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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 16 December 2008

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

BBC World Service

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

9.30 am

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship.

I am delighted to have secured a debate on the BBC World Service. There has not been a general debate on the subject since I was elected to the House in 2005. During that time, however, there have been two half-hour debates on related topics, both initiated by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). I shall return to those in a moment.

I had considered entitling today’s debate “The Future of the BBC World Service”, but I want also to reflect a little on its past. My first contact with the World Service came when I was at university. The man who taught me Czech at Cambridge was the late Karel Brusak, who frequently broadcast on the Czech service. At various times, he dominated the Czech language service. He worked as a news commentator; he wrote original radio plays and adaptations, and a satirical review about communist Czechoslovakia; and he reviewed books, films, theatre and the latest achievements of science and technology. In every sense, he was a genuine all rounder. I lived in Prague for a summer during communist times, and the Czech service was invaluable in allowing me to keep up with the outside world. Indeed, it was a rather strange experience being able to listen to one’s own teacher on the radio almost every day.

My interest in the matter comes not only from my personal past but also from a general interest in broadcasting, mainly as a constituency issue. I also have an interest in cultural diplomacy, or what is sometimes called soft power, and a strong interest in all things connected with central and eastern Europe and Russia.

I mentioned earlier the two half-hour debates on related topics initiated by the hon. Gentleman. One was last year; it was a half-hour Westminster Hall debate on the BBC world news service. The other was a debate on the ending of the Thai service by the BBC World Service in March 2006. My brother works as a journalist in Bangkok, and he can certainly attest to the importance and utility of the Thai service to the people of Thailand.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what has happened in Thailand since then reinforces the case that it was a mistake to close that service? It was the most marginal of all closure decisions. Would the hon. Gentleman encourage the BBC World Service to consider the matter again in the light of events and to consider restoring the Thai service, as it once was in the past?

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Mr. Hands: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I hope that the BBC will consider it as a matter of urgency before the infrastructure, especially the human resources, withers away, as must inevitably have happened, at least in part, over the past two and a half years. The axing of that service was definitely a mistake.

The World Service is at a turning point. On 25 November its director, Nigel Chapman, announced his departure. It is an important position. According to a written parliamentary answer, it commanded an annual salary of £228,000 in 2005. Will the Minister reassure us that the advertising of the position will be open, and that the process will include external applicants?

Now is a turning point for the service in other ways. The Arabic television service has begun, we understand that the Persian TV service is about to start, and the existing Russian service has come under fire—at least in the press here. I shall focus mainly on the Russian service, but I shall also reflect on what the BBC World Service has decided are its other main priorities—the Arabic and Farsi TV services.

I said that I wanted to speak about the past of the World Service. One point that I wish to return to is the retrenchment scene in 2005, and the cutting of 10 language services, including Czech, to which I have already referred, and Thai, as well as seven other eastern European languages. As I said, the Thai closure was a mistake, but I and most others supported—perhaps with regret—some of the other closures. It no longer seemed reasonable to have a Czech service in 2005, some 15 years after the end of the cold war. The same went for the Polish service. There was definitely an argument to be made for moving those resources to other languages.

I turn to something that I said at the time. We need a memorial of some sort to those who served on the World Service over those 50 years. There was a great number of unsung heroes, including my former teacher Karel Brusak. Brusak died in 2004 from natural causes, after many years on the Czech service. Others were not so lucky, none more notoriously so than Georgi Markov, who was murdered by the Bulgarian secret service as a result of his broadcasts on the World Service.

In 2005, I tabled early-day motion 956, in which I called for a memorial to those who have served on the World Service. It attracted 78 signatures. It noted the closure of the eastern European language services, and then further noted that

The motion did not seek to dictate what the memorial should be. I know that placing a statue in central London is not nearly as straightforward as we would all like to think. Instead, I left it to the BBC and the Foreign Office to determine what action might be taken, having seen the considerable amount of interest among Members of all parties for something to be done. It is extremely regrettable that no action was taken by the BBC and that no consultation was launched.

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I wish to examine in depth what is happening with the Russia service. Similar things are happening. The Russian service is being cut, essentially to fund Arabic and Persian television stations.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it was not so much a financial decision to cut the Russian service but that the BBC has taken a political view, as it does not want to upset the Russian establishment? That is lamentable, given the present misunderstandings between Russia and the UK.

Mr. Hands: The hon. Gentleman is partly right in that, but I shall examine some of the political background in a moment.

In hindsight, the Russian service had an inauspicious start. It started in October 1942, but broadcast for only seven months before the Soviet Union pressured us to take it off air. Even in those short seven months, the broadcasts were personally vetted by the Soviet ambassador to London, Ivan Maisky, and the news bulletins were read by the TASS London correspondents. The service was restarted in 1946; it then started to make a huge contribution to encouraging freedom and democracy in the Soviet Union. It would be ironic if the service were to return to the days of Government vetting and control by Russia.

As we know, the situation with regard to democracy and human rights is bad in Russia at the moment. That is not the subject of today’s debate, but there is something of a consensus across the parties about the dire situation there, especially about Anglo-Russian relations. However, it is worth pointing out that the media situation in Russia is especially bad.

The litmus test for a healthy democracy is freedom of the media and of the press. On that test, I am sorry to say that Russia fails comprehensively. Since 2000, we have seen a steady erosion of the media’s freedom, particularly in television and radio broadcasts, which are the main source of information for most Russians. Those journalists courageous enough to stand out against the regime have been subjected to personal intimidation, harassment, violence against their persons and their homes, jailing, and in some cases even straight murder. The murder of Anna Politkovskaya is perhaps the most prominent example. She was working on what is commonly regarded as Russia’s main, and some say only, independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta,which has recently stopped reporting anything about the Russian secret services and is under great pressure more generally. The BBC Russian service should be seen in that context: the lack of press freedom in Russia.

The stated aims for the government of the BBC represent grand ambitions for its Russian service. In response to a written parliamentary question, on 26 November, the Foreign Secretary told my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague):

I have had extensive meetings with Nigel Chapman, the outgoing director, who listened politely to my concerns and kept me updated on changes to the Russian service.
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Nevertheless, I think that Mr. Chapman’s views were driven by what most of us would recognise as being purely the concerns of a commercial radio station: listener numbers and penetration. I often got the feeling that he was ignoring the wider mission statement and the political and cultural importance of the service.

The Russian service is in a very sorry state. Although it is third in budgetary terms, after Arabic and Persian, the number of listeners has declined very rapidly, and in my view the quality of the programming has been in decline, and its overall impact has been greatly lessened, especially since the previous round of changes to the service in early 2006.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman think that the decline in listener numbers has anything to do with the Russian authorities taking away from the BBC World Service agreements on frequency modulation transmission? How would he characterise the decline and who is responsible for it?

Mr. Hands: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which I am afraid I think is only partly true. The decline is due in part to the action on the FM transmitters and also in part to a change in the content of programming, which I shall come on to in a moment.

In October, Mr. Chapman announced another round of cuts to the service, all of which are misguided. They were branded as a “refocusing” and included a greater focus on peak-time audiences, more news and fewer cultural programmes, strengthening the online service at the expense of radio and cuts in London staffing in favour of Moscow.

I have seven main criticisms of the current service, most of which have increased since the October changes. First, the BBC Russian service is managed by people without a comprehensive knowledge of Russia. That was the case with the outgoing director and the regional head, and somewhat the case with the head of the Russian service, at least before she took up her position. As I understand it, none of those three office holders speaks fluent Russian, including the head of the Russian service, who I am told had to attend language classes after taking up the position. Inevitably that has increased the reliance on those immediately below and around them, who happen generally to be former Soviet-era journalists. For whatever reasons, they seem consistently afraid of broadcasting anything that might offend the Kremlin. Furthermore, the position of head of the Russian service was not advertised externally. British experts on Russia, of whom I know a few, of varying political persuasions, had offered their help and advice to the Russian service in the years following Putin’s rise to power and the deterioration of British-Russian relations. However those offers were dismissed.

Secondly, the Russian service attributes its decreasing popularity to the unwillingness of the Russian authorities to allow the BBC to broadcast on FM. When the local partnerships were set up in 2006, many people warned that they were an operational hostage to fortune, and that the overall joint venture with Russian state broadcasting through its Radio Bolshoi network would compromise editorial independence. Indeed, the Foreign Affairs Committee, one of whose members is here today, voiced its concerns in November 2007:

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That forecast turned out to be very accurate. The Russian Government’s intervention to stop the local FM partners broadcasting the BBC’s output is reprehensible and regrettable. However, Soviet or Russian regimes before Putin—those of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and so on—had been even more hostile to the BBC, but the service still got through, and the Russian population in those times held the BBC in great respect. It was the most popular voice among the foreign stations.

For me at least, and many others, the fall in popularity of the Russian service can be at least partly explained by a shift in the BBC editorial standards on the service. In the past the Russian service understood its mission as

However, today it feels it necessary to ensure the constant presence of the “Kremlin point of view”. Normally, in journalism, we would laud that desire to put forward all points of view. However, that is difficult in Russia, because whenever Russian officialdom refuses to comment, which is a very common and acknowledged experience, the alternative point of view—the opinion of the westerners, the opposition, critics, political prisoners and so on—cannot be broadcast either. Those are the things that in the past made Russians tune in to the BBC Russian service. It is stated that broadcasting such reports without the Russian official point of view, which I am afraid is ubiquitous in Russia because of the total state control of television, would be a

That would be akin to having not broadcast “The Gulag Archipelago” in the 1970s and 1980s, because there was nobody from the Soviet penal system available to present the other view. That is fundamentally misguided.

Thirdly, there has been a misguided move away from cultural programming, even though the BBC Russian service has been famous for its cultural and literary programmes. By closing features and making its most experienced and educated staff redundant, the Russian service loses all that and dramatically lowers the cultural and linguistic standards of its broadcasts. By metamorphosing into a news-only service, it loses some of its cutting edge. I shall deal with the FM partnerships in greater detail in a moment, but ironically the FM partners particularly liked the excellent cultural features, which are now the victim of the “news only” dogma that appeared to affect the whole of the World Service under Nigel Chapman. With a news-only service, it is difficult to examine even political issues in depth. For example, how can it explain the complicated situation in Abkhazia without the use of a longer, feature programme?

My fourth criticism is about the move from radio to the internet, which sounds like a technological step forward. However, that is not necessarily the case. In Russia, the internet is less accessible and more vulnerable than radio. We need to recognise that despite appearances, in Moscow at least, internet penetration in Russia remains low. Indeed, according to official Russian statistics, only
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20 per cent. of the population have used the internet in the past year. Among them, very few have broadband access, and yet the BBC Russian website features a lot of video streaming and audio clips, which look impressive to a UK audience, but which are of more doubtful utility in the country of the target audience. Added to that is the ongoing speculation that the Russian authorities are seeking to adopt a Chinese-style firewall, which would have the potential to render the whole internet project obsolete. As with the FM decision, with this internet decision the BBC is putting all its eggs in one basket.

My fifth criticism is about the rise in the number of live discussions on the revamped Russian service. They sound great in theory, but effectively they discriminate against a large number of people who might appear on the Russian language service, because to take part in a live discussion, it is necessary to be fluent in Russian. That means that inevitably the BBC fails in one of its missions: to have a broad base of people appearing on its programmes to reflect a wider variety of points of view.

Sixthly, the Russian service generally avoids sensitive issues—for example, the refusal to publish Politkovskaya’s book on the site—which is especially true of any references to the security services, but it is virtually impossible to cover Russia properly without any discussion of them. Incidentally, among the Russian online articles published since 2001 are just two interviews with the late Russian journalist. Surely, she should have been interviewed more often given her importance to events in Russia. When she came here for the last time, in July 2006, the Russian service current affairs programme interviewed her, but did not broadcast it. Moreover, the Russian service provided feeble coverage of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. “Panorama” did a far better job in exposing what went on.

My seventh and final criticism is the refocus on peak times. That sounds fine in theory. We all love our broadcasters to focus on the times when we are most likely to be listening. However, such a time is less obvious in a country of 11 time zones. In a letter to me, Nigel Chapman talked of peak morning and evening drive-time audiences. However, there are three time zones in European Russia, with populations of 99 million, 65 million and 24 million respectively. Therefore, they need a comprehensive 24-hour service to cover Russia properly. That is one of the reasons for the larger number of repeats, but Nigel Chapman extolled the changes by saying that they would cut the number of repeats. None the less, repeats are essential on the BBC Russia service.

Doubtless, the Minister will argue that such issues are operational matters for the World Service, but he must recognise that a flourishing Russian service is a very important tool of foreign policy, and that we need to make better use of our cultural diplomacy assets. The BBC acquired from the Foreign Office powers over languages and broadcasting hours relatively recently—I think that it was in the late 1990s. The Government must take action if those powers are now not being used responsibly and, if necessary, take them back. We have also seen cuts in the number of monitors of Russian broadcasts. In Caversham, the number has been halved in the last two years and is down to 15 people.

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On the Russian service, therefore, we need to explore all the options and to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket with just an internet service, as we previously did with the FM service. We could start exploring partnerships with other foreign broadcasters, such as one of the French companies or Deutsche Welle. The Minister for Europe recently confirmed to me in a parliamentary answer that no discussion of that nature had taken place, either on a governmental level or between broadcasters.

For FM, we need to explore the possibility of broadcasting from just outside Russia, from places such as Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine and the southern Caucasus. We also need to get the three medium-wave transmitters upgraded. We were told that that would happen, so I would welcome a progress report from the Minister on the upgrading of those three transmitters. We also need urgently to examine the potential for satellite radio broadcast. Therefore, there is a lot more that we could be doing. At the moment, we are in a dangerously exposed situation with our reliance on the internet.

I promised to turn briefly to Arabic and Persian TV. I cannot pretend that I have any real expertise on the matter, but I have a few comments to make. Arabic TV started in March 2008. It was the World Service’s first vernacular TV service. It is still too early to tell whether the service is working well, but it has been a long-standing BBC ambition. However, it is worth saying that the 2005 Green Paper, which sparked all the changes that we have seen in the World Service in the past three years, stated that the challenges of an Arabic TV service are “enormous”. It went on to say:

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