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BBC World Service

Volume 752: debated on Wednesday 12 March 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent discussions they have had with the BBC regarding future funding for the BBC World Service.

My Lords, the FCO has regular discussions with the World Service about its future. On 1 April the World Service transfers from FCO grant in aid to licence fee funding. Future funding will be decided by the BBC Trust. DCMS is now in discussion with the BBC about additional external funding proposals. The Government remain fully committed to the global role and work of the World Service.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. Through the BBC World Service many listeners have a faith in the UK’s image, our influence and our beliefs. These qualities should not be lost at any price. Many of your Lordships are not only admirers of the BBC World Service but concerned citizens, despite the warm words that we hear from the noble Lords, Lord Patten and Lord Hall. When will the Government produce the plans and figures with the BBC Trust for future funding for the following three years—that is, before the end of the charter? The BBC World Service has only one year’s guarantee of £245 million, and that is within all the BBC’s budget, with no mechanism to protect the World Service. Can the Minister say whether she will continue to be responsible after 1 April, as the Foreign Secretary will still approve the objectives?

My noble friend asks an incredibly important question. She may be aware that we have funding of about £238 million allocated for the current financial year. In the financial year starting in April the BBC World Service licence fee funding will increase to £245 million, an increase on the current year’s funding of about £6 million, and thereafter it will be for the BBC to decide what it feels the appropriate level of funding should be. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will continue to have overall responsibility for remitting the licence fee money to the BBC under the new arrangements. As my noble friend said, the current charter runs until December 2016. The Government have yet to announce the scope, timing and process for the review of the charter. In terms of Foreign Office involvement, the Foreign Secretary will continue to approve the opening and closing of the World Service language services, as he does at present, based on recommendations put to him by the World Service.

My Lords, since S4C has also been partially funded in recent years by the BBC, in the same way as the World Service is, what consideration has been given to the future funding of S4C?

My Lords, did the Minister see the comments in yesterday’s edition of the Independent by Justice Michael Kirby, who chaired the recent commission of inquiry established by the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses in North Korea? He said that the extension of BBC World Service transmissions to North Korea—

“a country that has been largely cut off from the rest of the world”—

would make a considerable difference in fighting against those abuses of human rights. Given our Article 19 obligations and the BBC’s historic role in promoting democratic values above the heads of dictators, is this not a moment for the Government to urge the BBC World Service to play its part?

The noble Lord has asked me this question on a number of occasions; indeed I have answered it here from the Dispatch Box and also written to him. As he and other noble Lords may be aware, in 2013 the World Service reviewed the possible options for a Korean language service and concluded after a fact-finding mission that questions of likely audience reach, cost and technical feasibility meant that such a service was not appropriate at this stage. I am aware of the UN commissioner’s report. The noble Lord will be aware that that contained two quite specific approaches to how engagement could happen: the first was through the broadcasting route and the second through encouraging people-to-people contact. We are one of the few countries that has extensive people-to-people contract because of our embassy in North Korea. The UN report also recognised that that is one of the ways in which we can engage in dialogue.

Does the Minister accept that the BBC World Service, together with the British Council, constitutes the most effective expression of so-called soft power available to the United Kingdom and, indeed, excels beyond any comparable services in the rest of the world? In light of that reality, does she agree that there are no circumstances in this dangerous, confused and, in too many places, oppressed world for a reduction in the scope or service of the BBC World Service? If any reductions were to take place it would not just contradict the interests of our country but diminish the efforts for freedom being made in so many other countries.

The noble Lord makes an important point: we have indeed been referred to as a soft power superpower because of our organisations and the work that we do. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Howell has been leading discussions on this issue with other colleagues. However, I stress to the noble Lord that the BBC World Service is, of course, operationally, editorially and managerially independent and has to make these decisions in accordance with those headings.

Does the noble Baroness agree that, after listening to her first and subsequent replies, one might say that the Government are flying on a wing and a prayer in this matter? Does she not recognise that it is high time that there was a structured solution to the future funding of the World Service within the BBC and not just one that relies on the vague network of bureaucratic lines that she mentioned?

The sense was that long-term financial stability will come from licence fee funding as opposed to the way in which the BBC World Service has been funded in the past. Indeed, the BBC World Service is in contact with DCMS to consider how alternative forms of funding could come on tap in due course.

My noble friend clearly agrees about the importance of a healthy and vibrant World Service. In February, Peter Horrocks, the director of the service, told the Foreign Affairs Committee of ambitious plans to extend the service it offers. He said:

“We are launching and creating many new digital and TV services”,

including a Burmese TV service. Does my noble friend think that, from a practical perspective, this very important long-term planning must be extremely hard for a corporation that does not know what its funding is going to be in 14 months’ time? How can the FCO help the charter review process ensure that the BBC World Service does not face a diminished future?

Perhaps I may refer my noble friend to the way that I answered this question before. This matter was dealt with as part of the spending review in 2010. It was felt that the licence fee funding footing on which the BBC was placed was the appropriate way forward. The noble Baroness is right to refer to the opening of services such as the Burmese television service at the beginning of 2014—and services have been closed in the years preceding that. These are the managerial and editorial decisions that the BBC has to take.