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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 7 December 1999

[Mr. Michael J. Martin in the Chair]

BBC World and World Service

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

10 am

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have commenced the proceedings in this Chamber dead on 10 o'clock. On a matter of personal interest, why do we begin deliberation and debate without prayers? I do not want to take up a great deal of time, but I would like to put on record that we are breaking a tradition that goes back to 1558. I hope that serious consideration will be given to the commencement of parliamentary proceedings in the House of Commons, by having prayers at the start of every sitting.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Prayers will be said at the normal time of 2.30 pm in the Chamber of the House of Commons, and there is therefore no break with tradition. My colleague in the Chair, the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), gave a ruling on this matter in which he made it clear that, if hon. Members have any queries, they should be taken up with the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons.

10.1 am

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I am glad to have an opportunity to raise this important issue, which is of great concern to public policy.

Like many hon. Members, I attended the lobby a few weeks ago that drew our attention to the implications of the decision by the BBC to discontinue the broadcasting of current affairs comment and analysis on the BBC World television service. The main thrust of my remarks today will be about BBC World television, although I will allude to the BBC World Service for comparison and example.

BBC World television was launched in 1991. At that time, the BBC wanted to run a television service along the lines of BBC World Service radio provision. This debate is a throwback to Mrs. Thatcher, as she was then known. She was hostile to the World Service, and cut its budget; she was also completely opposed to the BBC launching a TV channel internationally. She said that the channel had to be commercial, or that there should be no channel at all. On that basis, the BBC, anxious to respond to the challenge of Cable News Network--CNN--decided to set up a commercial channel. It started in the far east, and has now extended its coverage to all major parts of the world. The problem with that, as the Minister will be aware, is that one cannot run a world-class, worldwide television broadcasting service on buttons. Last year, the BBC World television service lost £15.6 million. As a result, the management of the BBC has decided to cut its losses by removing in-depth current affairs comment and analysis from its programming.

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Many hon. Members will find that an astonishing decision, because if the BBC has a unique selling point--if the BBC means anything in the world--it is its world-quality comment and analysis in the English language, which are trusted and seen to be objective. A BBC World channel without those does not merit the description of meeting the BBC's international standard and aspiration.

Part of the problem is that the BBC is between director generals, and it is hard for it to focus on the point of decision. There is no doubt that the BBC is split internally over this decision. I have received strong representations from people who insist that their interest is not simply as programme makers being deprived of the opportunity to ply their craft, but as people who feel that something very valuable is being removed from the service. The BBC says that it wants to concentrate the service on entertainment and sport.

The NATO spokesman, Jamie Shea, said at the briefing a few weeks ago that there was no shortage of television channels offering entertainment and sport--in fact, that there was a glut of them; they were everywhere. Although such an option may be more commercial, there is a conflict between commercial pressure and public policy interest, which must be resolved as a matter of urgency, in the national interest--and in Britain's interest abroad--and not in the interest of short-term accountancy pressures in the organisation of the BBC.

It is worth stating that Sky--perhaps not a major competitor, but working in the same sphere--has made it clear how important it believes news to be, and that it never expects news to make a profit. A Sky news spokesman said:

It is also worth recording the scale of success achieved by BBC World. It is estimated to reach 150 million homes in nearly 200 countries and territories. It has its own website and has made a feature of current affairs and analysis. If one visits the BBC World website, and asks for information for advertisers on this commercial channel, one finds key facts about BBC World, apart from its penetration. Item 3 states:

    "BBC World provides news, business and weather 24 hours a day, plus the best of the BBC's current affairs, documentary and lifestyle programming." Item 5 states:

    "BBC World provides unmatched, impartial, in-depth analysis of breaking news, as well as looking at the stories behind the news and important live events--explaining not only what is happening but why."

That is BBC World today, but that will not be BBC World in six months' time if the cuts go ahead. That the BBC management is about to withdraw two of the key claims on the website, allowing people to commit to advertising on the basis of such assurances, is a slight breach of undertaking.

The specific success and distinctive character of the BBC mean that it reaches where comparable and competitive channels choose not to go. It has

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distinguished itself in the coverage of Kosovo--from a European rather than an American perspective--of East Timor, of the Indian general election and of the coup in Pakistan. There were 4,000 hits on the BBC World website within an hour of the first international broadcast by the new leader of Pakistan. It has also given coverage in sub-Saharan Africa. At the briefing a few weeks ago, a representative from Medecins Sans Frontieres said that, without the attention that BBC World gives to those theatres, its work would not necessarily reach the same proportion of opinion-formers and supporters to enable it to continue effectively. We are talking about a serious loss of coverage, because without BBC World's distinguished coverage in such areas, who else would offer it? How else would the world get to know what was going on?

The NATO spokesman, Jamie Shea, who became famous as a result of his role commenting on the war in Kosovo, said:

I shall not detain hon. Members with a string of comments. I shall simply say that there are many testimonials from people who have been directly affected by the coverage of their area, their conflict and their problems. East Timor is a case in point. A viewer in Portugal described BBC World as having shown the world, throughout the crisis, what the United Nations and the USA pretended did not exist, and urged the service not to stop doing so until Indonesia stopped. Such comments are extremely valuable, and should not be discounted lightly.

Mrs. Gillan : The hon. Gentleman mentioned CNN. What is his view of the move by CNN and MSNBC--the Microsoft and NBC Network--into the World Service's traditional domain, and, in particular, their development of new services in new languages? Is that a threat to the first class world service of the BBC?

Mr. Bruce : It may be a threat, but the subject of the debate is the threat from inside the BBC. If the BBC pulls out of core services when other channels are expanding into them, it will not find it easy to return and re-establish itself in a few years' time--if that is its plan--when the channel has become commercially viable. I agree with the thrust of the hon. Lady's intervention, which is that the BBC's decision is very poorly timed.

When John Tusa was head of the BBC World Service, there was an organised campaign to persuade the Government to reverse the cuts that were imposed. That was only partially successful--the service still suffered significant reductions--and I give total credit to the Government for reinstating the funding in the comprehensive spending review. Although BBC World would argue, given the range of challenges that it has to

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meet, that it is operating on a tight budget, at least it is now broadly protected. That is in contrast to the cuts under latter Conservative Governments.

BBC World receives not a penny of public subsidy--its losses are funded by the BBC--whereas the BBC World Service received £161.5 million in 1998-99, directly from the Foreign Office grant. That is welcome and important, and, under the comprehensive spending review, it will receive an additional £44 million over the next three years. That has enabled the World Service to notch up 143 million listeners, which means it is the most successful international world broadcaster. All of us are proud of that, and the Government recognise and support it. If the Government acknowledge the importance of the World Service as part of foreign policy, should they not explain why the BBC World television service--even though it reaches a different mix of viewers--should be denied even a penny of support? I do not mind whether the money comes from the Foreign Office, the BBC or a commercial partnership; I mind if the service is cut, and if the Government stand back and allow that to happen. I challenge the Minister to assure us that that is not the Government's intention.

I have had discussions with the BBC, and was told the accountancy reasons behind the decision, which are understandable but not acceptable. Several questions arise as a result. BBC World is not a trading corporation, but is supported by BBC Worldwide, which is such a corporation. Therefore, why should BBC internal management not continue to fund the losses if it chooses?

Questions have been raised about the extent to which the BBC's cross-subsidising might constitute unfair competition. The evidence does not suggest that, however, as a commercial arm of the BBC is involved. Could not the Foreign Office offer ring-fenced funding for current affairs and analysis programmes that are not on commercial channels?

In the long term, a BBC World television service that is too dependent on commercial advertising might be open to commercial pressure, which could compromise independence. That could be important on a controverisal international issue, such as genetically modified foods. Monsanto might choose to offer advertising contracts worth several million pounds to the BBC in order to gain leverage in coverage of its activities. It would be more likely, however, that advertisers would withdraw or threaten to withdraw if they felt that the BBC had hit a raw nerve.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): My hon. Friend touches on an important point. Even if there is no threat, there is a risk that the viewer will perceive one. I found it strange that a business programme was sponsored by the Welsh Development Agency. It provoked the nagging doubt that people might question impartiality.

Mr. Bruce : That is true, although I am more concerned about solutions. I am exploring a number of possible avenues and problems. If I had my way, the Government would argue that the BBC World television service was a proper complement to the BBC World Service, and should be funded as the BBC originally wanted.

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As time is critical, my main concern is to find a solution to the short-term problem and to ensure that analysis and comment continues; the long-term solution can be addressed on a more relaxed time scale. The figures that we are considering are extremely small--Sir Michael Alexander commented that it was extraordinary that the core component and fundamental justification for BBC World would be cut for the sake of £5 million. Do the Government accept that the future of comment and analysis on BBC World is key to the national interest?

Some slightly defensive commentators in the BBC say, "We hope you will do something, but we know that there are no votes in it." I do not accept that there are no votes in the issue, for two reasons. First, the British travel quite a lot, and those who have encountered BBC World and who can choose it against any of its competitors know that it is of superior quality. As the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) pointed out, other broadcasters are starting to try to compete, and we may receive representations from British travellers if they feel that the quality of the service is falling. The Minister might want to reflect on the fact that, if the decisions are taken in April, the complaints will be made in the run-up to the next election.

Secondly, Ministers, Governments, business people and the wider public are proud of the reputation of the BBC across the world. The BBC stands for reliability, objectivity, trustworthiness and in-depth comment and analysis. That has served the British interest extremely well, and it would be extraordinary if we were to surrender our English language comment to interior competitors.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, those American-oriented competing channels will pursue the English language interest as determined by the Americans. I am not anti-American, but I am pro-British; I support our role in the English-speaking world. We must match the Americans in the English-speaking world, because we play our role so much better.

In a speech on 22 November, the Prime Minister said that he had a vision of Britain as

At the briefing, Sir Michael Alexander said:

    "No one should be surprised if CNN ignores meetings in which UK and European interests are foremost; crises in which UK and European interests are primarily at issue; conflicts in which European forces are more important than those of the Americans." That is what we are up against. A worldwide English language service that is generated in Britain, and which does not promote British propaganda but examines the world from the perspective of Britain and the English language, is competing with a growing number of channels with far greater commercial backing than the BBC, which are determined to dominate the airways and promote a different agenda to a different English-speaking world with different priorities.

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I am glad that a Foreign Office Minister is replying to this debate; that is entirely appropriate. I hope that he will accept that this is a serious and important public policy issue. I am also glad that the Government recognise the value of the radio arm of the World Service, and have supported it properly and adequately. However, I shall be disappointed if they stand back and allow BBC World television to become something far less than it aspires to be, should be, and is capable of being, given the resources at our disposal.

10.22 am

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I speak in support of BBC World television, although not uncritically. As a consumer of that service, I have often felt frustrated by the lack of sufficient coverage of United Kingdom domestic politics. That is a problem not only for those of us who travel abroad, but for residents and citizens of countries with a rapacious appetite for United Kingdom political news. Having said that, I value the service, and it is one on which we can build, so I am deeply concerned by the BBC's proposed short-term decision-making cuts.

I may be doing the Minister an injustice, but I predict that his briefing notes will counsel that he tell this Chamber that the Government sympathise with the broad thrust of what is said this morning, but that the decision is a commercial one, to be taken exclusively by the BBC. Each time that he says that, I shall say "Gong!", like the gong that used to be struck on the television programme "Take your Pick", which was hosted by Michael Miles. I ask the Minister to pull back from that brief and say that he, the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the Prime Minister will reconsider the matter, as the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) urged so eloquently.

Although I regret the commercial dimension, which is a legacy of the dogmatic attitude of Margaret Thatcher, I should say that other parts of government become involved in commercial considerations. The Government ensure that we are at the cutting edge of technology. The Prime Minister himself has trespassed into the question of genetically modified foods. The Government have a hands-on involvement in privately owned aerospace industries, and in defence procurement. The Government need to protect the United Kingdom's wider commercial interests and our capacity to pack a punch on the world stage. For power projection and our longer-term commercial interests, this matter is one in which the Government and, indeed, the Prime Minister, should be involved. If they take the opposite view, the decision will be impossible to reverse and the loss will be permanent.

To use an historic analogy, as Minister of Technology, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) saved the British regional jet. That was a critical decision, and he has been proven right. In broadcasting and political terms, if the Government use their good offices to intervene with the BBC, or to find interim finance, they will be making a comparably wise decision on behalf of the UK.

We are at a critical moment in world history. We and our allies are desperately trying to build civil societies in a number of fragile parts of the world. I am thinking in particular of the Russian Federation, where young

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people hunger to learn about British society, our parliamentary traditions, our free media, and all aspects of the English language. That is reflected in other parts of the world, particularly in those for which the Minister has responsibility, such as west Africa.

Also, of course, there are some 80 million people in the principal European Union applicant countries--Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia. If we build our bridges now, we shall reap long-term political advantages in European Councils, but we are not doing enough in that regard. I regret to say that the Prime Minister has not visited one of those countries, which is somewhat indicative of our laid-back attitude. That could be offset in a small way if the Government were to demonstrate commitment towards those people, who are our potential political allies and love our common language.

The hon. Member for Gordon has rightly pointed out that the problems associated with BBC World are a legacy of Margaret Thatcher's dogma, but we have to live with them. BBC Worldwide needs BBC World to generate advertising revenue. Part of the problem is the Asia crisis, which reduced revenue, but here there is a potential gilt-edged investment. As the global economy inexorably expands, there will be tremendous scope for pan-world advertising. At some stage, BBC World will be capable of making a profit--we must simply hang on in there. According to the BBC's own conservative commercial projections, that stage will be reached in approximately eight years. I think that it may be reached sooner, but eight years is in any case a short time in which to bridge the financial gap. If we do not bridge it, the political, economic and cultural loss will be enormous.

I emphasise that the substitution of "fun" programmes for the quality analysis programmes that the present structure provides will not meet people's needs, particularly those in central and eastern Europe, who want to learn and understand the political, economic and business language that is inherent in such programmes.

We should also pause and take note of what the hon. Member for Gordon said about BBC World radio, which is an extremely important, highly valued service, with a tremendous reputation. I realised only recently BBC radio's inherent technological difficulties in reaching various parts of the world; the potential for BBC World television is limitless because of satellite technology.

The Minister of State should note that the Foreign Affairs Committee was horrified to realise that, for instance, large parts of the Russian Federation cannot receive BBC radio. This weekend, my wife and I were in Krakov in Poland--at the heart of Europe--and we could not receive BBC radio. Perhaps we did not properly understand the radio dials, but BBC radio was not easily accessible. However, television demonstrably is. The Government should seize this great opportunity to advance the interests of the United Kingdom.

What can the Government do? The hon. Member for Gordon suggested that they should consider bridging the financial gap, and I support him in that. At the highest level--the Foreign Secretary or the Prime

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Minister should be involved--the Government should, at the very least, call in BBC representatives to bang heads together and use their good offices to persuade the BBC of its long-term commercial interests and its duty to the United Kingdom. I might be doing the Foreign Secretary an injustice, but I am concerned by reports that, when the issue was put to him, he expressed sympathy--that will be in the Minister's brief--but said that funding should not come from his Department's budget. There is the rub. It would be a tragedy if a tranche of money to bridge the gap could not be found from the estimates for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or from other sources.

I hope that the Prime Minister will personally addresss that matter. I told the Minister before the debate that I had raised the matter with the Prime Minister at an informal private meeting last Wednesday week. To be fair, I should say that the Prime Minister made no commitment, but he said that he would consider it. I then wrote to him; he would have received that letter on 29 November. So far as I am aware, and despite our interest in joined-up government, I am not sure whether the Foreign Office knows that No. 10 is involved. That is another compelling reason why the Minister should disregard his brief, and tell us that he will trot along to see his chief later today to discuss the matter with him.

The Prime Minister should be reminded that the people in Pristina who turned out to acclaim him knew him not from CNN, but from BBC World television. As the hon. Member for Gordon said, if we are to reach the goal of being a pivotal power that the Prime Minister spelled out in his Mansion House speech, we must ensure that the United Kingdom's valuable, but relatively cheap, high-quality flagship projects, such as the British Council, BBC radio and BBC television, should be buttressed, supported and encouraged by the Government.

10.34 am

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): The BBC mark is one of the nation's most tremendous marks overseas. Everyone accepts that it has enabled us to retain our broadcasting reputation abroad and to punch above our weight both diplomatically and politically. In other words, it is a priceless asset in both radio and television. The future of BBC World is therefore a matter not simply for the BBC or for its advertisers, but for everyone. Indeed, it is a matter for the Foreign Secretary and his Ministers of State, because, whether the Government like it or not, a cut in BBC World will be seen as a foreign policy decision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) referred to the reach of BBC World Service and BBC World television. BBC World Service started in 1932 and now reaches 200 million homes. That is a tremendous achievement. The BBC is regarded internationally as superior to all other international broadcasters. That reflects wonderfully on the country's reputation abroad. BBC World Service has high ratings for trustworthiness and quality, and it is doing well with modern media: it is accessed more than 50 million times a month on the internet.

You will notice, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am interweaving BBC World Service and BBC World. That is because they are two sides of the same coin: they are

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the face of the country abroad; they are provided by the same organisation; and they have the same reasons for existence. The fact that they are separately funded--one through Foreign Office grant in aid and the other by advertising revenue--is, as other hon. Members have already said, an historic accident. I shall return to that point later.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon said, BBC World television now reaches 160 million homes in nearly 200 countries and territories. It reaches 50 per cent. of United States households with televison sets--even in CNN's home nation, BBC World is making great strides. I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) that BBC World is not perfect, I, too, have watched it when abroad: one can see the joins. Nevertheless, it is a very good product for the amount of money spent on it, so it is an asset that should not be easily and lightly thrown away. One should not spoil a ship for a ha'p'orth of tar.

BBC World losses amounted to £16 million last year. I know that one can lose £16 million a year quite easily: for example, the Treasury is spending £113 million on refurbishing its building in Whitehall. I do not know how many BBC World years that would buy--my arithmetic is not quite perfect--but it seems that money is available for pet projects. I suggest that it is more important for BBC World to be funded than it is for the Treasury to be refurbished--and it is in the UK's interests, both internationally and domestically.

The loss has been reduced by 36 per cent. and advertising revenues have increased by 100 per cent. since September last year. It took 12 years for CNN to turn a profit, so it is unrealistic to expect BBC World to break even soon. A further question is whether cutting back will help the service to meet its commercial targets, or whether it will make it less attractive to advertisers. Advertisers use BBC World because they want to be associated with the BBC's good qualities, but if BBC World becomes a third rate version of CNN, advertisers will ask whether it is worth using it.

A similar argument was made for cutting back the railways in the Beeching years. It was said that, if one cut unprofitable railway lines, the lines that were left would be profitable and that--hey presto--the railways would go into profit. However, once the branch lines were cut, it was discovered that passengers could not get to the terminuses of the profitable lines, which then became unprofitable. Sometimes, financial equations that appear to work do not make sense in practice. The best way to attract advertising revenue is to produce a quality product that attracts a premium in the market.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon and the hon. Member for Thurrock referred to the artificial division that took place in 1986 in the funding of the BBC World Service. That funding was long established as grant in aid from the Foreign Office, but the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, insisted that it receive public funding over her dead body. A number of the former Prime Minister's dogmas and prejudices have subsequently been discredited, and there is no reason to believe that we need to hold on to them. We might even lose that inheritance entirely as we move into the 21st century.

What is the reason for insisting that BBC World should be commercial? Those who wish to defend the status quo must answer that question. The former Prime

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Minister did so because of her unnecessary and illogical hatred of the BBC, but she also hated public services generally and wanted to make them commercially oriented and, as far as possible, not dependent on public funding. That was her agenda. It is not my party's agenda, and I do not believe that it is the Government's. We need to revisit that debate, and say why BBC World should not be publicly funded. My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon put the matter in a nutshell when he said that, if there is a case for the BBC World Service to receive grant in aid in recognition of its value overseas, how can it be different for television? It is logical for both or neither to be commercially funded. The present position makes no sense.

Another problem arose back in 1994 when John Birt, Director General of the BBC, split BBC World from the BBC World Service and combined it with BBC Worldwide. That also makes no sense. The outlets, countries and people are the same, as are the news gatherers--the journalists. The fact that one service can be heard on the airwaves, and the other seen on television, is an artificial distinction. The BBC should consider carefully whether it would be more efficient for BBC World and the BBC World Service to be reunited.

BBC World performed commendably well on a shoestring during its initial years. It was asked to compete in a top-class race against CNN and others while having to carry a loaded rucksack. That situation was inherited by the Government and current BBC management. Instead of trying to remove that rucksack, allowing BBC World to flourish, adding extra weight is proposed, by removing some of its credibility and world reputation. We cannot expect BBC World to retain its reputation if cuts are made to essential parts of it, such as current affairs and news. International viewers will not be fooled for ever.

The BBC said that it is not possible to transfer resources from its domestic operations to BBC World. Is that correct? If so, it is wrong in principle. BBC News 24 spent more than £50 million in 1998-99. Perhaps hon. Members will forgive me for suggesting again that News 24 is so called because of the number of its viewers. Such spending is an extraordinary waste of money given that BBC World performs so much better and with greater impact on a larger audience.

Mr. Malcom Bruce : Does my hon. Friend find it eccentric that the BBC is touting around the House for support for additional charges to fund its digital channels when it is discontinuing the news service on BBC World for the sake of £5 million?

Mr. Baker : I absolutely agree. The BBC should answer hon. Members' questions on BBC World and BBC World Service before they ask for more money for ephemeral projects that could be funded in other ways. I hope that that will happen when the Government reply to the Davies report.

The BBC World Service and BBC World should be linked again and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon suggested, BBC World should qualify for grant in aid. There should be a ring-fenced arrangement, at least for current affairs and news, so that the independence, financial stability and full planning of BBC World can be guaranteed. BBC World should be

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given a free rein and proper support to perform well. That would not cost a fortune and it would be money well spent, which would be more than repaid by the maintenance of the United Kingdom's interest in the world. It is a foreign policy issue and I hope that the Minister wil recognise that in his response.

10.44 am

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): I shall be brief, as always. These are important matters, in which I have an interest to declare. I was a chair of the briefing, which was conducted not by representatives of the BBC's management, which at times of difficulty affect the stance of the pre-emptive cringe, deflecting blows that have not yet been aimed, but by the workers at the coal face and people such as Jamie Shea, who know full well the importance of BBC World in the world. I also worked for the BBC for 30 years, so I should know a little whereof I speak.

It is interesting, and says a lot about the service, that it has drawn the hostility of both Mr. Ted Turner and Mr. Rupert Murdoch--two of the great predators of our time. They are threatened by its quality, truthfulness and commitment to values other than the merely commercial. I was present at the birth of BBC World; there was a long gestation of around eight years before the fragile infant was finally delivered. The infant has grown in strength and has become one the BBC's unsung success stories. As Jamie Shea testified, at times of international crisis, the world now turns to the BBC. That was certainly so during the Kosovo crisis, when millions of people, especially in the Balkans, depended on what the BBC was telling them.

The BBC is necessary for a number of reasons, one being the nature of ITN--[Interruption.] I withdraw that. I mean CNN, with apologies to my former rivals. The BBC cannot be a third-rate CNN because CNN is already a third-rate CNN. It is insular and ignorant. I remember when it failed to distinguish between the Irish Republican Army and the army of the Irish Republic. Hon. Members will know that that is no slight distinction. It is Americocentric and nothing in the world matters to it except the United States and its interests in a way that the BBC is not Anglocentric. The BBC takes a wider view of the world and its responsibilities to the world, its domestic and foreign audience and the truth.

Mention has been made of News 24. It is astonishing the the BBC should celebrate 75 years in broadcasting with the greatest waste of money in all that time-- £30 million blown away on that invisible service, which is viewed by 0.1 per cent. of the population and dilutes the BBC's journalism. I know what effect it has on people in the field who are required to devote their energies to broadcasting to a non-existent audience when there is a huge audience and an even greater potential audience for BBC World. The comment and analysis function must not be stripped from BBC World.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the BBC might serve two purposes if it withdrew

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News 24 and allowed the British public to see BBC World and to understand the quality that it is missing at home?

Mr. Bell : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The British public would be extremely well served if that were to happen.

BBC World must not be allowed to become a rip and read service, thereby emulating some of the worst features of its main American rival. Reference has been made to a common Foreign Office phrase--the United Kingdom's ability to punch above its weight. Two institutions are able to do that. One is the armed forces, with their singular quality and effectiveness, and the other is British broadcasting abroad, by which we mean, almost exclusively, the BBC.

Hon. Members may remember that, when the new Government came to power, they set up Panel 2000 to project Britain abroad--Britain as it is. I was a member of that panel--I do not know whether it still exists--and remember that our most effective instrument for projecting this country, its values and a concept of truthful broadcasting that people can believe was the BBC, in both radio and television. I make no distinction between those services because, as the radio's audience declines and fewer people listen on short-wave, more people are tuning in to television. I urge the Minister to think carefully about that.

I cannot think of a more important area in which the expenditure of a relatively small amount of money would have a greater effect. It would do the country good, and the world good, to keep BBC World broadcasting truthfully and effectively as a beacon of light and truth.

10.50 am

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): First, I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, I believe that it is your first time in the Chair in this Chamber, and on behalf of all hon. Members present, I welcome you. It is good to call you Madam Deputy Speaker.

At the instigation of the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), we have so far had an interesting albeit short debate. I am surprised that so few people have participated in a debate on such a serious subject as BBC World and the BBC World Service. I hope that that will not be reflected in all the debates in this Chamber. I made my personal views known earlier about the efficacy of this second modern Chamber--or, as I have been calling it, the secondary modern Chamber. I am sad that there are not more hon. Members from all parties present for this important subject.

I share the views of many people in the world in that, when I have travelled in far-flung places, I have turned to the BBC for news, information, security and comfort. I have not been in war-torn regions, as the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) has been, but I have worked in some inhospitable places, such as Moscow soon after the iron curtain came down, where it was impossible to receive any information. At times, we would sit for five hours trying to dial a number outside Moscow, just to send a telex. However, we could turn on the radio and listen to the BBC; to hear the chimes of Big Ben was a great comfort to me and many others, not only the British in our community.

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The BBC World Service is a great source of pride. It broadcasts in 44 languages. Since 1979, its audience has grown from about 75 million to more than 133 million, which is twice the audience of its nearest competitor, The Voice of America. I agree with the hon. Member for Tatton about the quality of some of the broadcasting that we receive around the world, which has its roots in America. The standard and accuracy of reporting and the one-sided view that is put across is damaging to those who listen to such broadcasts, whereas with the BBC there is a true feeling of independence and objectivity, which we all hope will be maintained. The Tories have come in for some criticism in this debate.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce : Only Mrs. Thatcher.

Mrs. Gillan : When I last looked, she was a Conservative. Yes, Mrs. Thatcher has come in for some criticism. But when the Tories were in government, we increased spending on the World Service by 53 per cent. in real terms. That record stands extremely well, particularly against the record of the Labour Government from 1974 to 1979, when fewer languages were broadcast and there was no real-terms increase in the funding that was given to the World Service.

I am disturbed about the funding of the BBC World Service and I asked the House of Commons Library for some relevant information. The figures that I obtained show the Foreign and Commonwealth Office grant in aid for broadcasting and, given that a Foreign Office Minister is replying to the debate on behalf of the Government, it is apposite that I share the information that I received. The Library said that the World Service

Mr. Bruce : I understand from my briefing that the monitoring service made a profit of £1.3 million, which might explain why the Government are withdrawing funding. That is understandable, but it also demonstrates the potential for money from that source to be rediverted to make up the BBC World Service deficit. The hon. Lady is making a telling point, to which it would be interesting to hear the Minister's reply. If the BBC can make a profit, is it not logical that it could go towards filling that hole?

Mrs. Gillan : I am not known to hunt in pairs with Liberal Democrats, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The Minister certainly has some serious questions to answer.

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I draw the Minister's attention to the fifth report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Foreign and Commonwealth Office resources dated 22 June 1999. The section on the BBC World Service budget in paragraph 30 of the report raises a serious point. The Committee stated:

There was another telling section in that same report. When I intervened on the hon. Member for Gordon, I referred to the double jeopardy of increased investment in competition by second-rate American broadcasting outfits. There is also a triple jeopardy, because of the diminution of one of our other world-class organisations, the British Council. Hon. Members are nodding; we may even have cross-party consensus in this new Chamber.

The Committee makes a serious point in paragraph 42 of that report, stating:

I want to know what is going on at the Foreign Office. It seems that British institutions that have provided a first-class service around the world for many moons are being starved of funds by a mean Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is not only Conservative Members, but hon. Members from all parties who believe that the Minister must answer some serious questions. The Minister has a long time in which to respond to the many issues that have been raised.

Mr. Baker : Before the hon. Lady ends her speech, will she clarify whether it is Conservative policy for BBC World to benefit from grant in aid in the way in which the BBC World Service does?

Mrs. Gillan : The hon. Gentleman does not believe that I am as green as I am cabbage-looking. I do not intend to make Conservative policy on the hoof in an annexe to Westminster Hall. However, I can tell him

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that the Conservative party, when in government, put its money where its mouth was and supported the BBC World Service. Any future Conservative Government will do so, and they will support the British Council. The current Government have effectively withdrawn funds from both organisations. I hope that the Minister will now furnish us with a suitable explanation.

11.1 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Hain) : I, too, welcome you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and congratulate you on your accession to that title, which is well deserved in this Chamber at least--[Interruption.] I should like you to have that title in all Chambers, but that is out of personal respect.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) has given me the opportunity to speak on behalf of one of Britain's finest national assets--the BBC. I acknowledge his passion for the BBC, and that expressed by other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and the hon. Members for Lewes (Mr. Baker) and for Tatton (Mr. Bell), whose esteemed professional career in the BBC I acknowledge. Regrettably, I am not tempted to abandon my brief, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock invited me to do. I also acknowledge the statements in support of the BBC made by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan).

I shall begin by drawing a distinction between the BBC World Service, which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office funds through grant in aid, and BBC World television--I pause for the gong--which is a commercial operation funded by subscription and advertising.

I shall start with the BBC World Service, because the Foreign and Commonwealth Office funds it. The World Service aims to be the world's leading international broadcaster. As others have acknowledged, its audience reach--143 million people--is the highest ever. No less a figure than Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, said last year that it is a service to the world as a whole and is perhaps Britain's greatest gift to the world this century.

The Government are fully committed to a bright future for the World Service. As the hon. Member for Gordon said, that was why last year we announced an additional £44 million in grant in aid to the World Service for the three years 1999-2002. I commend the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham on her cheek in calling that funding mean, given that the Government that she supported through the 1980s and 1990s progressively attacked the World Service against massive popular opposition, including from within the House.

Mrs. Gillan : Will the Minister confirm that approximately £40 million of that sum went towards building the new transmitter in Oman?

Mr. Hain : The World Service spends the grant in aid that the Foreign Office gives it on improving its services, and one form of the expenditure may well have been that

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transmitter. If so, it would have extended services across the world, and I am sure the hon. Lady would not want to quarrel with any extension of the World Service, which she has spent so much time praising.

Mrs. Gillan : The Minister is most generous in giving way, but as he has half an hour in which to speak, I am sure that he will be grateful to any hon. Member who intervenes. Is he happy that the grant in aid from the Foreign Office to the World Service fell by 7.6 per cent. in 1996-97 and 4.4 per cent. in 1997-98? Will he confirm that those figures, which come from the Library, are correct and that there will be a real-terms decrease for 2000-01 and 2001-02? I see that inspiration has arrived.

Mr. Hain : The first figure that the hon. Lady quotes relates to the last Conservative Government, and I am not happy about it. The second year came within a financial framework that had been set by the last Conservative Government. She does not dispute that we are providing an extra £44 million, which represents a substantial increase in funding for the World Service.

Mr. Mackinlay : Hon. Members obviously applaud that additional funding, but the Minister's brief does not tell him that BBC radio cannot, and never will, reach large parts of the world for which he has personal responsibility in his ministerial portfolio, whereas television will be able to reach those people and provide all the services to which reference has been made this morning. I welcome that money, but a slice of it would be much better directed towards such services so that they reach the folk in respect of whom he has some jurisdiction--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody) : Order. Interventions must be brief, even if we think that we can be generous with the time.

Mr. Hain : I am aware of some things that are not in my brief, and I acknowledge the fact that BBC World does not reach some parts of the world, including some for which I have policy responsibility. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about BBC World, and I shall deal with it. I should like it to reach many more parts of the globe.

Before generously allowing those interventions, I was making the point that the increase in funding that the Government are happily providing is intended to enable the World Service to implement an ambitious strategy of embracing the latest technology. We want to ensure that it remains the most respected and most widely listened to voice in international broadcasting. I am sure that there is unanimity on that in this Chamber.

The World Service faces stern challenges, both competitively and technologically. The speed of change in broadcasting is breathtaking, but I am confident that the World Service will meet those challenges--indeed, it is already doing so. I am delighted that it is exploiting to the full the fast growing medium of the digital age--on-line broadcasting. Internet users throughout the world can listen to the World Service's English programmes live. By embracing that new technology and the distribution opportunities that FM and rebroadcasting offer, the World Service aims to become a leading-edge multimedia broadcaster.

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Some things will not change. Many audiences around the world--tens of millions of people--will remain heavily dependent on the World Service's traditional core radio services for many years to come. The World Service is developing its FM output, but there will be a continuing focus on short-wave delivery. I have seen for myself how dependent many audiences--for example, those in India, which I visited last month--are on the World Service's short-wave broadcasts and will be for some time to come. The World Service is striking exactly the right balance between the old and the new. Its concern for all its listeners will ensure its continued success.

The World Service's programmes will continue to be underpinned by the BBC's core strengths and values: trust, reliability and independence; quality, expertise and relevance; truth, accuracy and impartiality. The hon. Member for Tatton rightly referred to those values as being far superior to those of its rivals because the BBC is a beacon of light and truth.

The World Service is, importantly, editorially and managerially independent of Government, and will remain so. I shall quote the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He said:

Mr. Baker : Will the Minister give a straight answer to a key question? Where is the logic in requiring the World Service to be 100 per cent. funded by the FCO, including the real increases to which he referred, while requiring BBC World to be 100 per cent. commercially funded?

Mr. Hain : I am about to give a straight answer to the hon. Gentleman's question. The broadcasting values, which I was describing and which we all agree apply to the BBC World Service, also govern BBC World television. Everybody knows that BBC World is a commercial operation funded by subscription and advertising. The Government do not fund BBC World; it is part of the BBC's commercial arm, and is separate from the World Service. The decision was taken in 1988 that there should be no public funding for the BBC's proposed international television service. That decision has been vindicated by the success of what has followed. [Hon. Members: "What?"]

We have all been celebrating that success. BBC World is available in 150 million homes across 200 countries, which is a credible and creditable achievement on which the BBC is to be congratulated. As hon. Members have said, BBC World has faced difficulties in recent months, and I share their concern about those difficulties. It is a long-standing principle that the Government do not intervene in the BBC's decisions on programme content, and I doubt that hon. Members would invite a Minister to do so; nor do we interfere in scheduling or staffing. I am pleased that the BBC's board of governors, which has both the duty and the means to represent the public interest, has expressed its commitment publicly to the continuance of BBC World television. I have relied on it during my ministerial travels all over the world in recent

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months. It is far superior to CNN--I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Tatton in that respect--and to any other world television service.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce : Why does the Minister believe that it does not matter if the BBC withdraws from comment and analysis? We are trying to press him on this matter. He is stating the self-evident, but will he say whether the Government, as a matter of policy, are concerned that that aspect of BBC World is about to be discontinued? Do the Government care or not? Will they do anything about it?

Mr. Hain : By definition, the Government care a great deal about all the policies for which they are responsible. I agree with the hon. Member for Gordon that it is a matter of concern that the comment and analysis sections of BBC World will disappear. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock is well taken. BBC World television reaches where other channels choose not to go. To be fair, I think that it was the hon. Member for Gordon who said that first. Both hon. Members were making the point that BBC World covers issues such as Kosovo, East Timor and other matters of great international concern in a way that is unrivalled by other channels.

The cut in the comment and analysis section of BBC World is based on a programming decision. According to the BBC's chief executive, the market will not bear hour-long analysis programmes, which CNN and Sky do not broadcast. Hon. Members may challenge that view and they are entitled to do so directly to the BBC's chief executive. He says that BBC World will lose market share because people will not wish to--

Mr. Bruce rose--

Mr. Hain : I am just explaining the chief executive's point of view. He says that people will not want to concentrate or continue to watch BBC World, but will turn to its competitors.

Mr. Bruce : I understand that it is the chief executive's view, but the collision between commercial interests and public service broadcasting is exactly the issue that we are debating. The BBC is between a rock and a hard place: either it can be a commercial channel, of which there are hundreds, if not thousands, or it can be a public service broadcasting channel, with or without commercial funding. The Minister seems to be evading these fundamental points: do the Government have a view; do they have a policy; do they care; and will they even talk to the BBC about the proposed cuts?

Mr. Hain : I have been explaining the Government's view and I shall continue to do so in more detail.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): My understanding is that the BBC feels that it has to cut the programmes that are specifically produced for BBC World, but that it will fill up the available time slots with in-depth programmes drawn from its home-based news production. We are not getting a clear message from the BBC about whether it is programming replacements from its home-based programmes, or whether it is just cutting out such programmes. That needs to be clarified.

Mr. Hain : My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, which the board of governors and the BBC's management will, no doubt, want to answer.

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I understand the concens that have been expressed, but there are two points to make. First, licence fee money or other income could be shifted across to BBC World. In the case of licence fee income, it would have to be requested by the BBC by way of a representation to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Secondly, we recall that Sky Television's early years were loss-making years and that Rupert Murdoch decided to bear those losses by what became a booming, profitable service. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock described it, for the BBC to do the same would be a gilt-edged investment. I do not think that anyone would disagree with that.

The BBC may decide that that is the policy that it wants to pursue. It may be able to treat BBC World as a loss leader, on the basis that it will make substantial profits as its range extends and its reputation is more appreciated across the world.

Mrs. Gillan : I find it rather depressing that the Minister is reading his brief so well. We are talking about cuts, which, if they were made to Radio 4, would affect "Today", "The World at One" and "The World Tonight". More important is the question of what the Minister is going to do about the proposed cuts. Will the Foreign Office give the BBC some support, to encourage it to rescind the cuts that are anticipated in the next two weeks? Will the Minister get off his brief and do what we all want him to do, which is support the BBC, so that when he next meets Xanana Gusmao, the East Timorese leader who has pleaded specificially for the service to continue, he will be able to look him in the face and say, "I saved the World Service"?

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. This is an important debate and I hope that hon. Members will remember that interventions should be such, interventions, and not secondary speeches.

Mr. Hain : I am sure that the BBC will have taken note of the points made by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, as I have done. I have expressed my commitment to BBC World television repeatedly. It is an extremely important service, and I want it to be expanded and investment in it to increase. It has expanded very successfully under this regime. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) pointed out, there is a choice involved. It is not a question of a big black hole appearing in BBC World's services.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce rose--

Mrs. Gillan rose--

Mr. Hain : I shall give way in a moment, but I want to come to my point, which answers all the points that have been made. Several hon. Members have sought to draw a parallel between the role of BBC World and the World Service and to argue that that means that the Government should be more financially supportive of BBC World. As I said, BBC World was established as a commercial operation, whereas the World Service is first

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and foremost a public sector, subsidised broadcaster. The Government see no grounds for publicly funding BBC World, which has been hugely successful without public subsidy, from either the licence fee or parliamentary grant in aid. We strongly support its effort to project Britain to a mass international audience.

Mrs. Gillan rose--

Mr. Hain : I want to finish this point, after which I shall be happy to respond to any interventions that may come my way.

A fundamental point, which has not so far been acknowledged in the debate, is that the BBC World Service competes in a subsidised market. Its competitors are the Voice of America, Radio France Internationale and Deutsche Welle. In contrast, BBC World television competes in an unsubsidised market against CNN, Sky and ITN. Parliament has never given authority for grants in aid to go to BBC Worldwide.

If the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham is allowed to intervene, she must respond to my point or answer my question, although I accept that it is not her responsibility to answer questions. We are proud to give Foreign and Commonwealth Office grants in aid to the BBC World Service, but if we gave them to BBC World television, we should invite immediate and strong commercial protests from, for example, ITN, Sky and CNN. Does the hon. Lady accept that those protests would make it difficult to continue to implement our policy?

Mrs. Gillan : When did the Minister last meet BBC representatives, and when did he discuss this matter with them?

Mr. Hain : I have not met BBC representatives recently to discuss this matter because it has only just arisen. I hope that all hon. Members reflect on my point: does any hon. Member want the Government to adopt a position that would involve attracting immediate commercial and, conceivably, legal challenges to BBC World television from commercial rivals that are direct competitors? Some of those competitors are based in Britain.

Mr. Mackinlay : The message from this debate--I shall paint it on the Minister's eyelids, if necessary--is that the Minister, the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister should talk to the BBC about this matter. At the very least, the Minister should give a commitment this morning to do so.

Mr. Hain : I am happy to give that commitment and to convey to BBC World television the strong feelings that hon. Members have expressed about the cuts in this debate. However, in that meeting I shall not seek to intervene in the BBC's management decisions or programme content, because it would be wrong for any Minister to do so. Those matters are the BBC's responsibility, and it is publicly accountable for its decisions.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce : The Minister has made his position clear. Hon. Members who have already spoken

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may be unhappy about that position, but at least we had a clear, if regrettable, statement of policy. However, the Minister should accept that many people believe that the Foreign Office should have a view on the service's future. The Minister and other Foreign Office Ministers--and, if possible, the Prime Minister, as the hon. Member for Thurrock suggested--should have discussions with the BBC. It had the freedom to take the decision, and it has the freedom to reverse it. Persuasion from the top might help.

Mr. Hain : I shall emphasise several points. First, no hon. Member has so far disputed the essential point that I made about the difference between the BBC World Service, which operates in a context that includes other subsidised services, and BBC World television, which does not operate in such a context.

Secondly, I am happy to report the views that have been expressed during this debate, to engage in discussions with the BBC and to seek an explanation from it of its adopted course of action, which concerns all of us. However, I shall not give a commitment to interfere with the BBC's managerial ability to determine programmes, the way in which it schedules its services, or its programme content or priorities.

Mr. Baker : Do not the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and Radio France Internationale supply television services? Is the Minister convinced that none of those services receives a public Government subsidy?

Mr. Hain : I have already discussed the comparison, and my point has not been challenged. [Interruption.] No, it has not been challenged. Britain's reputation for diversity and independence in international broadcasting is the envy of the world, and we should do our utmost to preserve that reputation. The continued success of the BBC World Service and of BBC World television is vital to that objective.

I stress the fact that the Government are committed to the continued success of BBC World television. We hope that it will expand its coverage and reach parts of the world that it has not yet reached. We shall support it in that objective, but I shall not interfere in the BBC's detailed programming or managerial decisions. No doubt it will take account--

Sir Robert Smith : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hain : No, I have dealt generously with interventions.

We shall not interfere in the BBC's detailed decisions, but we want BBC World television to expand. I must stress that we are giving more money to the BBC World Service than has ever been given before, and that we have been much more generous than our Conservative predecessors. We are committed to the service--wherever I go, I support it and I listen to it across the world--and we shall continue to support it. It is vital to Britain's role in the world. The BBC's policy of providing the highest quality broadcasting services in radio and television throughout Britain and the rest of the world must continue to be successful.

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11.26 am

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Although the Minister would not give way, there is sufficient time in this debate to emphasise what I was trying to say in my intervention. He said that he was committed to BBC World, but he also said that he should have no influence on or interest in BBC World. He did not show any practical commitment to it; we have heard only soft words.

The Minister said that the 1988 decision had been vindicated, but this debate would tend to suggest that it has not been. He must think carefully about the way in which this country projects itself abroad. BBC World is an integral part of that image. It and the BBC World Service provide the same service, but on different platforms and using different technologies.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) rightly said that the way in which Britain projects itself abroad, through the British Council and the World Service, pays dividends in all sorts of ways, and that many benefits are returned to our economy. If we project our culture, methods and society abroad and engage foreign countries effectively, we can develop industries and other commercial activities on the back of that success.

Mrs. Gillan : In the time that remains, I must stress that the Minister was disingenuous in the way in which he--

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Member has already spoken once. We should at least give the Minister the opportunity to say the odd word.

11.29 am

Mr. Hain : I want to respond to the comments of the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), who seemed to suggest that the service was going downhill and collapsing. It now reaches 150 million homes in 200 countries, and BBC World television is going from strength to strength. It does so with the Government's active support and backing.

This morning, we discussed a decision about which hon. Members and I are concerned. BBC managers say that the decision was taken in order to protect the BBC's competitive position in relation to audience reach. Hon. Members are free to disagree, and have disagreed, with that decision.

The idea that the Government are turning their back on BBC World television or radio services is a total travesty. We give more support to the BBC than has been given previously; we back the service in every way that we can, and we shall continue to do so. Our debate will allow BBC managers to take account of the real concerns that have been expressed about BBC World television. No doubt, they will want to reflect on the points that have been made. I shall happily meet them but--if I may be forgiven for putting it this way--I

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cannot accept lectures from the Liberal Democrats, and certainly not from the Conservatives, who spent year after year attacking the BBC's domestic and international services. An unrivalled expansion of the BBC World Service and of BBC World television occurred under the present Government, and we shall continue--

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. We must now move on to the next debate.

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