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Hindi Radio Service (BBC)

Volume 525: debated on Monday 14 March 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

This is an important Adjournment debate about the future of the BBC’s Hindi radio service. At the moment, it is broadcast for three hours a day, divided between the morning and the evening, and reaches no fewer than 10 million listeners, mostly in the northern Hindi-speaking regions of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Hindi is the second largest language audience of the BBC World Service worldwide—of course, English is the first—and it is precisely these three poorer states in India that the Department for International Development has committed to support until 2015 to the tune of £280 million.

The BBC is cutting its shortwave Hindi service, which costs £1 million a year, but once cut, it will save just 2.5p per listener. This, I contend, is the wrong saving to make, and I very much hope that the BBC will think again. The BBC Hindi service began in May 1940, on the very same day that Churchill became Prime Minister, and it employed I. K. Gujral, who later became the 13th Prime Minister of India. The Hindi service was also the first news outlet to break the news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

There has been a so-called partial reprieve—I would call it a climbdown—after the massive outcry over the total abolition of a radio service that serves 10 million people, and which most radio stations in the world would give their eye tooth to have. However, all that will do is save one hour of Hindi broadcasting for just one year, and that is not enough. The work schedules of the poorest Indians mean that they can often hear only one broadcast or the other. Many listeners want their radio news in the morning. This decision will wipe out a large proportion of the audience overnight.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is widespread concern across the UK about the decision that the BBC appears to be making? Many of my constituents share his concerns about the future direction of the BBC on this service.

I am grateful for that intervention, which shows the wide cross-party support on this issue, in a well-attended debate, and a lot of determination, in all parts of the House, to resist the BBC’s short-sighted decision.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate on what is a ridiculous decision by the BBC. Running the service costs very little compared with the audience that it gets. This decision has been made by people who do not understand that millions around the world rely on ordinary, old-fashioned, shortwave broadcasting. They are not part of the digital revolution, and if this kind of cut goes through, they will not even be informed about the digital revolution.

That is precisely the point. The false argument that the BBC makes is that there is a revolution in India and elsewhere—as indeed there is—and that more and more people have television, but the poorest of the poor in those states depend on shortwave radio. We provide a relatively cheap and effective service, and we should maintain it.

As a former director of Diabetes UK who was involved in setting up health care programmes in India, I would echo that point. Quite often the service is the only way that messages about health care or things that are happening in a particular province can reach people.

That is absolutely right.

Let me read out a couple of quotations by ordinary people from an article in The Times:

“Vijay Kumar Pandey…every day at 6 am, takes his battered transistor radio and places it on a small table outside his house. Through the shortwave crackle a burst of familiar Indian classical music announces the beginning of a half-hour news bulletin.

Other villagers arrive to listen to the world’s most important events. They have been doing this since 1940, gathering at dawn and dusk to hear BBC Hindi’s twice-daily news programmes.

‘I am in shock,’ said Mr Pandey, a farmer in…Uttar Pradesh. ‘It’s like a family member departing from me.’”

The article continued:

“My life would lose its meaning if BBC Hindi stops its service,”

said Tarachand Khatri from Rajasthan.

“Can you imagine living with somebody throughout your life and, suddenly, that person is gone? BBC Hindi was a person; we used to interact with it through its programmes; we used to share our happiness, feelings, thoughts and concerns.”

The respected Indian news weekly Outlook reports that some villagers have threatened to burn David Cameron in effigy—something that we would all deprecate. Mohammed Hasnain Khan, a schoolteacher from Ghazipur, has threatened to immolate himself if BBC Hindi is shut. Ravindra Chauhan of Assam says that hearing that BBC Hindi will close was as if

“someone tells you that your parents will die in March.”

And so the arguments go on. This decision is an attack on people who have no way of hitting back, and I think that we should protect them, especially as the Department for International Development is set to continue funding the poorest states in India to the tune of £250 million.

Given the BBC’s enormous revenue, which is something like £4 billion a year, and how many correspondents it sends across the world in batches, does my hon. Friend agree that this incredible waste—in respect of which he and I fought to bring the BBC’s accounts within the purview of the National Audit Office—is completely disproportionate to the value that is attached to this service? Lastly, he might be fascinated to learn that 10 May 1940—the day on which the service began—happens to be the day I was born.

It is a very notable anniversary.

At this precise moment the BBC is wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds on a regionalisation programme—a programme that involves moving the headquarters of “Question Time” to Glasgow, for instance, even though it will continue to move around the country—while it is cutting a valued service in India.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on getting the climbdown from the BBC, but does he agree that this reprieve is not enough? We need to settle this matter once and for all and acknowledge the important contribution that the Hindi service makes. We need not just a temporary reprieve but a permanent one.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The purpose of this debate is to illustrate that we are saying, loud and clear, from all sides of the Chamber in the House of Commons, that this is only a partial climbdown. The BBC did not realise the extent of the outcry that would be caused by its decision. Some of the service’s best staff will go, and people will stop listening to it. They will no longer be able to listen in the morning; the service will be available only for one hour in the evening. That is not good enough, and we must fight the decision.

We often talk about soft power, and about proclaiming our values. Service such as these represent soft power. They are increasingly recognised as a hugely effective means of delivering diplomacy and our values, with few of the risks associated with more heavy-handed foreign policy interventions. Unlike other countries, Great Britain has a medium through which it can engage with a wide range of Indians, and not simply with the urban elite. That is the point that the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) made. We are not simply engaging with the urban elite online; we are engaging with the rural poor.

The service is empowering people in some of the most rural parts of India who might not otherwise get the information that it provides. Providing that information empowers them to become masters of their own destiny and to know what is going on around them, which they might otherwise not do.

Absolutely. One of the values of the service is that it is a news service. Of course the BBC can go on broadcasting on FM radio, but hon. Members might not know that it is not allowed to put news on FM. It can broadcast news only on shortwave radio. One person has written to ask me what the point is of the BBC just beaming out Bollywood-type programmes on FM when it can beam out real independent news on shortwave radio.

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says about soft power, and about this decision perhaps not having been taken on the basis of a solid cost-benefit analysis, but why, if he believes in markets, does he believe that only the BBC can provide independent, impartial news in India, which has a very vibrant media sector?

Of course India has a vibrant economy and many other news outlets will come into the picture, but the fact remains that many radio programmes in India do not have the tradition of real independence and unbiased reportage that the BBC Hindi programme has.

The service also reaches large numbers of listeners in areas affected by Maoist-inspired violence in central India, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described as the most serious threat facing the country. Many BBC Hindi service listeners might be forced to switch to China Radio International or, for Muslim listeners, Radio Voice of Iran, if the service is shut. I would point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) that the only domestic competition that the BBC Hindi service faces is All India Radio, which has a poor reputation for news and current affairs programmes and is often seen as a Government mouthpiece. In contrast, the BBC Hindi service has built up a strong reputation based on its unbiased coverage of news and current affairs.

Of course news and information will be available via the internet and other new media, but most of the listeners who have access to that technology have already shifted to it. More than 10 million listeners do not have reliable access to the internet or to television, and they would be cut off from the BBC completely if the service were to close. The existence of the BBC’s Hindi broadcasting augments the depth of the BBC’s English language coverage, granting reporters access that they might not otherwise have. Politicians, especially those from the Hindi-speaking north, know and interact with the BBC primarily through the Hindi service. The service has a wide range of local part-time correspondents and information suppliers who provide critical input that goes to the rest of the BBC as well.

The BBC will try to pass the buck to the Minister. It will say that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has stated that it believes that £25 million of World Service expenditure counts as official development. It is talking about commercial opportunities, and it will ask for funding from the Department for International Development, but I want to put the spotlight firmly on the BBC, which has taken this decision.

Let me end on this note. During the battle of Crete, Admiral Andrew Cunningham was criticised for using Royal Navy ships heavily exposed to assault from German aircraft to evacuate the Army to Egypt. Cunningham, however, was determined that the Navy would not let the Army down, no matter how many ships it lost. Admiral Cunningham said:

“It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition.”

For 70 years, the BBC has built a tradition of unbiased reporting to the poorest people in the world. We must not let this service down.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) on securing this debate and on attracting such conspicuous and widespread support from both sides of the House this evening. As he said, the BBC Hindi service is not, after all, being completely discontinued. The World Service had announced that the shortwave broadcasts would be stopped, but that the FM and online service would continue. However, the World Service has now been able to identify savings from within its budget to postpone the cessation of the shortwave service. Like many Members who have spoken this evening or attested to their support for my hon. Friend through their presence in the Chamber, we welcome this recent decision by the BBC World Service board.

There is no doubt that the BBC World Service is a much-respected and much-loved British institution. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear on 26 January, it performs an invaluable role, reflecting British democratic values overseas and supporting British influence in the world. The services it provides are a beacon to many in some of the poorest and most insecure countries of the world.

It is also true that the World Service, like any other body funded by the taxpayer, must ensure that it is working on the right priorities and as efficiently as possible. Last October, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced that the World Service’s expenditure limits would be reduced by 16% in real terms over the next three years. There is no doubt that these cuts are challenging, but it is right that all parts of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office family should contribute to reducing the deficit inherited from the previous Government. As part of the settlement, and to provide a balanced package, the Foreign Office provides £13 million a year to help with the deficit in BBC pension funds and £10 million a year for new services in markets that we and the World Service have identified as priorities.

My hon. Friend touched on the division of responsibilities between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the BBC World Service, and the broadcasting agreement between the two sets out clearly the responsibilities of each. My right hon. Friend, together with the BBC, sets the objectives, priorities and targets for the World Service and gives his authority for the opening or closure of any foreign language service. Other changes fall under the managerial independence of the World Service and are its responsibility.

From 2014, the funding for the World Service will be transferred to the BBC under its licence fee arrangements—a development welcomed by the BBC Trust. I emphasise, however, that the Foreign Secretary’s oversight role will remain and that he will continue to be involved in the setting of priorities. His authority will still be required to open or close any foreign language service.

On 26 January this year, the World Service announced plans for working within its new budget, and it had to take some difficult decisions. Among the announcements made was the one about the cessation of the shortwave broadcasts in a number of languages, including Hindi. As my hon. Friend said, the Hindi service has a long and honourable history, having been established as far back as 1940. Many millions of people have grown up listening to its broadcasts, and its popularity has certainly been shown by the number of representations that we and the BBC have received and by the passion with which they were made. My hon. Friend cited a number of those representations in his remarks.

According to the World Service, the shortwave audience in India has been falling for some time. In 2007 there were 19.1 million listeners, but by 2010 the number had fallen to about 11 million. That is still a large audience, but it represents a reach of just over 1% of the population, although—as my hon. Friend made clear—the areas covered by the shortwave broadcasts include some of the very poorest parts of India. There is only a small audience for shortwave in any of the urban areas, and the service was broadcasting for only three hours a day.

Last week the director of the World Service told the Foreign Affairs Committee that it had intended to close the shortwave service eventually and concentrate its efforts on the rapidly growing parts of the Hindi media market: online, mobile and television. Its broadcasts on FM would not be affected. The Hindi service has a network of FM partners throughout India whom it supplies with programmes, but—as my hon. Friend said—because of the regulatory framework in India, those services cannot supply hard news programming.

We are aware that the Hindi service was approached with proposals for alternative funding models for the shortwave broadcasts, but needed time to explore whether those possibilities were practicable. In discussions between officials, we made it clear that any decision would have to be made by the BBC World Service within its budget allocation. However, we supported the approach by the Hindi service to continue its shortwave broadcasts.

I am pleased that the BBC World Service has been able to find extra funds in its budget to support the Hindi shortwave service for another year and give it time to establish whether any of the alternative funding proposals are viable. The Hindi service will continue to broadcast on shortwave, albeit for only one hour a day rather than three. The World Service has decided to reprioritise £170,000 of its transmission budget for that purpose. I believe that that is a sensible response not only to legitimate concerns, but to the pressure to explore viable alternatives to continue the Hindi service not just for one year but for much longer, on a sustainable basis.

My hon. Friend spoke of the continuing priority given by the Department for International Development to helping the poorest communities in India. I know that a number of questions have been asked in the House about why that Department could not fund the Hindi service or cover the shortfall in the World Service’s overall budget. Under the broadcasting agreement between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the BBC, funding for the World Service should come from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office rather than the Department for International Development. Members will have seen the announcement in which, on 1 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development clearly set out his priorities for the next few years. They did not include core funding for the BBC World Service, as it did not fulfil the criteria that he had identified.

That said, some World Service activity may count as official overseas development assistance. We are discussing with DFID and the OECD how BBC World Service expenditure may be reported as official development assistance. I understand that the World Service is discussing funding for specific projects with DFID, which already supports the BBC World Service Trust, the charitable arm of the World Service. The Government remain committed to an enhanced partnership with India.

Has the Minister had discussions with his counterparts at DFID to establish whether they might provide funds either to extend the one-hour service that has been saved or, in the longer term, to keep the shortwave service going beyond 2014?

There have been discussions at official level about the BBC decision to discontinue the Hindi service and about the pressure from the Hindi service for there to be a stay of execution while it explored other funding models. As far as I am aware, discussions between the Foreign Office and DFID about whether World Service expenditure can be classified as overseas official development assistance have been held largely at official level, although clearly if there were to be a major policy shift in this area the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who is the Minister responsible for the World Service within the FCO, would be directly involved with his DFID counterparts.

With due respect, surely the Minister knows whether or not there have been ministerial discussions, and given the strength of concern in the House, surely a Minister from the Foreign Office could talk to DFID colleagues, or, potentially, to those who run the BBC World Service, to get some clarity about possibly at least extending the one-hour service back to the three-hour service.

The discussions that have taken place so far have been at official level about the decision the BBC took on the Hindi service earlier this year. The point I made a few moments ago is on a bigger issue: the extent to which expenditure on the World Service could qualify as official development assistance, and whether there were any problems in respect of the International Development Act 2002, which has to govern DFID’s expenditure. It is sensible that those conversations should initially take place at official level before advice is put up to Ministers, taking account not only of the views of the people in the two Departments, but also, as I mentioned, the opinions of the OECD, which has an authority in defining those areas of expenditure which count for ODA purposes and those that fall outside that definition.

There has been significant progress on building the bilateral relationship with India since the Prime Minister’s visit in July 2010, with increased co-operation across the full scope of activities in areas such as the economy, defence, counter-terrorism, climate change, science and innovation, and education. The presence of the World Service is one of many important elements in our ties with India, and we hope a solution can be found to the problems in respect of the Hindi service that demonstrates this value. Clearly, the World Service cannot be immune from public spending constraints or the need from time to time to reassess its priorities in the light of changing technologies and audience patterns.

Does the Minister agree that it is very important that we keep the Hindi service and other such BBC services, because we are retracting from our embassies? The influence throughout the world of the BBC World Service in all the languages is therefore terribly important.

First, I want to assure my hon. Friend that this Government are not going to be retracting from our network of embassies and high commissions. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that he sees the network of posts overseas as absolutely core to the mission of the FCO as a Department. I agree about the continuing importance of the World Service, but I also say that the current pattern of the language services provided by the BBC World Service cannot be preserved in aspic. There will be changes in priorities as the years go on. Changes will be occasioned by: the political priorities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; shifts in audience; and changes in technology. In some parts of the world the use of online access to the BBC is increasingly rapidly, and that is being coupled with a significant reduction in the use of shortwave broadcasting. Clearly the patterns of provision need to take account of that. I am pleased that in this instance the World Service has been able to keep the Hindi service shortwave broadcasts operating while a sustainable solution is explored, and I hope that that leads to success.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.