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16 Dec 2008 : Column 13WH—continued

I am not a Russian speaker, so it is difficult for me to monitor what is going on. I can find out only on my visits to Russia, which are reasonably frequent.

We should not underestimate the problem of not having an FM partner. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to it and to ways of getting around it, and I hope that the World Service will look into them, but if the Russian authorities and Russian FM partners have withdrawn co-operation, that makes it a lot more difficult, as he acknowledged. I hope that the World Service will continue to explore the suggested alternatives.

We should not underestimate the potential of internet broadcasting. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, saturation of broadband and internet access is low, but there are quite a number of internet cafés in major population centres that have good access. That would not allow as much penetration as is wanted throughout the whole of Russia, but it would allow broadcasting in certain population centres where people have access to the internet. That is part of the whole picture. I would not underestimate the importance of using the internet, although, as has been pointed out, of course we should not put all our eggs in one basket.

Shortwave still exists but is a dying medium, and medium-wave broadcasting is not listened to nearly as much as FM. Only if we strengthen FM through other collaborations, perhaps outside Russia, will we again increase listening figures for the World Service. However, I am glad to hear from the World Service itself that it is still committed to Russia. It is important that we take up the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to ensure that we do not give up our editorial integrity. We must maintain that integrity from this country and ensure that it is not sent offshore, as he pointed out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made a good point. I support totally his proposal regarding the Olympic games. It would be good for the World Service to enhance its output considerably during the course of the games.

I shall touch briefly on an issue that the hon. Gentleman talked about and on which I intervened: the Arabic TV service and the forthcoming Persian language TV service. I had my reservations when the idea of a Arabic service was mooted, and I had a number of discussions with Nigel Chapman and his colleagues at the World Service to express my concerns and hear their responses. As we all remember, al-Jazeera comprises people who used to work for the previous BBC Arabic TV service. After that was closed down, they moved to al-Jazeera, which has been hugely successful in the Arab world and outside it.

It is important that the values of democracy, openness and freedom of speech that we espouse and take for granted here in the west, and which we practise so well in Britain through the BBC, should be broadcast. Despite my initial reservations, I wish the Arabic TV service well. I hope that it becomes a genuine competitor of al-Jazeera to provide much-needed diversity in the Arab world.

When I first came across the World Service’s Persian language broadcasts—that was a few years ago, when I joined the Foreign Affairs Committee—Baqer Moin,
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an award-winning journalist, worked there, although he has since left. People might remember him, as he won many awards for his work. He did a lot to promote the Persian language radio service as a precursor to the Persian television service.

To expand slightly on my brief intervention earlier, we spent a week in Iran. From travelling outside Tehran and talking quite freely to a number of people in the two centres that we visited, Tehran and Isfahan, it was clear that the BBC World Service is not just an important source of alternative news to that supplied by the state-controlled media in that country. For a news-hungry and inquisitive population who want to know what is happening outside their country in the rest of the world, BBC English language broadcasts are an important resource for learning and understanding English in Iran. There is a huge hunger to speak English, learn English and watch English movies—not just American ones but British ones as well—and a huge respect for the World Service. Indeed, when one of my colleagues and I were looking around the stalls in a bazaar in Isfahan, a young man, perhaps 20 years old, came out and started talking to us in very good if slightly broken and heavily accented English. I asked him, “Where did you learn that English?” He said, “I listen to the BBC World Service.”

I leave the Minister with this thought: we often underestimate the importance of the World Service to many countries. I will not repeat what was said about the Thai service. In hindsight, it is regrettable that it closed, and I hope that that will be a lesson. However, the BBC World Service is trying to adapt to difficult times, often in difficult circumstances—we know how difficult it is in Russia at the moment—to maintain the broadcasts and services that populations find so essential, as has been repeated many times in this Chamber. Long may it continue. We must adapt. I hope that the World Service will listen carefully to this debate, and that the Minister will respond appropriately.

10.28 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this debate and on the detail that he used in questioning the Minister and the BBC World Service. He made some serious allegations. Other Members made important points. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a significant contribution about the localisation of editorial control, which I hope will receive an answer from the Minister in due course.

I have one concern with some of the remarks made. As a relative newcomer to the issue, I have had two meetings with Nigel Chapman. The issue that I wanted to focus on with him was how independent the BBC World Service was of the British Government. Clearly, there are financing streams, and money comes from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget, but as we insist on the BBC’s independence in this country, I would be concerned if the World Service were a mere pawn of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. None of the hon. Members who have spoken today has suggested that that is the case. However, it is important that the BBC World Service be independent from the British Government of the day.

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When I was pressing Nigel Chapman on that point, I tried to see how responsive the BBC World Service could be in its budgets and in its services to political trends in the world and different foreign policy challenges. The BBC World Service talked of the new services in Arab countries and talked of BBC Persian, and clearly they are very welcome developments. Arguably, however, they have taken quite a while to feed through from some of the foreign policy challenges that are facing the world. Inevitably, therefore, the BBC World Service is slightly delayed in its reactions, which is probably correct, to ensure that the trends are real and genuine and that it is not having to shift major programmes and major schedules around because one major event has happened. So, in discussing foreign policy and relating that to the vital role that the BBC World Service performs, we need to bear in mind how immediately responsive we think that the BBC World Service should be.

That is particularly apposite to the issue that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham has focused on, namely the BBC Russian service. That is because for quite some time it looked, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) quite rightly reminded us, as if the trends were going in the right direction. It is arguable how recently those trends have been reversed. Clearly, however, last summer we saw the biggest reversal, with the crisis in South Ossetia. What I am trying to say is that we should not expect the BBC to react to that development immediately. It needs to consider it in its long-term planning, and that is appropriate.

Despite all of the cuts, for which there need to be answers and justifications—I absolutely accept that point—let us remind ourselves that the BBC Russian service remains the second biggest language service within the BBC World Service. That is as it should be, but it is important to have a balance in this debate and remind ourselves that, after all these changes, the BBC Russian service is still one of the BBC’s premier language services.

I accept that hon. Members were concerned about the future and also about changes that are happening now that might affect the quality of the BBC World Service in due course. However, when I have looked for evidence of how well the BBC World Service is carrying out its tasks, the evidence suggests that it is doing incredibly well. Survey evidence shows that audiences across the world have very positive feelings towards the BBC World Service. It has a global reputation that remains unaffected.

When one looks at some of the key markets that the BBC World Service works in, the BBC briefing that I have—I confess to colleagues that I am reading from a BBC briefing, but that does not mean that it is not impartial and well-sourced—shows that, in seven key markets in the world, the BBC scored highest among international broadcasters for trust and objectivity. That is a fact. Therefore, we should show some degree of caution before we completely downplay the quality of the BBC World Service.

I was particularly concerned by at least one remark made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham, when he was talking about the professional journalists within the BBC Russian service. He was making a point, which was fair, that the current leaders of the service are not all fluent Russian speakers, that they have not had their language skills improved and therefore that they were more reliant on what he described as
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Soviet-era journalists. The impression that he was giving was that somehow those journalists were not as professional and independent as other journalists. Perhaps he was not intending to give that impression, but certainly those of us who were listening to him got that impression. I regret that, because he had no evidence for making that particular accusation.

The other issue that has been completely missing from this discussion is budgets. These services cost money and it is almost as if colleagues were thinking that there were no financial constraints whatsoever. We know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has got the money that it puts towards the BBC World Service on a tight leash. There is a 3 per cent. annual savings target, which amounts to £23 million in efficiency savings that must be found in the next three years. That is quite a high proportion of the budget for the BBC World Service. Those savings either have to come from somewhere or colleagues must say that they want to see that budget increased.

Ultimately, it is a question of priorities. Things are changing across our world. We are seeing the very important rise of China, which the BBC has been responding to. We have seen the issues in the Arab world and in Iran, which colleagues have quite rightly focused on. So the BBC World Service, like other organisations, must choose its priorities.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham talked about some of the detail of the technology involved in producing the BBC World Service. However, he was relatively dismissive of the move towards the internet. As I understood it, his argument was, first, that few Russians have access to the internet and those that do have lower quality internet access than we are used to in Britain and, secondly, that there was a danger that the Russian authorities could copy the Chinese authorities with respect to constructing firewalls, thus reducing the impact of the internet.

I must say that I am surprised by both of those arguments. The use of the internet is rapidly rising in countries such as Russia, and there is quite some evidence for that growth. First of all, the internet is the future technology, so the BBC is right to reprioritise resources towards it. Secondly, the idea that the Russians will be able to copy what the Chinese do is quite farcical. I had a very interesting trip to Beijing this summer and I talked to some of the Chinese so-called communists about the way that they are managing not just the media but many aspects of change in China. I must say that their ruthless efficiency, discipline and control are in absolute marked contrast to what one sees in Russia today. I really do not think that the concerns that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham expressed are valid. What was also interesting in the readings and discussions that we had in relation to that visit to Beijing was how the firewall itself is not as effective as the Chinese authorities would like it to be.

The other issue that I feel has not been raised enough in this debate is the challenges that the BBC World Service faces on the ground, including the intimidation that it receives from Governments and the technological challenges, all within restrained budgets. When we debate the BBC World Service, of course we are right to hold it to account and to urge it to meet the highest possible standards of journalism and objectivity—“objectivity with a mission”, as the hon. Member for New Forest,
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East put it—but we also must understand the dilemmas that it faces. We should be praising some of the journalists and managers of the BBC World Service who operate fantastically well in such difficult circumstances.

My final point links a little bit to this issue of the challenges on the ground but it also relates to a foreign policy issue that I wanted to place before the Minister, given this opportunity, and I hope that it will have an echo in the BBC World Service. That issue is the crisis that is about to erupt in Ukraine. This story has not been covered well in the British media and it has not been voiced very well in this Parliament, but there are increasing concerns that Ukraine is facing a political, social and economic meltdown, which could happen at any time in the next few months, with massive implications for the security of energy supply and indeed for the stability of the region. I have been receiving quite a lot of messages from Ukrainians who believe that even their own Government are not aware of what a knife-edge Ukraine is currently on. I wondered whether the Foreign Office is doing anything about that issue and making representations, both within the EU and elsewhere, and whether the BBC World Service, in its Russian service, is reflecting that issue in its broadcasts.

I believe that it is right in a debate such as this to challenge the BBC World Service, but it is also right that we balance our questions with our wholehearted support for the excellent work that it does.

10.40 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing the debate and on the questions that he put to the Minister, about which he feels strongly.

Like the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and all other hon. Members who have spoken, I think that most people regard the BBC World Service as a national treasure. It deserves ringing compliments on the services that it offers, especially given the difficult circumstances in which its members work and the financial constraints that apply, of which we are all aware. That should be placed on the record.

Equally, however, as my hon. Friend has said, a number of questions need to be asked. Some of those questions have come out of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report, and some come as a result of feelings that Members genuinely hold. They are meant not as carping criticism, but as a way of expressing our deep concerns about some managerial aspects of the World Service. We recognise that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a role in this issue, although I do not believe that it is trying to control the BBC World Service, even indirectly, through its budget. However, I pick up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made: it might be time for the Foreign Office to review budgetary and managerial aspects of the World Service, as well as the service’s relationship with the FCO and other Departments. This is not about setting up a patsy; such a review would probably do both the World Service and the FCO a lot of good, and I hope that some positive things would come of it.

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I have referred to the World Service as a national treasure, and perhaps it could employ another national treasure who has recently been sacked by another part of the BBC—Mr. Ed Stourton. He is a serious and heavyweight commentator who actually allows people to get a word in edgeways when he interviews them—I see the Minister is nodding—and he is no patsy. In terms of adding a heavyweight to the World Service, I put in a plea for Ed Stourton.

I shall not repeat all the points that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham and other colleagues, as the time available is limited and I know that the Minister wants to reply fully. Instead, I shall pick up on two or three important points. First, there must be a better way for the BBC World Service and the Foreign Office to project likely major shifts in where they will want to place their resources. It is easy to say, in retrospect, that wrong decisions were made a decade ago about cutting back on the Russia service, but we need to consider that closely.

Secondly, I should like to address the important issues that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton rightly raised about performance, budgets and proposed budgetary squeeze. Obviously, the overall FCO budget is being affected by the sharp fall in the value of the pound, and that has reduced the purchasing power of local budgets from many overseas posts. Will the Minister tell us what impact appreciation has had on the operations of the World Service and the British Council?

On cuts, the service closed 10 of its language services on radio in 2006 to release a further £10 million of funds for reinvestment. We understand the difficult budgetary pressures facing all arms of Government, but will the Minister commit to providing transparency and openness about those matters, including through regular reporting to Parliament? Are further cuts in World Service operations likely as we go through a period of major recession? I am not making a party political point—most people realise that we are going to go through a recession. Given the major squeezes in Government Departments, has the Minister done any thinking, within his Department, about the level of cuts?

My final point, which my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have raised, is about recognising that the World Service operates in a radically different world to that of 20-odd years ago. Power has shifted quite dramatically, largely from the base of the United States, Europe and the old Soviet Union to the rest of the world, and that brings major challenges. The World Service and the old Voice of America used to be literally the only voices speaking to large parts of what we now call the developing world. All Members have expressed major concern about pressures being brought to bear, either from within the World Service or by countries that work with it, to constrain the kind of news that is put out, let alone about the physical intimidation of journalists who wish to broadcast for or work with the service. That is not an issue only for the World Service; it is also for the FCO to address. I know that the Minister and other colleagues are only too well aware of the direct intimidation of previous British ambassadors
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and FCO staff, not only in Russia, but in other parts of the world. How does the Foreign Office see that issue developing?

It will be a sad day throughout the world if the feeling grows that the service, despite its high ratings, is having to editorially moderate what it says, or if it gives the impression that certain people will not be allowed to broadcast on it. Let us remember that the BBC World Service was a voice of democracy and liberty to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, including not only former members who lived in the Soviet Union, but the millions who were occupied under the Nazis and under the imperial Japanese in the far east. That was not academic, but was of fundamental importance, and we should cherish that.

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