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BBC World Service

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2024


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what steps he is taking to support the BBC World Service, particularly in relation to (1) its special provision in response to emergency situations, and (2) the challenges posed to it by disinformation campaigns backed by foreign state actors.

The BBC World Service provides high-quality news to global audiences, especially where free speech is limited. Its emergency services, including a pop-up service in Gaza, and before that in Sudan and Ukraine, provide critical updates to people affected by conflict. Meanwhile, BBC News Ukrainian continues to be vital in countering Russia’s narrative around the invasion. The funding from the FCDO, over £100 million a year, helps sustain high-quality broadcasting in 42 languages and the BBC’s vital work to counter harmful disinformation.

My Lords, it is good to be able to agree with every word the Foreign Secretary said. He is right: the BBC World Service is trusted as an independent voice without state interference. Its integrity and honesty is a lifeline for so many. He mentioned Ukraine. Extraordinary efforts were made to ensure that people in Ukraine could get accurate information despite the efforts from Russia to block it. He will know that reporting, particularly in emergencies and from areas of conflict, brings huge risk to those journalists. In 2019, the then Foreign Secretary, now the Chancellor, committed £3 million from the UK to the Global Conference for Media Freedom. The purpose of that was to encourage a free press everywhere, but also to protect journalists who are trying to deliver it. Given that it is a few years since that money was committed, and the aim was to bring other countries together, is the Foreign Secretary able to give us a progress report on work so far and what we have been able to achieve?

I do not have the information on how many other countries are involved, but I know that we continue to support the Media Freedom Coalition. I back up what the noble Baroness said: it is essential that we have journalists reporting from these areas. While I do not want to go into any specifics, we have also helped a number of different news organisations with COGAT and others when they have needed to leave. It is very important that we make sure they are supported in this way.

Russian disinformation is rife in the western Balkans and having a malevolent influence there. The Foreign Secretary will recall that the chair of your Lordships’ House’s International Relations and Defence Committee wrote to him suggesting, among other things, the restoration of the BBC Albanian service, which was scrapped in 2011. Does he agree that it would be foolishly short-sighted not to use one of the most powerful soft-power tools that this country possesses and not to target it against the greatest immediate threat to the peace and security of Europe?

The noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right that the BBC is an incredibly strong voice in terms of media freedom, our values and the things that we stand for. What has been happening over recent years is a transformation into a more digital service, because more and more people now listen to radio services on their mobile phone or through other internet devices. The 42 language services are still going; they have not been closed, but a number of them have switched to digital. However, I completely agree with him on the need to combat fake narratives in the western Balkans. It is not just about the BBC, good though it is; it is also about making sure that we help countries such as Kosovo and Bosnia in their rebuttal of the false Russian narrative. That is about training, expertise and funding as well as about the BBC.

My Lords, I will pick up what the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, just mentioned. One of the most wonderful things that the BBC World Service has provided is “Dars”, aimed at Afghan children aged between 11 and 14 and hosted by a female journalist from the BBC who was evacuated from Afghanistan. It uses BBC Bitesize to supply lessons for those whose education was stopped. The UN called “Dars” “a learning lifeline”. Does the Foreign Secretary—I am going to avoid saying, as my noble friend did, “the Prime Minister”—agree that this is reason enough for the FCDO to commit to maintaining the funding of the World Service at an appropriate level so that such life-changing contributions can continue? As he knows, the present agreement ends in March next year.

The BBC World Service is funded in two ways: there is money from the Foreign Office and money from the licence fee, and that is settled and fixed until the end of this coming financial year. It is basically one-third from the Foreign Office and two-thirds from the licence fee, which is a pretty fair way of doing things. Obviously the funding review of the BBC is under way and the charter review of the BBC is coming up, so this is a good time to have that conversation. To be fair, the Government have put our money where our mouth is: in the integrated review refresh we gave an extra £20 million to the World Service.

My Lords, can the Minister update the House on what further representations HMG have made to the Iranian authorities about the harassment, prosecutions and convictions meted out to journalists working for the BBC Persian service, including the harassment of London-based staff and their families back in Iran?

Documents published online suggest that 10 BBC Persian staff have been tried in Iran in absentia and convicted of propaganda against the Islamic Republic. That is completely unacceptable behaviour. We raise these issues with our Iranian counterparts. When I last met the Iranian Foreign Minister, I raised the fact that Iran was paying thugs to try to murder Iranian journalists providing free and independent information for Iran TV in Britain. On both counts, in my view, it is guilty.

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register. I am heartened by what my noble friend has said in support of the BBC, but what happens when the disinformation is coming from the BBC itself? Was he as disappointed as I was with the reports on the World Service, particularly the Arabic service, which sought to justify the murder of civilians on 7 October and downplayed sexual violence? Does it not undermine the BBC unless we adhere to the very high standards that we display in other parts of the world?

Obviously it is right that the BBC World Service is operationally and editorially independent, but that does not mean we cannot have views on what it does and says. For instance, on whether Hamas is a terrorist group, I could not be more clear: it is a terrorist group, and the BBC should say so. Editorial independence does not mean that politicians or anyone else are not allowed a view. We are, and those views should be taken into account.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary mentioned a few moments ago, in response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, the government review into future BBC funding. What input does he or his department intend to have into the review, given that its scope includes the World Service, which of course gets around a quarter of its funding in grant in aid from the FCDO?

Obviously, it would be a bit unfair on my government colleagues to announce at the Dispatch Box exactly what view I will take in these internal discussions, but I strongly support the World Service in a world in which we have so much dispute and misinformation—poisonous channels such as Russia Today and those sponsored by China and all the rest of it. We should be proud of the fact that the BBC is the most respected news source. If you add in BBC television and, it does not reach 318 million people; it reaches 411 million people, which makes it the most watched service as well, so we should be proud of that. We have something of a jewel in our crown, and we should support and promote it. That said, I am also proud that I was the Prime Minister who put in place quite a tough settlement for the BBC; but it was a six-year settlement, and that proved that if you give people a consistent horizon of how much money they are going to get, but ask them to make some savings, they can improve the service.

My Lords, I echo my noble friend the Foreign Secretary’s comments about the BBC and declare my interest as a trustee of Tate and a radio broadcaster. One of the things that interests me is that our museums—and indeed our orchestras and theatres—tour the globe, having to raise money from philanthropists and foundations. Is it not time that he brought his considerable experience and expertise to the Foreign Office in developing a cultural policy that builds on the amazing work of the BBC World Service as well as these incredible institutions in the UK that tour the globe?

I think we have a policy of using culture as a diplomatic weapon. The Foreign Office is very comfortable with that. We should do that, and the suggestions that my noble friend makes are excellent.

My Lords, could the Minister say what considerations are being given in his department to the possibility of the funding of the World Service being taken back on to the FCDO budget in entirety? Does he not agree that this is a more effective and more equitable way to deal with a matter that is an essential part of our soft power, rather than piling it all on to the licence payer?

I always listen carefully to the noble Lord, because he has great experience in this. The fact that some of the money comes from the licence fee is not such a bad thing. It is about 7% of the total. As someone who is a licence-fee payer but spends a lot of time listening to the World Service, I think it is fair that that contribution is there. Having a link-up between the World Service and the rest of the BBC, in terms of the website, which is very important, the news channel and all the rest of it, is not such a bad thing. The key question is whether the BBC World Service is funded appropriately for our ambitions to counter false narratives around the world and spread democratic values.