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House of Lords Hansard
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BBC: Russian Language Programming
23 March 2015
Volume 760

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the BBC about increasing its Russian language programming and distribution, including via the internet.

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The FCO and the BBC World Service meet regularly to discuss areas of co-operation, including Russia. However, any decision to increase Russian language programming and distribution would be an operational decision for the BBC World Service to make.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I understand the relationship between the FCO and the BBC World Service and indeed, the technical and political obstacles to increasing broadcasting inside Russia. However, does the Minister not agree that, if there is to be a bridge of understanding rebuilt with Russia—it is imperative that there is—it is essential that we have the ability to inform directly Russian public opinion about the situation in east Ukraine, why it so deeply disturbs the rest of Europe and indeed, why sanctions are being imposed? To this end, will the Minister encourage the BBC as it considers—as I believe it is doing—news gathering capability in Russia, and its possible increase, and the output for BBCRussian.com?

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My Lords, I am sure that the BBC will be listening to the views of Peers. Of course, the relationship between the Foreign Office and the BBC World Service is a framework agreement. I stress that the FCO has its framework agreement with the BBC World Service—its strategic partnership—not with the BBC as a whole. Of course, it is important that a trusted broadcaster, such as the BBC World Service, should be able to provide balanced editorial work throughout not only Russia, but in other countries as well. That is what it does. What we can do is work to protect the BBC World Service from any threat to its operations, such as jamming, visa restrictions and threats to journalists. That, we do.

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My Lords, if the World Service is independent of government, why does the Foreign Secretary have the final say on whether new Russian or other foreign language services are launched?

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My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to the way in which the strategic partnership works. The FCO and the World Service work through that and meet regularly to ensure that we can support the world services as best we can. The Foreign Secretary agrees the targets, priorities and languages in which the BBC World Service operates. It is the BBC World Service board which makes the decisions about operations and editorial matters and brings its view to the Foreign Secretary regularly throughout the year. The strategic partnership meets at director level annually and at official level quarterly, when we cover the issues that our organisations work on together. The Foreign Secretary does not say to the BBC World Service that the Government want it to do particular language services or particular programmes. It is the BBC World Service board that makes the proposal to the Government, and its proposal is based on commercial grounds. That is the consideration at which the Government look.

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My Lords, while the point is well taken about the very special relationship and need for care in preserving it between the Foreign Office and the BBC, the financial settlement for the BBC as a whole is very much a concern of government. The effectiveness, quality and worldwide respect for the overseas service has been based and rooted in the accumulation of expertise, insight and experience. Are we certain that the BBC has the resources that it should have to ensure the quality and quantity of human resources necessary in this complex region, with all the challenges that exist?

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My Lords, that is very much a matter for the BBC Trust to determine. The House will know that, following the change in funding made last year, the BBC is now funded directly from licence fee payers. At that stage it was a discussion about funding and the BBC has increased the funding that has gone to the BBC World Service—the subject of this Question—beyond that which originally applied to it. There will be a review of the BBC charter next year. The noble Lord makes a very valid point: in this changing world of communications, with changing platforms on which one can receive news and language programmes, we all need to consider very carefully which expertise is appropriate and how we may attract it.

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My Lords, my noble friend has mentioned the commercial impetus in the dialogue conducted between the Foreign Office and the BBC board. Given the importance of the strategic situation in Russia, whereby Russian speakers need access to objective and historical truth, have the Government proposed to the BBC board that they would be prepared to put in some funding for this vital work that is in our strategic interests?

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My Lords, I repeat that it is for the BBC World Service board to come to the Government with strategic proposals, but my noble friend asks a very proper question about what happens with regard to balanced and trustworthy information. That is the kind of information that the BBC provides. We are building relationships with and supporting the Ukrainian Minister for Foreign Affairs, and independent Ukrainian journalists. We are funding via a conflict pool BBC Media Action—a charity under the BBC’s auspices—giving £200,000 to train Ukrainian producers and directors, and to produce a drama handling conflict issues sensitively for both Russian and Ukrainian-speaking audiences. That will be broadcast on Ukraine’s state TV channel.

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My Lords, does the Minister not agree that what she said—I am sure inadvertently—gives the impression that the Foreign Office’s role in this matter is entirely passive and that decisions on broadcasting in Russian are taken on purely commercial grounds, even when circumstances have changed fundamentally? Does she not agree that it is really important that the Foreign Office continues to play a proactive role in responding to foreign policy challenges? One of those now is how to get the truth around in Russia.

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My Lords, that is exactly the point. We are working to find ways of getting the truth around in Russia that do not in any way undermine trust in the BBC.