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16 Dec 2008 : Column 7WH—continued

presumably meaning al-Jazeera and others.

It is recorded in the Green Paper that the BBC asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to fund the Arabic language TV service, but received a negative answer. I am not sure whether the FCO shared the confidence of the previous World Service management in the service’s viability. I very much support such a service in principle, and although it is too early to tell whether it is working, I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about its first nine months of operation.

We need to recognise that TV throws up a whole set of issues that are separate from radio. Most of the differences are obvious, but some are less so. One of the most important differences is that while it has been proven that it is perfectly feasible to operate a radio service in exile—as most of such services were in eastern Europe and Russia for 50 years—it is much harder to envisage operating a TV service without having access to scenes, backdrop, native speakers and news in the home country in question. Let me give an example. God forbid, but if there was another Iranian earthquake, it is hard to see how one could operate an effective TV station aimed at Iran without having access to the scene of that particular news story. For practical purposes, one needs easy access to the country for a television service and, almost certainly, a large presence in the country. It also means that one needs employees who
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can travel freely into and around that country and who will not have their visas refused at short notice. Like myself, many hon. Members have been refused a visa to Iran at short notice. I dare say that that is something that might afflict the BBC Persian service. For the Arabic-speaking world, it is less of a problem given the wide variety of choice of destination countries available. The Farsi service faces more of a problem because it is the native tongue of only Iran and parts of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. To make a successful service, one needs to have employees who speak Farsi and can travel freely.

I have concerns about the existing Persian radio service. A Farsi-speaking listener wrote to me. I am not able to test out this hypothesis personally, but I wanted to make the Minister aware of it. The listener said:

The listener goes on:

That letter raises a number of issues that the Minister needs to address. They include easy access to Iran by the staff from the Persian service, and matters relating to visas.

Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East) (Lab): I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the Persian radio service. I am sorry to hear that his visa to Iran was cancelled at short notice. Mine was not, and I was in the country just a year ago. A number of ordinary Iranians whom we spoke to thanked the BBC World Service for its language broadcasting and news. It helped them to understand what was going on outside the country, and when they listened to the English-language service broadcast into Iran, it helped them with their English language as well. Will the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that that is extremely important, and contradicts, to some extent, what he has just said?

Mr. Hands: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is correct in what he says. I was quoting from one correspondent who wrote to me. I said that I was not in a position independently to verify what they said. None the less, a number of issues have been raised both from what actually happened and from the theoretical situation that would pertain more particularly to a Persian-language television station.

The TV station was slated to start this autumn. In July, Nigel Chapman said that £15 million would be invested in it. I should like an update from the Minister on what efforts are being made to ensure editorial independence.

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Let me return to the point where I started. My former Czech teacher Karel Brusak broadcast for decades on the Czech service, both under Nazi and then Soviet domination, and all without visiting the country. That was both possible and logical. However, it would be hard to imagine that if it had been a TV, rather than a radio service.

In conclusion, I broadly support the new TV services, but I have some doubts about how far editorial independence can and will be maintained. We need to be watching them very closely indeed. Returning to my major theme, the Russian service is in desperate need of urgent attention. I have made various suggestions on how it might be fixed, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response in due course.

9.59 am

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble, and most apposite, as I shall explain.

First, I should like to tell the Minister that I will be neither questioning the competence of BBC journalists under parliamentary privilege in my brief remarks, nor recommending that the BBC seek the advice of my hon. Friends and I on any of its appointments, now or in future. I will not comment on countries that I have not visited, or opposition journalists whom I have not met. When I met the Iranian opposition, including the students at Tehran university who threw Ahmadinejad off the campus, the trade unionists who have had an ongoing dispute against the Iranian regime—not least Tehran bus drivers—and independent journalists, they stressed above all that they welcomed any shift in the direction of BBC resources to providing an enhanced service in that country and the region. I congratulate the BBC World Service on the moves that it has made in that regard.

The reason why it is apposite that you are chairing the debate, Mrs. Humble, is, of course, that Blackpool exemplifies the real output that the world wants to hear from the BBC. In 1953, via a grainy radio production, we heard the Matthews cup final, when Sir Stanley Matthews and Mortensen bedazzled Bolton Wanderers. The world listened, through the BBC, to the first real major sporting event broadcast on the radio. Everyone I speak to about the BBC World Service likes the fact that it provides access across the world to commentary on English football—I appreciate that there are finer arts in some people’s perspectives—which is by far this country’s most successful export over the past five years. The BBC’s expansion of the service to allow the business and culture of English football to spread to every remote region of the world is testament to the fortitude of the BBC and is an appropriate priority.

Therefore, I have a proposal to make to the BBC through the Minister. In 2012, we will have the London Olympics. When we last had the Olympics, in 1948, radio was in its infancy, and the BBC could not carry the games in great depth. As the plurality of London helped us to win the Olympics, and given the range of visitors who will be coming, I would like the BBC World Service to broadcast across Britain during the games in a range of languages, which would not only provide a service to tourists but reinforce the pivotal role of the BBC and the World Service in British
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society, and put it at the heart of our cultural celebrations for the Olympiad. I hope that that message gets to the BBC, and I shall write to it if it does not. The Government ought to give the BBC World Service the opportunity to broadcast across the country during the Olympics so that visitors—wherever they come from and whatever language they use—can hear exactly what is happening to their athletes in the games. That would be a magnificent broadcasting contribution to the cultural olympiad.

10.4 am

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): For personal reasons, I shall be making only a brief contribution to the debate. I promised some people that I would contribute, and I intend to keep that promise. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) for his masterly presentation of his concern about the state of the World Service in general, and the Russian service in particular. He has an extremely long track record of interest in the matter, as we heard, and I do not pretend for one moment to be able to match the depth and detail of his knowledge.

I wish to contribute to the consideration of the underlying philosophy that I believe has motivated the World Service in the past. That philosophy ought to motivate the service in future but, as my hon. Friend indicated, it may be in danger of being lost in a more modern, commercial environment. If our relationship with Russia had remained as positive as it was at the end of the cold war, that would be understandable. However, that cold war confrontation shows signs of slowly creeping back, and no one regrets that more than those who were involved, as I was professionally, in anti-Soviet-propaganda activities. It seems to me that the BBC World Service has been behind the curve on that, and that it is running frantically to keep up with a previous development, namely the growth of the threat of what I call un-Islamic extremism. It is so busy doing that that it does so at the cost of the effort that it should continue to make in Russia, particularly in view of the fact that the future of Russian society is, if it is not already once again set on a downward path, on the cusp of being sent in the wrong direction, by the people in charge of that great country.

I was particularly alarmed by what my hon. Friend said about the attitude of the senior officials to whom he spoke on the question of objectivity and impartiality. The strength of the BBC’s broadcast to foreign countries, whether to foreign countries with which we are at war, as was the case from 1939 to 1945, or, more subtly, countries with which we are in confrontation, as was the case for half a century during the cold war, is that it tries to be objective, even in trying circumstances. That objectivity should be objectivity with a mission to promote the values of western democratic civilisation. It should not necessarily convert those in what I unashamedly call target countries, but it should give heart to people in oppressed or un-free countries who inherently believe in ideals of liberalism, freedom and democracy, but who need external reinforcement to encourage them to hold fast to and develop their ideals, so that they do not give in to the incessant, narrow-minded propaganda that they receive domestically.

There has been a worrying trend in the BBC more generally to move away from what used to be called the concept of due impartiality. It was not absolute
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impartiality—impartiality between the arsonist and the fire brigade—but due impartiality between the mainstreams of opinion that are represented across the spectrum of politics in a democratic society. In recent times, even domestically, the BBC has at times moved towards saying, “Well, perhaps we ought to give more air time to fascists and communists because it’s only fair for them to be able to balance their views against those of constitutional democrats, even though they are not democratic.” I reject that opinion, and I am concerned that we are now importing it to an external body, when the whole purpose of the BBC’s broadcasts to foreign countries should be to promote the values of a free, democratic and liberal society.

How do we know when we have crossed the line? We have crossed the line when the editorial policy of a service that broadcasts to a foreign country is shaped by former senior officials in the propaganda network of that country. I am not an expert on the Russian service and am less of a specialist on these matters than I was during the cold war. However, I have been informed that a former deputy editor of Izvestia, who was a specialist correspondent in Iraq, and that a former senior functionary at Radio Kiev—an English language Soviet propaganda station of the cold war—are deeply involved in advising senior people in the Russian service and the World Service on editorial policy. I have no reason to doubt that information, given its specificity. If it is true, clearly the service has lost its way.

It is not often that historians of Russia of the distinction of Antony Beevor, Orlando Figes and Simon Sebag Montefiore, literary figures of the distinction of Doris Lessing and D. M. Thomas and a playwright of the distinction of Tom Stoppard—whose devotion to the cause of freedom in central and eastern Europe is beyond question—join a recent British ambassador to Moscow and a former British ambassador to the USA to write to The Times. The letter, published on 7 November this year, deplores the cuts and trends implemented by the BBC in the Russian service. It states:

Like my hon. Friend, I am troubled by the idea that journalists and analysts of an external service of the BBC should be moved to the target country. I make no excuse for calling it that because the targeting is not adversarial, but gives people the option and the benefit of understanding how western, liberal, free societies operate and gives an insight into our values and culture. To move broadcasters to countries where in the past broadcasting dissenting views has cost broadcasters their lives is insane. It is a recipe for intimidation and self-censorship.

In conclusion, there must be a review of the policy of the World Service by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Preferably that would be public, but otherwise I would like an undertaking from the Minister that there will be such a review internally. There should be particular reference to the future of the Russian service, a restatement of the strategic role of such services and an assessment
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of the relative effort to be made in respect of each country, and it should be underlined that the philosophy of due impartiality does not mean impartiality between liberal democracy and the enemies of liberal democracy. There should also be investigations into the co-opting of former employees of Russia’s media into the Russian service and into the naive and irresponsible decision to move independent broadcasters to the target countries.

10.14 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I am a Member of Parliament for a multicultural west London constituency. A number of my constituents work at the BBC and some in the World Service, and most have a direct interest in it.

Kofi Annan called the BBC World Service the best gift to the world from London. Some of us worry that that gift is under the threat of diminution by the policies of the BBC management. The outgoing director of the World Service, Nigel Chapman, said that he wanted to outsource at least 50 per cent. of World Service programming to the respective countries. That sounds like any other outsourcing, but it threatens the quality, standards and objectivity of the broadcast service. The World Service is an independent international broadcaster and is famous for the refrain, “This is London calling.” Without the geographical distance, it ceases to be independent.

Members of the National Union of Journalists and the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union from the south Asia region of the World Service are campaigning to save three language services that are under threat from plans to offshore their jobs and the output. The BBC Hindi, Urdu and Nepali services will be seriously undermined if those plans go ahead. Staff have resisted the plans for over a year and through negotiations have sought an agreement that preserves the fundamental World Service principles: quality, integrity and, above all else, independence. Those talks are ongoing but seem likely to stall this week as management want to forge ahead with its plans without agreement.

Under management proposals, editorial control will be ceded from the UK in favour of localised output in Nepal, India and Pakistan. Questions have been raised over the BBC’s ability to retain editorial independence. Staff discovered a deal struck with the Pakistan regulatory body to give authorities in Islamabad the power to hear bulletins prior to broadcast. Although the management claim that no such arrangement exists, it is important that nothing be done that jeopardises the BBC’s editorial independence. Those allegations warrant further investigation and there should be an independent Foreign Office investigation.

The reputation of the World Service has been built over decades. Millions of listeners rely upon the World Service because they trust it to be an independent voice. Localising editorial control in countries such as Pakistan and Nepal will bring unacceptable pressures to staff in those territories. While we believe that all BBC staff will fight to maintain its independence, it is in the strong interests of the BBC to ensure that its staff can act free from external influence. That is difficult enough even in this country with the constant political pressure. The threats are more direct from foreign Governments in some areas of the globe.

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The BBC has set up private companies in India, Pakistan and Nepal that pave the way for localised commercial businesses. Such businesses will have to comply with local commercial law and will not be governed from the UK, as they are now. The NUJ and BECTU have been asking for details of those companies and their planned and present activities. Management have thus far failed to give any meaningful information or assurances. If the BBC offshores not only output but editorial control to overseas territories, that too will have to comply with local media regulation. The fear is that the freedom of the press is variable in such territories, and that that will impact on World Service output.

Staff who have served the BBC and the country well for decades are anxious that their professionalism and independence is under threat. If we do not act now and if the Government do not take a serious interest in this matter, we will live to regret it in future years. There must be a review of the policy of localising editorial control and an end to the dismantling of the World Service in certain parts of the globe, which we have seen over recent years. The Thai service is just one example of where we have lived to regret the withdrawal of a service in a key part of the world. It must be asserted that editorial control over World Service output will be retained in the UK and there must be an end to outsourcing in this way. Any job losses in the UK need to be negotiated to ensure that at least there is no compulsory redundancy or loss of editorial integrity and that BBC management goes forward with the wholehearted support of employees and the confidence of the wider community.

10.20 am

Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East) (Lab): I welcome this debate introduced by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). After the debates of my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) in recent months and years, it is important to keep debating what the World Service is doing and why it exists, and monitoring its progress. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reading a quote from the recent Foreign Affairs Committee report in which I took part. I agreed wholeheartedly with what we wrote at the time, and he is absolutely right that a lot of it has come to pass. We were concerned at the time.

As Members may know, the Foreign Affairs Committee has an oversight role for the World Service, which comes under the auspices of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and we therefore take a great interest in it. We were concerned that the hon. Gentleman would raise the issue of the Russian service, an issue that has been raised with me on recent visits to Moscow, where I am a regular visitor, as I know he is.

I wanted to understand the rationale. I, too, have spoken to Nigel Chapman, the outgoing director. I received responses to the concerns, and I will quote a couple of them. First:

Secondly, because I too was concerned about this:

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