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Ukraine: BBC World Service

Volume 819: debated on Thursday 10 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking, if any, to support the provision of the BBC World Service to the people of Ukraine.

My Lords, we strongly value the work of the BBC World Service and its independent and impartial broadcasting. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine means that BBC World Service channels play an increasingly valuable role in challenging the disinformation emanating from the Kremlin. BBC Ukrainian services are wholly funded by the licence fee, and officials from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are working closely with the BBC to consider how best to support BBC services for the people of Ukraine.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. We have had a bit of a warm-up, but there is no harm in that. Among the many incredibly distressing events unfolding in Ukraine is Putin’s manipulation, distortion and, most recently, penalising of free media. I pay tribute to all those courageous journalists who continue to bring us the truth. From the Minister’s response to an earlier Question, he clearly recognises that the BBC World Service is a beacon in this, so can he confirm—I think he has—that the FCDO will provide funding at levels that will allow the World Service to continue to be this beacon?

In response to the same request—from my friend Christine Jardine MP in the other place—the Secretary of State at the DDCMS appeared not to know that the World Service was part of her department, although 75% of its funding comes from the licence fee. Can the Minister assure this House that she now understands that it is, and does he agree that support for the BBC World Service is not compatible with the freezing of the licence fee, from which it gets so much of its funding?

My Lords, I strongly agree that the BBC World Service provides just that: a world service and a world-class service. It is something that we are, and can continue to be, very proud of, particularly in these dark circumstances of today. It now reaches 364 million people every single week, a 40% increase since the FCDO’s well-funded World2020 programme began in 2016. That is a big jump in a short period. Global audience measure data for last year demonstrates that it is the top-rated international broadcaster for trustworthiness, reliability and depth of coverage. I therefore very strongly agree with the premise of the noble Baroness’s question. I cannot give her financial answers, because that will not be possible until the spending review settlement has been made public, but I can tell her that the final decisions will reflect the importance and respect with which we hold that organisation.

My Lords, I have never heard such a dissatisfactory Answer. We are in a global crisis. Ukraine has been invaded by a hostile force which is committing war crimes. One of the most important contributions we can make is our soft power through the BBC World Service, which is 75% funded from the licence fee. The Government should now urgently take steps to properly fund the BBC World Service, extend its coverage, particularly through the internet, and find ways to circumvent the Russian Government’s ban on access to the BBC. Will the Minister take that message back to other Ministers? It is important that it receives vital funding now.

My Lords, it is worth pointing out that, since the war began, the BBC Ukrainian website has had 7 million page views, with just under 1.5 million for the live page YouTube channels alone—a 100% audience increase. BBC News reaches 5.5 million people in Ukraine, with BBC Ukrainian reaching 3.7 million and 1.5 million accessing English language news content. Demand is increasing and the supply is there. The service is being provided at an absolutely critical time and is providing a service that is second to none. As the noble Lord knows, I am not in a position to make spending commitments on behalf of the department at this point, but I can tell him that no one in the department, or indeed in government, questions the value or importance of the World Service that I have just recognised in my answer. That will be reflected in decisions taken.

My Lords, no other broadcasting company could have flexed as quickly as the BBC has in this emergency, particularly in relation to HF shortwave broadcasting. Could the Minister at least give a commitment that the BBC as a public service broadcaster at home and abroad will be adequately supported and resourced and not undermined in the public discourse?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. I hope that the answers I have already given demonstrate that there is nothing other than respect for the service that the BBC World Service provides and an absolute commitment that that service will continue. For all the reasons we know, it is so important.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has a point: the time has come to use our soft power effectively. The entire Russian murder campaign is conducted behind a cover of a wall of lies and fake news and that has to be countered. Even though there may be separate views about the long-term funding of the BBC’s excellent World Service, now is the time to concentrate reviews, resources and effort on boosting our counter to this battle of lies, which is where the war is being fought. Could my noble friend take back this very strong message to his colleagues? I think we could do a lot more in this area.

I strongly agree with the point made by my noble friend. I do not think there is any question on this; I am certainly not aware of anything that has been said that would in any way suggest that the Government do not recognise the tremendous value that the World Service provides, particularly in circumstances such as today’s, where, as my noble friend said, we are up against a brutal regime which is second to none globally in the art of misinformation. So I strongly agree with my noble friend’s comments and will convey the message from him and other noble Lords to the department.

The integrated review proudly and rightly states that

“The BBC is the most trusted broadcaster worldwide”,

and the Minister has repeated that. When the review was published, with the cut in ODA and the attacks on the BBC, that struck me as extreme irony. The Minister has just said that he cannot comment on funding, but he should be able to, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, is right that he can certainly make sure that the constant and insidious attacks on the BBC, including the World Service, are silenced.

My Lords, the BBC as an organisation is absolutely gigantic. We are talking today about a critical part of that service, but it is just one part. It should be possible to be critical of many different aspects of the BBC as an organisation or its focus, without that being seen to undermine what everyone recognises as the extraordinarily valuable and unique international service it provides. I reiterate what I said earlier: that service will continue.

My Lords, I was expecting DCMS to answer this Question. Nevertheless, as this is a cultural question, I ask the Minister: what advice and assistance are we giving to help protect Ukraine’s artistic and cultural heritage, which is substantial and threatened? What role can our own cultural institutions play in this?

My Lords, I am not going to bluff this answer. I am afraid I do not know. I recognise the merit of the noble Earl’s question, but I am not the right person to answer it. I will convey his question and secure a response.

My Lords, it is clear that there is support for the BBC World Service across the House, and I welcome the commitment made in the October spending review that the Government will continue to invest in it. I understand what the Minister says about the spending review, but might he be able to say when the BBC World Service will receive its future funding settlement, so that it can continue to plan for its important work in Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere?

I would love to be able to give my noble friend a precise answer. However, I can tell her only that the department making the decision will hear the message from this House loud and clear and that I will do what I can to ensure that we have a resolution as soon as possible.

My Lords, in the aftermath of the Cold War, I met a young Ukrainian woman who told me that the proudest moment of her life was when she told her parents that she was going to work for the BBC World Service. They had listened to it clandestinely throughout the whole Soviet era. As the noble Lord told us, last week 5 million Ukrainians listened to the BBC via its digital platform. In addition to that, 17 million Russians—triple the usual number—listened to the BBC last week alone. Can we urgently do as so many noble Lords have urged and come to a decision within the next week? The money runs out at the end of March or beginning of April. In these urgent, desperate times, we need a decision on this.

My Lords, I do not disagree with what the noble Lord has said and, as I said, I will push for the earliest possible resolution. Finally, I would just reiterate that the value this Government place on the service that is being provided internationally is absolute and there is no question of it being cut back.