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International Soft Power Strategy: Role of BBC

Volume 809: debated on Monday 18 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the role of the BBC in their international soft power strategy.

My Lords, the BBC plays an important role in promoting our values globally through its independent and impartial broadcasting. It is a central part of British soft power and influence. The role of soft power is being considered as part of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. This will be informed by the conclusions of the cross-government work already undertaken on our strategic approach to this area.

My Lords, what steps are the Government taking to co-ordinate their domestic approach to the BBC with their international soft power strategy? Does the Minister not consider that the repeated criticism of the BBC by Ministers, including the Prime Minister, and the right-wing press weakens the standing of the BBC and its reputation abroad?

My Lords, as I already said in my original Answer, we recognise as a Government the important role the BBC plays and continue to support its work around the world. Since 2016, the Government have invested heavily in the BBC, with over £370 million of funding. We continue to recognise the important role it plays on the world stage.

My Lords, the BBC is the world’s most trusted broadcaster and its work in promoting values such as democracy, freedom and the rule of law is crucial when Chinese and Russian state-funded propaganda channels, with no commitment to accuracy or impartiality, are building large audiences in Europe, across Africa and Asia, and beyond. Will the Government commit to maintaining the funding they provided to introduce new and enhanced services—including the Russian service—after it runs out in September? Any cuts could put this work at risk, undermining the promotion of our values abroad.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord on the important role that the BBC plays. Funding is of course being considered alongside other FCDO spending priorities, as part of the 2020 spending review, but I would add that I also agree with him on the importance of new language services. During the previous period that I mentioned, between 2016 and 2020, the BBC has already launched 12 new language services supported by the Government.

My Lords, our International Relations and Defence Committee report, published last week, welcomes BBC World Service provision of impartial information in three languages in Afghanistan. Does my noble friend agree that this work is important, because it contributes to fostering a more open society in which women can be empowered, and that the Government should maintain their financial support?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend and, through her role as chair, congratulate the committee on its important report. The FCDO is supportive of the BBC’s delivery of impartial and trusted news to Afghanistan. I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan this morning on the importance of the role of women, in particular when it comes to peacebuilding. We believe that the BBC, particularly its BBC Pashto platform, is an important part of doing just that.

My Lords, despite the proliferation of online news services, millions across the world turn towards the BBC World Service for accuracy and balance. Are Her Majesty’s Government planning to severely limit this most powerful of all soft power instruments, or will the current level of funding be guaranteed beyond September 2021?

My Lords, I have already partially answered the question on funding. However, let me reassure the noble Baroness that we remain committed to the BBC, as has been demonstrated by our support for the 12 new language services over the period from 2016 to 2020.

My Lords, the Government’s welcome and important funding of the World Service beyond the licence fee has more than achieved its objectives with a greater number of language services, double-digit audience growth and ever-higher trust ratings. Does the Minister accept that this unique world-leading asset for the UK is the right vehicle for further and larger support to achieve our vital national interest of combating disinformation and the use by hostile actors of dishonesty to undermine the stability of democracies?

My Lords, I fully recognise what the noble Lord has said about the important role that the BBC World Service plays, for the very reasons that he says.

My Lords, I welcome the words of Richard Sharp, the newly appointed chair of the BBC, that it is

“part of the fabric of all our national identities”.

Does the noble Lord the Minister agree? And does he agree that a globally strong and domestically supported BBC is massively in the national interest? I am afraid I have to press the Minister. Will the Government commit to sustaining their investment in the BBC World Service which has reaped such great rewards?

I agree with the noble Baroness in her opening remarks. On the issue of finance, we are currently reviewing FCDO priorities. She may press me, and she is entitled to, but I cannot give a specific answer at this time.

Now that we have cut our ties with the EU, we need to be more, not less, focused on how we maximise our influence around the world. We have many assets at our disposal: a strong economy, our aid budget, our military, our membership of many influential bodies and we are chairing the G7 and COP 26 this year. However, our language and how we deploy it through the likes of the BBC World Service and BBC World News remains one of our greatest assets, as others have already iterated in this debate. I ask the Minister to reassure us that, as we look to review the licence fee, we do not cut funds to these most valuable assets—especially as we are competing with state media outlets from the likes of China and Russia.

I have listened very carefully to my noble friend and I agree with her. Like many noble Lords, indeed all noble Lords, I welcome the role the BBC continues to play, and the Government are very supportive. I take specific note of the concerns raised on the issue of funding. I am sure the input from today’s questions will feature in our thinking as we move forward on the future funding of the BBC World Service.

My Lords, we live in times of fake news. “Fake news” is an allegation made by the President of the United States against the media in America. Will this Government pledge and make public their support of the BBC as a trustworthy news source?

My Lords, can the Minister update the House on action taken by the Government to protest about and bring an end to the systematic persecution by Iranian authorities of the BBC’s Persian service journalists and their families, both in the UK and in Iran?

The noble Baroness raises a very important point. I reassure her that we consistently raise the important role of journalists within Iran with the Iranian authorities. Let me also reassure her that, as she will know, media freedom and protecting journalists around the world is a key Government priority.

My Lords, in underlining everything that has been said about the importance and value of the BBC’s foreign language services, may I turn to the need to increase trade with Latin American countries? Are there any plans to build on the success of the BBC World Service’s Spanish-language Latin American service BBC Mundo? For our home consumption, will the Minister press the BBC to increase positive coverage of events in the region? I must confess that I often have to switch to Al Jazeera to get the wider picture.

I take note of what my noble friend has said. In looking towards what is now global Britain and our support, I am sure that the BBC and its valuable service will be part of our thinking as we strengthen our approach to trade and other areas around the world.

My Lords, does the Minister envisage that the soft power strategy that was anticipated will ever be produced, or has it been subsumed into the integrated security and defence review? Where will the BBC World Service fit into that?

As I have already said, the integrated review is a vital part of that, and all these component elements will be in the announcement of the findings of the integrated review. The BBC World Service provides an important source of communication and information, as we have heard from noble Lords, and it will continue to be part of our thinking. The issue of soft power around the world is a key part of what we do. Whether we look at the BBC, some of our scholarships or global Britain’s place in the world through the Commonwealth, all of these are part and parcel of our soft power strategy and part of what will feature in the announcement of the integrated review.