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Lord Donoughue: My Lords, first, I wish to praise my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth for raising this important issue in such an ingenious way today. I draw attention to the fact that in another place 264 Members of Parliament have already signed the Early Day Motion.
There are two elements of concern here: one is the actual substance of the management changes; and the other is the handling of those changes. As regards the second, the BBC has clearly handled matters badly. It seems to me a curious feature of the new BBC regime that while it spends millions of pounds on employing consultants, it appears not to believe in consultation.
The art of management in modern services is to nurture the commitment and carry the support of key staff. It is clear that the BBC has not done that here. The Government and the new chairman will need to act quickly to repair damage and to halt demoralisation.
On the substance of the changes, I must say that my personal view is that the internal management of the BBC is a matter for BBC management. But what is happening to the World Service goes, I suspect, beyond those boundaries of internal management and introduces effectively a change of service.
The changes threaten to have radical implications for the future of the World Service, as has already been pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady James. Above all, we fear the erosion of the distinctiveness of the World Service if it is merged into domestic news because it has distinct audiences and a distinct approach to them. They may be swamped by an increase in domestic news.
I accept that that is not the BBC's intention but many of us have experience of corporate politics. Large central departments tend to absorb new acquisitions and by a remorseless process, like the tide endlessly coming in, wash away all distinctiveness. I saw that personally in the City when I was a stockbroker. The merchant banks paid huge sums to buy us stockbrokers and then slowly crushed the distinctive qualities and assets for which they had paid so much. That is my fear for the BBC World Service: that the process of what might be called Stalinist centralisation and bureaucratic homogenising will erode its distinctive virtues which are the foundation of its great historic success. In particular, I am concerned also about the separation of the World Service news from the foreign language services which have often been a valuable source of the unique view which they bring to overseas news.
Given those worries and uncertainties, we on this side of the House suggest that those changes specific to the World Service should be completely stopped until there has been proper consultation with all relevant parties. I should point out that that is more necessary in a public service company than in a private company. It should be delayed until the implications of the reforms for the World Service are much clearer.
The World Service is a great national asset of international fame. If your Lordships look at the BBC report which came through my door yesterday, it praises the World Service for its reputation, intelligence and integrity. It points out that more people than ever are listening to it and how it won three Sony awards.
Its news production is cheaper than the main domestic news into which it will be absorbed. It is a public institution and not a private fiefdom. It does not belong to the BBC top management. It belongs to the British people, to the taxpayers who fund it, including all BBC staff and listeners. Parliament has a legitimate public interest in what it does. We wish to express our concern today. The BBC must start to listen because, on my observation, it is losing friends by the day.
Religious broadcasting in this country has never quite rid itself of the image of itself which was dear to Lord Reith; that is, that it should be a kind of chaplain to the nation. Those who approve of that image watch like hawks to see that it is not diluted. We have had some examples of that many times in this House. Those who disapprove of that image see that the only alternative is to make clear that religion is a minority interest or a series of minority interests.
The result is that when the religious correspondent of the BBC appears, it is not so often in the midst of the news of the day, the mainstream events. It is perhaps on some technical matter like the implications of a Royal divorce or a specialist interest, perhaps what the Synod has been up to, or it may be something a little sensational like the ecclesiastical events in Lincoln.
In the World Service, religious broadcasting is something quite different and the interplay of religion and other news and cultural insights is vital. It is a core activity in the political and cultural life of the Middle East, Africa, India and, increasingly, in the Far East.
We have talked earlier today in this House of the Dalai Lama. The information about the activities, speeches and support for the Dalai Lama is gained chiefly by his followers from listening to the World Service of the BBC. In exactly the same way during the Cold War, in the old Soviet Union, believers obtained their Church news from nowhere else but the relevant department of the World Service.
Hence, religious broadcasting has a quite different perspective when it issues from Bush House to the huge variety of audiences that it must address. It may seem less of a chaplaincy to the world, which would be absurd, and it may be less evangelical, but somehow it is more seriously handled as a major ingredient in achieving human understanding.
A Harvard professor, Sam Huntingdon, has written recently a much debated article in which he points out that the fault lines of humanity in the future will lie increasingly not between ideologies or economic interests or nation states, but between civilisations in which religious attitudes will play a major part.
We must recognise the ability of the religious department of the World Service at Bush House, through the interaction that goes on between different forms of broadcasting, to perform with special sensitivity and in a unique way. I believe it is true that there is no other international broadcasting-radio agency like the Voice of America which has a serious and systematic broadcasting department.
Not long ago, with much debate, but not too much opposition, the religious department of the BBC was shifted from London to Manchester. I am not at all happy that people who made managerial decisions of that sort, without very wide consultation, will provide sufficient guarantees in the future for the unique contribution in world understanding that comes from the
Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, for giving the House the opportunity to discuss this most important matter before it goes too far, and indeed, before Parliament goes into Recess. I shall not spend much time, simply because there is no time, on the substance of the proposed changes or their implications. I merely want to ask, perhaps not entirely rhetorically, what has happened to consultation in the conduct of public affairs?
In the past few days we have had three examples of major administrative acts and acts of policy being carried without consultation with those immediately involved. I speak of the restructuring of local government and, with slightly more feeling, of the sale of the married quarters estate. We now have this administrative act, for that is what it seems to be, put forward--unless reports from reliable sources are to be disbelieved--without any consultation of any effective kind with those most directly affected.
If reliable sources are to be believed, the main body of the governors of the BBC was not properly consulted, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was treated with a singular lack of regard and respect and the staff of the BBC, including those most closely associated with the World Service, were not consulted.
Other people have made this point but I make no apology for repeating it. The World Service is not a personal fiefdom of the BBC or any of its managers. The BBC World Service is a precious, national broadcasting asset in the first place. It has a worldwide reputation for truth, accuracy, impartiality and for a profound knowledge of the customs and cultures of the people to whom it broadcasts.
However, it is more than that. The BBC World Service is one of the most powerful instruments of public diplomacy in the world. It is as important to the Government of this country and to the foreign policy of this country as the Diplomatic Service, which it complements. In my view, this is not something which can be treated as though it were part of some in-house administrative experiment, conducted by fashionable worshippers at the shrine of the bottom line and of cost-effectiveness which seem to be at the root of most
If as a result of this change the World Service loses any of its great assets and characteristics of conducting not only a great broadcasting operation but, as I said, a great public diplomatic operation, then, at the very least--although I fear that this will be crying for the moon--it is a matter for government intervention. As other speakers have said, this is not a matter to be left to the management of the BBC; it is a matter for government intervention or, at least, if the Government will not do that, a matter for parliamentary debate and, indeed, for both Houses of Parliament to discuss. It should not be conducted in this cavalier and, one might almost say, arrogant way.
I conclude by saying that those of us who proposed amendments to the Broadcasting Bill when it was before the House were persuaded to withdraw them in the light of assurances given to us by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, who has conducted all these proceedings with such great courtesy and patience. He said that we could rely upon the new regime at the BBC, operating under the new charter, to introduce a new kind of BBC with which we would all be happy. However, what is happening now is giving us very little comfort and encouragement.
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