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BBC World Service

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 13 July 2010

Question

Asked By

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has described as essential the role of the BBC World Service in helping to deliver an ambitious foreign policy agenda. We continue to respect its complete editorial independence, and it is of course respected worldwide for its balanced and well informed programmes. The BBC World Service is funded through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office through grant in aid. In line with the rest of Whitehall, we face budget pressures and are carefully scrutinising all expenditure. The BBC World Service is not exempt from that ongoing process.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Will he also remember some other words of the now Foreign Secretary last year:

“Britain will be safer if our values are strongly upheld and widely respected in the world”?

The World Service has an audience of 180 million people a week across the globe—a figure far higher than that of any other international broadcaster. Is not the World Service an unrivalled way of demonstrating the values of this country?

I heartily endorse everything that my noble friend, with his considerable experience, rightly says. The World Service is an immensely powerful network for soft power and for underpinning and promoting the values for which we all stand. Everything that he says is right.

Does the Minister agree that in these very unstable times there is a clear need for unbiased and independent news and information, which is uniquely provided by the BBC World Service? Does he also agree that a 25 per cent cut will inevitably lead to challenges that the World Service will find difficult to meet? That is what is being proposed and it is an unacceptable threat to the world’s most respected broadcaster.

I certainly agree with the first point that the noble Baroness makes. Indeed, one wants to see a well funded and effective BBC World Service, but she has to recall that under her Government a substantial cut was imposed as a result of the fall in the value of sterling, which must have hurt a lot. Under the cuts announced on 22 June by my right honourable friend the Chancellor, the BBC World Service has to make a modest further contribution and—I have to say, given the appalling financial situation that we have had to unscramble and are still unscrambling—there will be further spending-round cuts. That is unavoidable and we will all have to share them.

My Lords, given the general recognition that peace in our world requires more religious understanding and peace between religions, does the noble Lord share my disappointment that over the past 10 years the religious programming output of the World Service has dropped to a third of what it was before?

Yes, I share the right reverend Prelate’s disappointment. Although this is strictly a matter for the editorial decision of the BBC World Service and has nothing to do with government guidance, I share his view and hope that some changes may be possible. However, that is a personal view.

My Lords, one of the lessons that we should learn from the Cold War is that benighted people living in beleaguered lands were often told the truth as a result of BBC World Service transmissions. Particularly in this day and age, against the hubbub of internet transmissions often made by extremist organisations with their partisan agendas, is it not more important than ever to do as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said and maintain our maximum support for the BBC World Service?

It certainly is. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is absolutely right and I emphasise that the overall budget still allocated is substantial, has risen substantially over the years, and amounts to more than 20 per cent—possibly almost 25 per cent—of the total budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We are talking about very large sums of money backing the BBC World Service, not small sums.

My Lords, the FCO is not ring-fenced like DfID and clearly always looks to the grant-in-aid bodies such as the British Council and the World Service when cuts come. Can the Minister confirm that the BBC Arabic TV service and the BBC Persian service are both at risk and explain how that coincides with the vision statement of the Foreign Secretary on 1 July this year, when he spoke of extending our “global reach and influence”?

My Lords, the question of what services are adjusted, reviewed and so on is for the BBC World Service. The Arabic service is under review, not, I think, for funding reasons but because impact and competition have been the problem. The Farsi service continues to be well funded, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said the other day in the other place.

My Lords, in view of the rather ominous last sentence in the Minster’s original Answer, I ask whether he is aware that the World Service has made cuts in the last two financial years of some £11 million. It is making strenuous efforts to use the new technologies and reduce costs. If the Foreign Office grant is cut, can we not look to DfID to make up any shortfall?

My Lords, it is possible that some of the BBC World Service activities can be categorised as overseas aid and could be supported by DfID. I know that matter is being looked at. The other problem for the BBC World Service is that, as the shortwave transmission systems tend to become outdated, it has to seek transfer on to FM systems with local co-operation of local stations around the world. I am afraid that all that costs money. The cuts in the past as the result of the fall in sterling were bitter and tough. The cuts under the 22 June restraints announced by the Chancellor are modest. For the future, I can only say that I totally share your Lordships’ view that this is an immensely valuable service. We will do our best to safeguard it but we are not ring-fenced.

My Lords, while understanding the need to make necessary cuts, as a former Development Minister I recommend that my noble friend has a serious talk with the Department for International Development. It is engaged in much valuable education work. That is also what the BBC World Service does. That should be a shared responsibility, not one falling solely upon the Foreign Office.

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right and I always listen closely to her recommendations. This is a correct recommendation: we are having such close talks. The possibilities for the future are there but it remains the fact that the World Service is independent, financed by grant in aid. It is an immensely valuable tool, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said, in the promotion not only of this country’s interest but of peace and stability throughout the entire world.