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BBC World Service

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2011


My Lords, with permission I shall now repeat as a Statement the Urgent Question that was answered by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in another place:

“The House will agree that the BBC World Service performs an invaluable role, reflecting British democratic values overseas and supporting British influence in the world, and that the services it provides are a beacon to many in some of the poorest and most insecure countries in the world. We announced in October that, from 2014, responsibility for the BBC World Service will be transferred to the BBC itself and funded from the licence fee, a move that has been welcomed by the World Service and the BBC Trust as providing new opportunities for the World Service to develop in the future. In the mean time, the World Service—like any other taxpayer-funded body—must ensure that it is working on the right priorities and as efficiently as possible. I announced in October that its expenditure limits would be reduced by 16 per cent in real terms over the next three years.

As I set out in a Written Statement earlier today, we are providing £13 million per annum to help with the deficit in BBC pension funds and £10 million per annum for new services in markets that we and the World Service have identified as priorities. Those include TV programming in Urdu, in sub-Saharan Africa and in Hindi to be provided to local partners. We have also guaranteed the capital for the move of the World Service to its new offices in W1. That is proper provision for the future of the World Service and will make up for inherited deficits.

The other services provided by the World Service cannot stand still, and those that have become less well used because of the rise of local broadcasters or falling short-wave audiences sometimes have to close. It is the World Service’s responsibility to be as efficient as possible while maintaining as many services as possible, something the previous Government recognised when in 2006 they closed 10 separate language services of the World Service. The World Service initially suggested to the Foreign Office the closure of up to 13 language services, but I refused to give permission for that. I have agreed to the closure of five language services, accounting for 3.5 million listeners out of the total audience of 180 million. Withdrawal from short-wave and other services will have a bigger effect, but will rightly allow for concentration on online and mobile services for the future.

The BBC World Service has a viable and promising future, but it is not immune from public spending constraints or the reassessment of its priorities. While any closures might be regretted, they would not be necessary at all were it not for the inherited BBC pension deficit and the vast public deficit inherited from the previous Government”.

That completes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. This is a very sad day for all supporters of the BBC World Service—a service that has unrivalled reach across the globe and has a reputation for independence and fair mindedness. The BBC World Service is loved by many people who listen to it every day and is envied by many Governments, who wish they had it. It is known for its authoritative news reporting and relied upon for such reporting by many people. Will the Minister tell us why this uniquely valuable service is being cut so much more savagely than the rest of the FCO?

There were of course cuts and changes under Labour. They were criticised at the time, but these cuts today go much further than a mere realignment of resources. This is not just a realignment of priorities; it is a real and huge cut of 650 jobs out of a workforce of 2,400. The BBC director-general has said that these cuts will,

“inevitably have a significant impact on the audiences who use and rely upon the relevant services”.

He also exhorted supporters of the international role of the BBC “not to despair”. What a far cry that is—do not despair—from the Foreign Secretary’s exhortations on 1 July last year that the Government’s new approach to foreign policy would include “cherishing” and “growing” the networks around the world through our language. He said:

“The English language gives us the ability to share ideas with millions—perhaps billions—of people in the biggest emerging economies and … to build networks across the world”.

Those were high sounding ideals, which of course Mr Hague explicitly said were underlined by the essential importance of the BBC World Service. He said that together with the British Council, the World Service,

“gives Britain an unrivalled platform for the projection of the appeal of our culture and the sharing of our values”.

He was right. The World Service is the envy of the Americans—of Voice of America. The Americans have nothing that has the reach; nor do the French or any of our international competitors in this field.

Radio programmes in seven languages will cease altogether and one of those languages is Turkish. Does the Minister recall that only two weeks ago he agreed that Turkey has a growing and huge importance around the world? He said:

“We have already taken decisive steps to inject a new dynamic into UK-Turkey relations”.—[Official Report, 13/1/11; col. 1576.]

I am sure that at the time the Minister had no idea that the BBC World Service would cease to broadcast in Turkish shortly. After all, it was only on 1 July 2010 that the Foreign Secretary boasted of a new relationship with Turkey, Europe’s biggest emerging economy. Does the Minister recall his right honourable friend saying that there would be a,

“particular diplomatic effort with Turkey”?

This is a very odd way to implement that diplomatic effort.

The Minister is well known for his steadfast and passionate commitment to the Commonwealth. Again, he is at one with the Foreign Secretary, who castigated the Labour Government as being “oblivious” to the value of the Commonwealth. He said that the Commonwealth was not mentioned in the FCO’s strategic plan in 2009. He was right. It was not and it should have been. But in Mr Hague’s approach, which has been set out today, many people will see the cut of English for the Caribbean regional service as a bit more of a blow for everyday life in the Caribbean than the lack of a mention in a document in 2009 of which none of them has probably ever heard.

In July, Mr Hague claimed that he was introducing a “distinctive foreign policy”. Today, the results are seen in the cuts in FCO funding, which are becoming clearer and clearer. They are very destructive. The director-general, in making the cuts announcements, said today that he wanted to make it clear that these are the direct result of last autumn’s spending cuts. Will the Minister tell us why the BBC World Service is taking such an extraordinarily heavy cut? He mentioned 16 per cent. I believe that the figure is anything between 16 per cent and 20 per cent in real terms, as opposed to 10 per cent elsewhere in the Foreign Office.

The National Security Forum gave advice to the Labour Government of the crucial importance of the BBC World Service in nation-building and in making the world a safer place. It did that and it does that. What has changed? We have the ready-made vehicle to help us in nation-building, to foster understanding and to make the world a safer place, as the Foreign Secretary exhorted that he wanted to do.

The Government know that, as was shown in November 2010 when the FCO’s business plan was published. It said that the coalition priorities were, among other things, the use of,

“‘soft power’ to promote British values, advance development and prevent conflict”.

To do this, the Foreign Secretary claimed that he would:

“Devise a strategy to enhance … the impact of the … World Service”.

That was his promise and his commitment. Will the Minister tell us how today’s announcement fulfils that promise, that commitment? Will he give us concrete examples of how these cuts will enhance the role of the World Service? The Foreign Secretary said:

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

The BBC World Service has an audience of more than 180 million people a week, which is far higher than other international broadcasters.

Finally, does the Minister recall, in July 2010, being asked:

“Is not the World Service an unrivalled way of demonstrating the values of this country?”

Does he recall his answer, which was:

“I heartily endorse everything that my noble friend”,

has said. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, posed the question. The Minister continued:

“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”.—[Official Report, 13/7/10; col. 600.]

On 13 July 2010, the Minister was 100 per cent right. Today, sadly, in the Statement which he has had to repeat to us, he is not.

My Lords, I say straight away that I heartily endorse many of the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness about the BBC World Service. This is indeed a precious asset and, as the Statement of my right honourable friend says, we wish it to be an articulate and highly effective voice for Britain in the world. There is no disagreement about that.

The noble Baroness first asked about the size of the cut of 16 per cent in real terms over three years and asked why it is, or appears to be, larger than the overall real-terms cut in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a whole during the period of the spending review. It is not the biggest cut—the British Council has been asked to take a 25 per cent cut in real terms—but it is larger than the 10 per cent because we have to start from the position we inherited. The noble Baroness will recall that the Foreign Office took a fearful blow when the mess over the exchange rate had to be negotiated, which involved a large cut in its overall budget. At that time, the cut imposed on other ancillary bodies, including the BBC World Service, was somewhat less. If one looks at the arithmetic, all that is happening is that having to suffer 16 per cent now, which no one welcomes but is the reality that we have to face, merely brings the BBC World Service back to the same proportion of expenditure of a total FCO budget as was the position in 2008. We are back where we are.

Of course, it would be nice to be much further ahead and to have more resources, but we do not have more resources. The outgoing Minister—I forget his name—left a letter behind saying, “There is no more money”. We have had to impose on ourselves and in many parts of government inevitable cuts. Not this evening are we going to go into an argument about why those cuts were imposed or why the situation in budget terms was so utterly disastrous, which I know is a huge debate going on in this country. But disastrous it was and repaired it has to be.

As to specific services that were mentioned, five language services have been stopped, which my right honourable friend has outlined. On top of those, there are the effects of the changes in a number of other areas. The noble Baroness mentioned Turkey, for which there will be a stopping of radio programming and a concentration on online, mobile and TV distribution in a number of languages, and a phased reduction in medium and short-wave radio distribution.

That tells us something very important, which I am not sure that the noble Baroness or some other critics fully appreciate. We are dealing with a rapidly changing technology. The short-wave arrangements are not reaching the audiences. Short-wave is being cut out by the development of the technology, and by resistance in some parts of the world. In addition, millions of people are moving to online reception of news and views. They are using mobiles and television as well. This is changing the whole pattern of radio broadcasting across the planet.

Quite aside from these substantial economies, which cannot be denied, there has to be an evolution of the technology and the changes in the BBC World Service. If that is not understood, I am afraid that very little is understood about the world into which we are moving. Of course these are not the sort of things one wants to welcome—there are difficulties, there are challenges and this is the greatest matter for regret, redundancies. However, one has to also accept that we have to move on in the evolution of the World Service. In three years’ time it is going to be in a much better position, completely independent of my department or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and therefore reasserting its wonderful independence in the world in its voice and its opinions. This is something for the future which I think deserves some optimism rather than the concentration on what the noble Baroness calls “huge and savage cuts”. I believe these are overused as adjectives.

I shall ask my noble friend a few short questions. Is there any comparable international broadcasting service which has a higher reputation than the BBC World Service? Is that influence not of immense benefit to this country? Will he therefore understand that there will be serious concern about this announcement on all sides of the House? May I ask him something else which may not have such general support? If we are intent on saving money, why are we cutting only journalists and services yet preserving the costly bureaucracy of the BBC Trust? Even now it is in the process of recruiting a new chairman when even the previous Labour Government wanted to see it go. In that way we could save millions of pounds for broadcasting.

I shall start on my noble friend’s second point. We have to leave the design and pattern of the cuts to the administration of the BBC World Service within the confines, of course, of the requirement that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has to approve any cuts in language services. He has approved three. I think he was asked to cut 13 in the first place. I have no quibble with my noble friend regarding the value of the service in the promotion of our cultural diplomacy and soft power in the world. It is immensely valuable and its budget remains substantial. None of us welcomes this application of austerity but it is necessary because that is the position we inherited and we have to work within. Within those parameters the BBC World Service remains, in our minds, an immensely valuable instrument. It is a central part of the promotion of our values and I do not for one moment dispute a single word of what my noble friend said.

Can the Minister explain how the disappearance of various foreign language services from the World Service, and of radio broadcasts in Russian, Mandarin and Turkish, can be reconciled with the Foreign Secretary’s recent remarks about the importance of languages in a United Kingdom which needs to engage more energetically with the wider world outside familiar European Union boundaries? Why is there this inconsistency in foreign policy? In view of the strategic importance of these services, at home as well as abroad, should their funding not be ring-fenced and protected?

With respect to the noble Baroness, I think there is a missing point in her concerns. Of course we want to see services, communication, influence and the independent voice of Britain promoted. However, as I said in answer to an earlier question, the English short-wave broadcasts to Russia, the former Soviet Union and China were simply not getting through. What was the point in going on spending money on services that were not getting through? We are moving into a new era of technology in which the way to get our values and the message of the BBC World Service through to the millions in Russia and China for a start is not necessarily best done through trying to push our way through short-wave systems which are being closed down. These people are turning to online information. They are using their mobiles. They are increasingly turning to television. These nations are developing rapidly and the radio plays a part but not the part that was played before. So while not denying for a moment that there are cuts—of course there are and it is absurd to pretend otherwise—the reconciliation is that we are looking at a new pattern of technology and the communications required have got to be different. That is the way our aspirations match what is now being proposed.

I declare an interest as the Minister who for several years was responsible, among other things, for the World Service. This is one of the most depressing Statements I think I have heard in the House. One of the answers to my noble friend Lady Symons demonstrated that a major public speech made at the beginning of July by the Foreign Secretary meant absolutely nothing when it came to the practical implementation and the cuts. As the Government knew on 1 July what the extent of the possible cuts would be, the speech should never have been made.

In 2006—and this does lead to the question—I agreed to the cutting of some language services in eastern Europe, mostly in nations which were then part of NATO and had fully independent media of their own, in order to move the money into the Arabic and Farsi language services which were due to make a very fundamental difference to our overseas action. I believe that was the right move. Of course it is right to move away from short-wave where it cannot be received, but we were moving away even in those cases to FM, which could be received. Everybody said, especially the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, that the switch to new platforms would not be an adequate replacement. Is it not the case that, from the report produced by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, onwards, it was understood that the projection of soft power was a good deal more economical than many of the alternatives, brought huge bonuses to this country, and that in fact these savings will turn out to be a fiction?

I really cannot comment on the noble Lord’s last point because the administrators of the BBC World Service are serious about operating their budget in a new and more effective way within the limits that have been imposed upon them. However, I should like to lift the noble Lord out of his depression because I believe that he is reading too much into the gloom and pessimism around this. I know that he understands the position because he knows all about these things, but I am not sure that he is accepting enough of the new possibilities and the new patterns. I mentioned that this Statement, among other things within the constrained budget, includes some new services, including TV programming in Urdu, in sub-Saharan Africa and in Hindi to be provided by local partners. No doubt other ideas and innovations are also in the pipeline which we will learn about in due course. I have also mentioned that funds are being found to assist the BBC World Service in its immediate pension deficit, which again is an inherited matter although I do not ascribe it to or in any way blame it on the previous Administration.

That said, I think that his words are exaggerated. The very substantial budget over the next three years of the spending round is still a big part of our intentions and expenditure in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. When this joins up with the full BBC in 2014 the programmes will continue in a highly vigorous, effective and modern way. So I just do not accept the reasons for the noble Lord’s pessimism and depression at this time.

My Lords, I sympathise with my noble friend on the difficult decisions that his department is having to take. At the time I was growing up in a developing country, the only access to free and impartial reporting was through the BBC World Service. It gives me absolutely no pleasure to extend sympathy in this regard other than to say that we are living in difficult times. My questions will be brief because many noble Lords want to come in.

Has the Foreign Secretary considered the proposal put forward in the briefing provided to noble Lords today by Mr Peter Horrocks which suggests that part of the DfID budget might be extended to cover some of the shortfall? DfID has very adequate resources, so it seems to make sense that some of its resources, particularly those dedicated to stability and conflict, should be used for the Urdu language programming and so on.

There is some confusion in the briefing provided by Mr Horrocks apropos the Statement. Can my noble friend confirm that BBC audiences have been falling in any event due to technological changes and the other factors he mentioned? Is it accurate to say that last year the audience was 180 million, which was down 9 million on the previous year, 2009? If he can confirm that, some noble Lords might understand that when audiences are falling because of new technologies, it is inevitable that some of the decisions that are taken will reflect that.

Finally, the Foreign Secretary’s Statement says that £10 million per annum will be dedicated to priority areas such as TV programming in Urdu whereas the BBC briefing suggests that that will not be the case and that new money will have to be found for programming in Urdu.

I find it difficult to comment on my noble friend’s last point. If that is what she has read in the BBC briefing, which I have not seen, it would appear not to coincide with the position which is as I have stated it. It is not argumentation or opinion, it is fact. I shall have to look into this because there seems to be some misinterpretation here.

My noble friend is absolutely right about falling audiences. This is so because we are moving into a different international landscape in which people’s listening habits are changing. The position of radio in all societies across the world is changing, and certainly in my lifetime it has changed in our society absolutely fundamentally. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and I both mentioned the fact that short-wave systems are just not operating in the way they did in the past, and the world is turning to online systems. Every morning some 2 billion people open the world wide web. That is almost a third of the entire population of the world. We have to adjust to these new realities.

My noble friend’s first point was very interesting. A certain amount of the expenditure on the World Service is classified as “ODAable”—I think that is the jargon. In other words, it is part of our overseas development budget. I do not want to encourage her that there is more flexibility in that area to be exploited at the moment, but obviously we keep in close touch with DfID on this matter and we will continue to do so. If resources can be mobilised to adapt to a new pattern of soft power projection, of which this is an important part, we will certainly look for them and I hope we will find them.

My Lords, I join with everyone in saying that it will be a sad day indeed if the BBC World Service ceases to be a beacon for many of the world’s poorest and most insecure countries because, above all, they will lose the impartiality and independence of the World Service that we have all come to rely on. I am concerned, as is the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, that the World Service will lose something like 650 out of 2,400 jobs, which is a very large proportion. These are skilled people who would have been available as resources for other services. When these services are transferred back to the BBC, which we all hope will happen in a rather better way, will the BBC be strongly encouraged to see that these specialists are re-employed and made available? No one else is going to provide this sort of independent expertise.

On the last point, I think that that is absolutely right. There ought to be—although this is of course a management decision for both the World Service and the BBC—very adequate provision, as I hope personally that there will be, for the encouragement, redirection and reabsorbing of the redundant people into the media world in various forms. Redundancies are always a personally sad business, although sometimes they open new opportunities as well. The noble Baroness is quite right about that.

As for independence, I emphasise the point that has been put to me many times in recent weeks. The move of the BBC World Service over to the BBC, with the ending of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office being the paymaster of the BBC World Service, is very positive. It emphasises and re-emphasises the independence of a body that has always been regarded as being of great value by most people. However, one did hear, in the past, the occasional query as to how it was so independent if it was paid for by the Foreign Office. That will not be the case in three years’ time, so on that score I ask for all who follow these matters closely and value the BBC World Service to feel a glimmer of optimism, despite the pessimism that we have heard in every intervention so far.

My Lords, we have plenty of time. Let us hear from the Labour Benches and then from my noble and learned friend.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in many parts of the world, there is a serious struggle going on for the hearts and minds of people in order to persuade them to see our democratic values and the freedom that we cherish? Is he so certain that the technological changes that make him suggest that the radio is no longer important have spread into those countries where this battle for hearts and minds is going on most seriously? Turkey is only one of the many examples. Is there not a danger that the technological argument that some of the more affluent people in these countries can get television and the internet ignores the fact that there are many people who cannot and who rely on the radio? Might that not mean that we are losing the battle for their hearts and minds?

These are sensible considerations to analyse in seeing how our communications systems on the planet should change. I can only say to the noble Lord, who follows these things closely, that when I was on a visit to China the other day I was told that 330 million people in that country were now online and were looking at a bombardment of media services, not just from the BBC but from a dozen other sources throughout the planet, all of which they were absorbing before turning to the older-fashioned pattern of listening to the radio. I do not deny for a moment that the noble Lord may be right and that there may be areas where the end of these language services will be a real loss. That may be so, but I suspect that there are many more areas where the loss will not be so great because of the alternatives that are developing. Television services that did not exist 10 or 20 years ago are now filling the media in these areas, particularly those that we are concerned with, with a huge new supply of information.

Of course we want to make sure that our message gets through as clearly as it possibly can and we have to use all the methods that we can. However, it would not be a good message to the world if, at the same time as we were putting out our principles by communication, the word was coming over that this country was unable to tackle its debts, that it was losing its international credit status and that its economic recovery was being delayed by the near-bankruptcy, as some experts have said, into which our public finances unfortunately fell. That is where we start from and why we have to take these tough decisions.

My Lords, my noble friend is entirely right to identify the changes that are necessary as a result of the old-fashioned quality of short-wave radio. It makes me grieve that I can no longer get the BBC World Service while carrying around my little short-wave radio set. The other important point, which is common ground, is the extent to which the BBC World Service plays, as the Foreign Secretary himself has said, a crucial role in our soft power. That becomes all the more so for the reasons just stated by the noble Lord. For example, the Chinese ambassador estimates that in five years’ time one-third of the population of China will be learning English. We need to be benefiting from that by maintaining the service, whose quality is agreed on by everyone.

Without being egocentric, I think that during my 10 years of masochism, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then as Foreign Secretary, we were able to maintain the real value of the World Service even though we were going through substantial periods of hardship and were cutting expenditure elsewhere. We did that by maintaining the percentage of our GDP going to overseas aid and development, not to the 0.7 per cent desired by the United Nations but to 0.36 per cent, which may be regarded as mean. However, one can regard the huge expansion of the ODA budget under the present Government as being so large that it cannot be impossible to find the modest sums of money necessary to respond to the anxieties expressed today. If my figures are correct, the budget for overseas development assistance in 2010 was £8.4 billion, due to rise to £12.6 billion. To put that alongside the trivial reduction in the resources available to the World Service could lead one to the conclusion that we must redeploy to the extent of maintaining, cherishing and expanding the service to which we have all paid so much tribute this evening.

My noble and learned friend has been at the centre of these matters for many years. Even before he held his high offices as Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, some of us in another place were promoting for the first time the concept of cultural diplomacy and the central role that it needed to play in the survival, prosperity and reputation of this country. I do not disagree with anything that he said, but I say simply that, although he talks about English becoming the language of China—indeed, the language of the planet or the lingua franca, if I may distort the phrase—it is the language of cyberspace; the computerised communication revolution of this planet is in English. That is how it has to be and those are the technologies that we have to use. I do not deny for a moment that the radio systems and other ancillary services of the BBC World Service are an immensely important part of that, but they are only a part. We have to be realistic about that.

As for whether a little more could be found, if I may say so to one of the most distinguished Chancellors—in my book anyway—of the post-war period, he knows that if we followed the argument, “We should exempt this, because surely there is enough from the bigger budget”, we would end up with the budget not being cut at all. These things have to be done. They are not pleasant. No one likes even having to defend them; I am not particularly enjoying this session now. However, it is a reality that we have to face and we must proceed in an optimistic spirit to make the best of the situation that we have inherited. In the case of the BBC World Service, I hope that we can do so.

Sitting suspended.