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BBC World Service

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 17 May 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the BBC on the development of the World Service.

My Lords, we have regular discussions with the BBC World Service. We are aware that the BBC World Service has already reprioritised resources to minimise the effect of the cuts to the BBC Arabic service. We are also looking at ways that we can work with the BBC Arabic service and the BBC World Service Trust on specific projects under the Arab Partnership Initiative. We have also been in discussion with the BBC Trust, the BBC World Service and the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport over an amendment to the BBC agreement that will include setting out the role of the Foreign Secretary once the funding of the World Service transfers to the licence fee in 2014-15.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but perhaps I may raise specifically the cuts being planned in news reporting on the Arabic service, which, incidentally, will be unaffected by any resources from DfID through the World Service Trust. Does he not agree that this is a crucial time in the Arab world and the Middle East—so important that other television stations are expanding their reporting and Sky is soon to introduce an entirely new service there? Given that the World Service is already well established, respected and cost-effective, should not our aim be to develop the Arabic service, not to cut it back?

Of course that is absolutely right and my noble friend is extremely well informed on these matters. In fact, I really wanted to say to him that when he spoke about these matters the other day, I said that he was “misinformed”. On reflection, I think that that is too strong a word, and I apologise to him for it. He was correctly drawing on the BBC World Service circular, but that did not quite present the whole picture about the fact that the 24-hour service is being maintained in one form or another—although it is perfectly true that live broadcasts have been curtailed.

Nevertheless, as I mentioned in my Answer, we are working on specific projects under the Arab Partnership Initiative, and we hope that that initiative will be expanded and, therefore, that opportunities for more support for the service will expand. I should add that if one looks at the totality of the projection of our soft power communication with the Arab world, since between November last year and February there has been a 263 per cent increase in online BBC Arabic usage, a 949 per cent increase in requests for Arabic TV online streaming from the BBC, and a 559 per cent increase in online video requests. No one can say that we are backward in promoting the British message, persuading, using influence and communicating in a highly effective way with the turbulent Arab world.

Has the noble Lord taken into account the very important fact that not just in the Middle East but in Iran as well television coverage is particularly important and that it is much more expensive than radio coverage? Will he give the House an undertaking that, in looking at these figures, the Government will take into account the additional cost of TV coverage to the Middle East and Iran to make sure that we do not undermine this crucial part of our soft power?

The noble Lord is quite right. As I indicated in the figures that I gave, although radio remains immensely important, the trend is towards television becoming the dominant leader. We can see from the enormous rise in the influence of Al-Jazeera just how powerful it is and how important it is to promote our own TV services. Therefore, although I cannot give precise undertakings on precise figures, that is clearly a high priority.

My Lords, following the reprieve of the Hindi service, are any of the other foreign language services that have been cut likely to be able to benefit from a similar rescue package, possibly including commercial partnerships?

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary gave permission for five foreign language services to be cut, mainly because their usage had fallen dramatically. However, the allocation of resources for maintaining foreign language services and the possibilities of bringing in commercial support are matters for the BBC World Service and, after 2014, for the BBC. The Department for International Development is discussing ways in which it can work in a more strategically joined-up manner with the BBC World Service Trust, which itself produces the prospect of more support for the services we want to keep and are effective and fit into the modern technological pattern.

My Lords, I hope that this is not irrelevant. If, as the noble Lord said, the BBC is cutting back, why do I have to listen at 3 am to the most ghastly children’s programme for the under-fives when that time could surely be put to use for foreign broadcasts somewhere in the world where it is not 3 am?

I have a feeling that the slightly cop-out answer is that that really is a matter for the programmers and directors of the BBC World Service and not for me at 3 am in the morning. Nevertheless, although the World Service and many other aspects of government and government agencies have had to trim their sails in line with the general austerity measures, for reasons which we all know about, in general great strides are being made in expanding the communication network in these areas and in reorganising BBC programmes in a way that, I hope, will not disturb my noble friend quite so challengingly.

My Lords, I suspect that many noble Lords saw the photograph of a young man protesting in Deraa, Syria, holding up a placard on which was written “Thank you BBC”. I think that that says it all. Can the Minister persuade his friends at DfID that the World Service is regarded by the recipients of our aid as priceless and ask them to look up exactly what that means?

I think that my honourable friends and colleagues in DfID are well aware of that. It is a very important element in the deployment of soft power by this nation and it makes an important contribution to the overall soft-power communication message. No one doubts that for a moment. The budget is still substantial. It has had to take a cut proportionate with the huge cut that the Foreign Office had to take at the time of the exchange rate farrago. That had a huge impact on the Foreign Office. All the agencies concerned have had to take a proportionate share of that, but no more than proportionate compared with 2008.

When the BBC accepts financial responsibility for the World Service, who has the final word on to which countries and to what extent the BBC broadcasts: the Foreign Secretary or those who pay the piper, the BBC?

The finality and responsibility will be very carefully defined. A new broadcasting agreement is now being worked out between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the BBC that will define exactly the rights and responsibilities of the Foreign Secretary. However, at present, the final word is with the Foreign Secretary and it was he who sanctioned and approved the cuts in, I think, five of the foreign language services. Beyond that, it has been a matter for the BBC World Service itself to work out how best to use its resources.