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BBC: World Service

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 27 November 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government by how much the BBC World Service budget has been reduced in the current financial year; and what plans they have for funding the World Service in the future.

My Lords, the budget for the BBC World Service for the 2011-12 financial year was just over £255 million. It was reduced by £11 million to £244.2 million for the current financial year and will reduce by a further £4 million to £240 million in the financial year 2013-14. From April 2014, the BBC World Service will be funded from the licence fee instead of from FCO grant in aid.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but at a time of phenomenal uncertainty in the world can it really make sense to cut the BBC World service by 16%, leading to the loss of 32 language services and 650 jobs and an estimated fall in audiences of some 30 million people? In particular, should we not think again before savagely reducing medium-wave transmissions to Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Israel at a moment when the region is in total crisis and the voice of reason is in such short supply? In this 80th anniversary year of the BBC World Service, surely it is a moment to celebrate its extraordinary achievements in upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law rather than so short-sightedly diminishing this country’s influence right across the globe.

The noble Lord raises a number of important issues. First, I assure him that it was decided to cut only five languages as overall languages in the comprehensive spending review. As regards the specific countries to which the noble Lord referred, I am sure he will be comforted by the fact that additional funding of £2.2 million per annum was put forward specifically to ensure that funding was maintained for the BBC Arabic Service, a language which I am sure the noble Lord will agree is exceedingly important in light of current events.

My Lords, has the National Security Council looked at the balance in terms of soft and hard power and the importance of the BBC World Service, bearing in mind that for a minute amount of money this absolute jewel in our soft power crown is being damaged so badly? All of us who have been involved with these issues around the world over many years realise that this is really damaging.

Again, the noble Lord raises an important issue. I am not sure whether it has been discussed at the National Security Council, but I can check that and write to him. I completely agree with him that the BBC World Service is, and remains, an important part of our soft power. Indeed, YouGov has recently said that the UK ranks extremely highly in relation to soft power. We are known as a soft power superpower. However, I am sure that the noble Lord will agree with me that at times priorities have to be assessed and that these changes in priorities have been made at various times. Indeed, under the previous Labour Government in 2005, it was announced that the Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Kazakh, Polish, Slovak, Slovene and Thai language radio services would end.

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that, while a balance has to be struck between financial viability and high-quality independent and impartial journalism, the balance must ensure that broadcasting to the most sensitive areas of the world, such as China and autocratic regimes in the Middle East, where the public do not have access to impartial information, must remain a priority? Can she assure the House that after 2014 the Foreign Secretary will retain his role in setting the strategic objectives of the BBC World Service?

Yes, I can assure my noble friend, and indeed the House, that the Foreign Secretary will still have oversight post-2014. He will retain his current role of agreeing objectives, priorities and targets. Specific approval will be required from the Foreign Secretary to open or close a specific language service. I completely agree that it is important to ensure that we continue to use this soft power mechanism, but I am sure that my noble friend will also agree that more and more people are looking to BBC world news and television and looking online to obtain this information.

Does the Minister accept that China and Russia in particular are rapidly on the rise with international services—Russia is now one of the fastest growing—and that if we do not emphasise the BBC and put the funds into it, particularly in the Middle East area, then frankly we are putting at risk not just our reputation but, more importantly, the dissemination of accurate views about crucially important events world wide?

There are a number of ways in which the UK can continue to exercise its soft power; the BBC World Service is one of them. I am sure, however, that the House will also agree that extending our embassies and our consulates and having extra staff—extending our diplomatic network—are all part and parcel of ensuring that we continue to play an influential role in the world.

My Lords, while sharing many of the concerns that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised, my noble friend mentioned the internet. Can she say to what extent the internet has provided an increasing advantage of opportunity for people all over the world to listen to the very valuable product of the World Service?

I cannot provide my noble friend with specifics, but he is aware that, certainly in relation to the Arab uprising and the Arab spring, the internet played a vital role, both in relation to accessing traditional services such as radio, but also in relation to the blogosphere in the way in which campaigns were run and the Arab spring came about.

My Lords, the Minister said that only five foreign language services had been cut, but I understand that all radio broadcasting in seven languages has been cut as a result of the financial constraints. Is the Minister satisfied that the commercial sponsorship being sought—so that some of this at least can be restored, especially in Arabic and Russian—is on track and that, if it is successful, commercial factors will not compromise the independence and impartiality of the World Service?

Every indication from the BBC Trust shows that this is a service to which the BBC is committed. We are confident that the BBC licence fee will continue to support the BBC World Service, but I will write to the noble Baroness in relation to the specific point on languages.

My Lords, the decisions that were taken in 2005 about reducing the number of eastern European language broadcasts, largely because there had been a great development in the democratic media in many of those countries, released money for the Farsi language service and for the 24-hour Arab service. I am very familiar with the decisions taken at that time. Would the noble Baroness agree that the cutting of those services, to the extent that they are being cut—and we should be under no delusion: they are being cut back—is going in the opposite direction of identifying where there are problems and addressing them?

The noble Lord may well be comforted by the fact that, despite these budget reductions in the current financial climate, the FCO has been able to maintain the World Service’s share of the overall FCO budget at, or at about, the level that it was in 2007-08.