heavyweight to the World Service, I put in a plea for Ed Stourton.
I shall not repeat all the points that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham and other colleagues, as the time available is limited and I know that the Minister wants to reply fully. Instead, I shall pick up on two or three important points. First, there must be a better way for the BBC World Service and the Foreign Office to project likely major shifts in where they will want to place their resources. It is easy to say, in retrospect, that wrong decisions were made a decade ago about cutting back on the Russia service, but we need to consider that closely.
Secondly, I should like to address the important issues that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton rightly raised about performance, budgets and proposed budgetary squeeze. Obviously, the overall FCO budget is being affected by the sharp fall in the value of the pound, and that has reduced the purchasing power of local budgets from many overseas posts. Will the Minister tell us what impact appreciation has had on the operations of the World Service and the British Council?
On cuts, the service closed 10 of its language services on radio in 2006 to release a further £10 million of funds for reinvestment. We understand the difficult budgetary pressures facing all arms of Government, but will the Minister commit to providing transparency and openness about those matters, including through regular reporting to Parliament? Are further cuts in World Service operations likely as we go through a period of major recession? I am not making a party political point—most people realise that we are going to go through a recession. Given the major squeezes in Government Departments, has the Minister done any thinking, within his Department, about the level of cuts?
My final point, which my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have raised, is about recognising that the World Service operates in a radically different world to that of 20-odd years ago. Power has shifted quite dramatically, largely from the base of the United States, Europe and the old Soviet Union to the rest of the world, and that brings major challenges. The World Service and the old Voice of America used to be literally the only voices speaking to large parts of what we now call the developing world. All Members have expressed major concern about pressures being brought to bear, either from within the World Service or by countries that work with it, to constrain the kind of news that is put out, let alone about the physical intimidation of journalists who wish to broadcast for or work with the service. That is not an issue only for the World Service; it is also for the FCO to address. I know that the Minister and other colleagues are only too well aware of the direct intimidation of previous British ambassadors and FCO staff, not only in Russia, but in other parts of the world. How does the Foreign Office see that issue developing?
It will be a sad day throughout the world if the feeling grows that the service, despite its high ratings, is having to editorially moderate what it says, or if it gives the impression that certain people will not be allowed to broadcast on it. Let us remember that the BBC World Service was a voice of democracy and liberty to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, including not only former members who lived in the Soviet Union, but the millions who were occupied under the Nazis and under the imperial Japanese in the far east. That was not academic, but was of fundamental importance, and we should cherish that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing the debate. He spoke with passion and conviction, but, as will be clear when I comment on some of his points, I do not share all of his views. Nevertheless, his conviction, interest and detailed knowledge of this subject are clear.
Like every hon. Member present, I share the view that the World Service is an enormous cultural, political and diplomatic asset to this country, and is of immense value. It is important to clarify how the service operates vis-à-vis Government. It is rightly editorially, operationally and managerially independent, and I caution against the argument that the Government should have a more hands-on role in managing it, as that would not be in any of our interests. Nevertheless, there is a relationship, and strategic plans are agreed between the World Service and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We discuss where and how the service operates, and then rightly leave it to get on with putting its strategic plans into action.
The service has recently come up with a renewed strategy based on four key decisions, the first of which is that it will increase its Arabic television output from 12 to 24 hours a day. Secondly, it is to launch a Persian TV service, and, thirdly, it is to close its Romanian service. Fourthly, it has decided to restructure its Spanish and Russian language services, including with new investment. I shall address each of those important proposals in turn and explain why the Foreign Office supports them.
First, Arabic television and the move to 24-hour broadcasting is strongly supported not only by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and by the relevant House of Lords Committee. Outside English, Arabic has historically been one of the BBC World Service’s highest-priority language services, and it remains so. The middle east and the Arabic-speaking world remains at the forefront of our diplomatic objectives and priorities, and it will do so for a long time. Therefore, the change to 24-hour broadcasting was important and, in order to achieve it, the World Service secured from the Treasury additional funding for the move—a decision that we very much welcomed.
Secondly, Iran and Afghanistan are two further top priorities for the Foreign Office. Our analysis has shown significant demand in those two countries for a television service focusing on news, information and broader programming. Again, additional funding was forthcoming during the comprehensive spending review—a decision that we very much welcomed.
I shall now discuss the restructuring of the Russian language service, an area in which I take issue with some of the things that the hon. Gentleman said. Russia rightly remains the World Service’s second-largest language service in terms of budget and hours broadcast, and it is an important market for the World Service. Similarly, and rightly, Russia is for political, economic, social and cultural reasons a key priority for the Foreign Office, and I want to make it clear up front that neither the World Service nor the Foreign Office has ever had any intention of reducing the impact of the World Service’s Russian language service. In fact, the opposite is true. The intention has always been to increase the impact of the language service in Russia by ensuring that the service is relevant to its audiences and reaches them by the most effective means possible. The World Service rightly evaluated the Russian language service’s performance and, bluntly, thought that it could do better. We agreed with that assessment. Radio broadcasts were not meeting their full potential, and not enough was being made of the increasing online market. For example, during the recent Georgia crisis, online use increased from 1.3 million unique users to 3 million, and that included the accessing of a high number of video streams. It demonstrated that there is already an online market in Russia, and I believe that it will expand over time. So, the World Service rose to the challenge in the right way, and several changes have been made.
The Minister paints a very rosy picture and talks about new investment in the Russian service, but will he explain why the Russian service’s listenership has totally collapsed? According to the information that Nigel Chapman gave to me in July, I can report that it is down to 600,000. By way of comparison, in Nigeria, a country with a similar population size, there are about 25 million listeners. Will the Minister offer an explanation as to why listenership has totally collapsed in Russia?
I am not sure that those figures are wholly accurate, so I shall correspond with the hon. Gentleman afterwards. However, there are a number of factors, and the position of the Russian authorities vis-à-vis the World Service will influence World Service listenership in Russia.
The key changes were an extension of high-quality news and current affairs at key times of the day; increased cultural output in extended editions of the World Service's peak-time flagship programmes; an increase in the current affairs reporting of British cultural and social affairs; and, crucially, greater investment in the BBC’s Russian service. All those measures represent moves in the right direction.
Moving on from that, I should like to respond to a number of points that were made during the debate. I began by saying that I respect the hon. Gentleman’s motivation, although I am concerned that several of his points imply far greater hands-on political control of the BBC World Service by the Government. I think that that would be wrong and, frankly, I believe that it would be deeply unhealthy for politicians to decide directly the editorial content of programmes throughout the world.
Let me make some other comments.
Some of the other comments from the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham cause me concern. He mentioned the BBC Persian service and quoted a letter from—I believe—a constituent, who said that the service sounded like Iranian state radio. I must say that anyone who has seen BBC journalists in many different parts of the world will attest to their integrity, independence and robust challenging of authority.
Let me begin by clearing up the first point. I did not in any way suggest that the Government intervene in editorial comment; it was more that they might intervene to secure the ability to broadcast, to help with infrastructure and to extend the BBC Russian service.
On the second point, the e-mail that I received was a way of illustrating the problems that one will have with the television service as opposed to the radio service if one is not able to gain access to the country. I was not in any way suggesting that the e-mail represented the sole view about the BBC Russian service[Official Report, 12 January 2009, Vol. 486, c. 2MC.].
We certainly take a keen interest in securing access for the BBC World Service, but I cannot quite see the purpose of a Member quoting in this Chamber a constituent who says that the BBC World Service is akin to Iranian state television, unless it is to suggest that there is a degree of truth in it. It is a view that I wholly reject.
The hon. Gentleman also said—I am paraphrasing—that, effectively, the BBC is holding its fire for fear of offending the Russian authorities, but I find no evidence for that statement whatever. It is not borne out by the evidence. He asked me several other detailed questions, including whether the advertising process for the director of the World Service will be open, and open to external candidates. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that, on both points, they will. He also suggested that there ought to a memorial to those who have served the World Service. I have not dealt with that issue, and it is not my direct responsibility in the Foreign Office, but I shall talk to colleagues, because it is an interesting suggestion and, if it finds support, we will put it forward to the BBC.
May I also clear up the financial issue? Part of the claim put forward was that the changes to the 24-hour Arabic service and the launch of Persian television were leading to reductions in the Russian service. That is most emphatically not true. Additional funds were brought forward through the CSR for those two initiatives, and the Russian service will remain the second-largest service in terms of broadcast news and budget spent.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about the Persian service staff’s ease of access to Iran, and there have been problems in that regard. The Persian television service will face difficulties collating internal Iranian footage. Therefore it will use, first, Reuters and AFP pooled footage, secondly, footage from the mainstream BBC, such as from its “News at Ten” programme, and thirdly, video blogs from journalists and viewers. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) also put forward an interesting proposal, which I shall refer to the BBC.
I would describe the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis)—I do not believe that he will take offence at this—as an ideologue.
The hon. Gentleman nods. He put forward the view that the BBC’s purpose is objectivity, with a mission to promote British values, and I must say that one British value that I subscribe to is a free and independent media, whereby the state broadcasting corporation is able to challenge, to scrutinise and to say uncomfortable things that do not necessarily suit the views of the Government of the day or the prevailing ethos. Therefore, I would not be comfortable going down the road that he suggested.
I do not believe that the purpose suggested by the hon. Gentleman is the purpose of the BBC. Its purpose is to put forward a variety of views, and the most effective way of challenging those views with which we fundamentally disagree is to scrutinise and oppose them through a free and independent media.
Finally, I respect the conviction of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in representing his constituents, and the BBC is working, and will work, with staff to achieve its objectives. As a part of that process, their interests very much need to be taken into account.
We have had an interesting debate, and several Members have referred to the fact that such debates about the role of the World Service and how it operates ought to take place regularly. That is a view with which I very much concur.