Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1680 - 1699)


Lord Carter of Coles

  Q1680  Chairman: What concerns me is whether it is possible to have your concept of public diplomacy and independent reporting standing side by side. The Review Team recommends the definition of public diplomacy as "work aiming to inform and engage individuals and organisations overseas in order to improve understanding of and influence for the United Kingdom in a manner consistent with governmental medium and long term goals." No media organisation I have ever worked for quite has that as a shield over the board table.

  Lord Carter of Coles: To me this is probably the most interesting point in the whole review. On the one hand you have got public money, you have got £225 million of public money, and on the other hand you have the absolute necessity to preserve the independence of the BBC. How do you balance those two things? Government is accountable to Parliament, it has to come and explain how it has spent the money; to be able to say we will just give the money and there is no accountability is a difficult position, so it is trying to keep that balance, to keep the editorial independence and integrity of the thing but at the same time actually be accountable.

  Q1681  Chairman: We all agree it is a difficult balance, but you do not feel that putting it under, for example, a Public Diplomacy Board or having a Public Diplomacy Board involved actually gives the appearance to the outside world that the World Service has ceased to become an entirely independent service?

  Lord Carter of Coles: There is already a Public Diplomacy Strategy Board and that has worked for some time; I do not think there has been any negative effect in perception terms in the world because of that. No, I do not think that is the case.

  Chairman: Thank you. Lady O'Neill.

  Q1682  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: In many formulations you speak about Government medium and long term goals, and I think there was a time when a document on public diplomacy would have talked about the long term goals and interests of the United Kingdom, but not of the Government. I found this a curious transition between public diplomacy and then government policy in the medium and long term. Was that intentional? If so, what were the reasons behind it?

  Lord Carter of Coles: I do not want to stray into a constitutional point, but the sense is that it is a question of accountability for the money for Ministers is the line I was going down, and therefore the accountability to Parliament is Government and that is the way the reporting line in simple terms for me goes. That is why I expressed it in that way.

  Q1683  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: What I would have expected would be a statement of accountability for the long term interests, perception, influence of the United Kingdom rather than the long term perception and influence of the Government of the day in the United Kingdom. This seems to me actually quite constitutionally fundamental and fully compatible with serious lines of accountability. It is something that for me jars repeatedly in that.

  Lord Carter of Coles: Possibly we would have a different view, but to my understanding the Government is accountable for the money. I am following the money argument more than anything else, the accountability for the £225 million, how does it go and if this money is properly spent or it has to go to the PAC to be explained or whatever. That is the line it will travel down, so in a sense the Government is accountable for those policies in the long term.

  Q1684  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: That is a different accountability, that is accountability of the Government for what it does, whereas this appears to be, in public diplomacy, being held accountable to the Government for pursuing its long term goals. The Government is the representative of the United Kingdom at a time, but not for all time, so this is a curious addition in my mind.

  Lord Carter of Coles: Obviously, I take a slightly different view and think that that is the line of accountability. At any one moment in time we have a Government to be accountable and there is not anybody else. It is that accountability I was highlighting.

  Q1685  Chairman: Are you saying the two mean the same, the Government and the United Kingdom in the way that you are looking at it?

  Lord Carter of Coles: Yes, at that moment.

  Chairman: Thank you. Lord King.

  Q1686  Lord King of Bridgwater: Did you give any consideration that the Board should not be chaired by a minister?

  Lord Carter of Coles: Yes. We discussed that at some length and why we came down on the balance for having a minister chairing it was again back to this question actually of accountability, that it was better to have somebody there who was in the driving seat and clearly accountable. It was something we discussed for a long time.

  Q1687  Lord King of Bridgwater: You have the BBC World Service of course and you have the BBC with £3 billion worth of public money from the citizen. No minister ever runs the strategic board for the BBC.

  Lord Carter of Coles: That is correct, but this is from separate funds, this is Foreign Office money which is actually given to the Foreign Office by the Treasury for the pursuit of the financing—

  Q1688  Lord King of Bridgwater: That is an embarrassment because the great strength of the BBC is it can claim that it is totally independent and it is objective. This is not party political, it is about the political government of the day and that is its great strength, and that is why it is widely admired around the world. It seems to me that we are actually reinforcing a suggestion that a minister should tighten up on what you state is really a managerial solution, tighten up on that and put a minister in charge. If the minister is responsible for the administration of the money ultimately, as you say accountable, then he who pays the piper is deemed to receive; if something goes wrong and if there are objections to the view the BBC has taken, very quickly it will be attributed to the fact that there is political intervention.

  Lord Carter of Coles: I would hope that would not be the case, it is certainly not the intention.

  Q1689  Lord King of Bridgwater: I am sure it is not the intention.

  Lord Carter of Coles: It is something that I can see. I can see having a board which questions things, but I cannot actually see how it would intervene.

  Chairman: I would like to bring Lord Armstrong in because we are slightly straying into his bailiwick at the moment.

  Q1690  Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: It is really following on the point that Lord King was making. Having this board, chaired by a minister, and having the BBC World Service sitting on the board with full membership—is there not a great danger of that prejudicing the independence of the World Service? They will be sitting there on the board, chaired by a minister, much less able to assert and maintain its independence and its freedom from pressure from the Government than it is under the present arrangements. Why do we not have an arrangement whereby the minister is accountable to Parliament for the amount of money it grants to the BBC World Service but the BBC World Service is then accountable as an independent body for the way it spends that money, whether it is to the National Audit Office or whether it is direct to the minister. This seems to be a strange extra wheel on the coach. It is not clear to me how the concept of the board fits in with the concept of independence of the World Service if you have the FCO as chairman of the board and the BBC World Service sitting as a member of the board, not summoned to talk to it or to observe or anything, but actually as a member.

  Lord Carter of Coles: Actually, if I may, the proposal is that they are observers. We discussed this with the BBC and the BBC made that point and we accepted it totally, that they should be observers in fact and enjoy that status so they could be there to share and discuss the strategy but they were not actually in any way bound by the board.

  Q1691  Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: They are not bound by the board?

  Lord Carter of Coles: No, absolutely not, that is why they are there as observers, to deal with that point.

  Q1692  Chairman: What does an observer mean? If I turn up as an observer to a board, what do I do? I do not talk unless I am spoken to or what?

  Lord Carter of Coles: It depends how the chairman wants to run it, My Lord Chairman. The whole purpose of the board and really my main thrust of the report is that there should be more joining up strategically, there should be some better alignment of priorities; I think, frankly, everybody agreed with that. That is something which came from the World Service and this is a further step in that. The way I see this happening is that the BBC would come to the board, they would make a point, somebody would discuss whether or not to increase resources going into the Arab World, into Iraq or somewhere like that, and if the British Council was going to be doing more, the World Service would discuss whether it would be and the FCO would be talking about it, how do we actually gather together our resources, and so we have the benefit of leveraging them collectively as opposed to doing it separately. That is the purpose.

  Q1693  Lord Peston: Just a little clarification because I really was surprised by your answer to Lady O'Neill in particular, but also to Lord King. In the sentence we have got before us, where you refer to "in order to improve understanding of and influence for the United Kingdom ..." it seems to me that there can be no argument about that as an objective, but you add on "in a manner consistent with ..." If you were to ask some of us we would say the BBC using public money to improve understanding and influence of the United Kingdom is precisely through its independence. The moment you add "in a manner consistent with ..." you are actually contradicting yourself, and that is what you did not seem to me to deal with when you were answering Lady O'Neill and, for that matter, Lord King. It would seem to me again on the board that the one thing the Government should say to itself is we had better not chair that board, rather the other way round. Can you clarify that?

  Lord Carter of Coles: The issues really for me I suppose were where, how, what? The what, the BBC says, is guaranteed absolutely editorial independence, nobody has ever questioned that. The question of where, in other words which countries they put their resources into is something which is a bona fide reason for discussion with the FCO and the prioritisation which has to be done in that way. The question also of how, to whom if you like—in other words are we going to deal with this through radio or through television, are we going to do it through the internet or other electronic media—that is a discussion which it is quite proper that the FCO should hold with the BBC or, in similar terms, with the British Council. There is an important difference between the absolute freedom of the BBC to say what it wishes to say, but the point about the rest of it is to have a discussion about those other two points.

  Q1694  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Returning, if I may, to the definition of diplomacy that you gave, and obviously explaining it all to be within the editorial situation, when you were actually looking at this situation were you in any way concerned that the FCO had either too much or too little influence in the role they play?

  Lord Carter of Coles: Yes to both, and I will explain why. In terms of strategic influence, first of all, probably too little in the sense of discussing with its partners where the resources should be deployed; in terms of anything to do with content, none at all. I could not find anywhere that the FCO had actually tried with the BBC to influence content at all, so there was none there but too little in terms of actually giving a clear and strategic role to which countries and particularly which media were important.

  Q1695  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: You would not have regarded that as too much interference?

  Lord Carter of Coles: No. Inevitably, the BBC is a strong organisation after all and it is strong enough to engage in a debate with the FCO. It has done so continuously, has held its corner and has done extremely well, and I think the way it is set up is designed to do that. It works very well in that sense.

  Q1696  Chairman: You have said we should gather together our resources and look at a particular area. That does seem to indicate that you regard the World Service as one part of the resource that the Government can put in a particular area.

  Lord Carter of Coles: It is interesting, but I am not sure the BBC's interests and the Government's are dissimilar. If we look at the move by the BBC into Arab television, it would seem that the interests of the BBC and the interests of the Government are synonymous and so they have acted together in that sense. The money does come from the Treasury to the FCO with the intent of improving the image of Britain in various places, and it is important to understand whether the money is being spent to deliver what we are setting out to deliver, which is a positive perception of this country. If you are looking, for example, at a country like Pakistan, I think it is important to understand which things are working well from the £600 million we spend on public diplomacy. It may well be, for instance, that the BBC spend is particularly effective and more resources should be given to the BBC for that particular country. That is the sort of direction in which I was trying to take this, so it is about resources backing up things that work.

  Q1697  Chairman: It also has something to do with reputation, does it not, as well? The World Service has a reputation—you mentioned at one stage at page 28, the Voice of America. I would have thought there is a big contrast, frankly, between the BBC World Service and the Voice of America in as much as the BBC speaks with authority. It is really the ability to cover news objectively from which Britain, I suppose, might get some advantage.

  Lord Carter of Coles: That is absolutely right. If you just look at the trust ratings between Voice of America and the BBC it is absolutely clear the great benefit we have got. I think the only country I could see where the trust ratings were similar was Indonesia, and all foreign broadcasters into Russia where the trust ratings were the same.

  Q1698  Bishop of Manchester: Just exploring a little bit further and looking at the issue of China, the fact is as we know that China constantly jams any broadcasts which come from this country, and we have no idea when that may alter if it ever will alter. Were you satisfied though that the BBC has got the kind of preparedness in terms of back-up technologically and financially to be able to get fast into that market if the situation arose that such broadcasting was available, or would there be a bit of a vacuum which might enable other broadcasters to get in?

  Lord Carter of Coles: It is interesting in China. There has been a proliferation of satellites going in where people are picking up the BBC, though it is probably not recognised by the authorities, and I think there are 2000 TV stations in China which may provide some way to do this. The example of Iraq is a very good one for the BBC, who actually did manage to get into Iraq very, very quickly and to actually be a very positive force in that country. They can respond but I think China, with 2000 TV stations, would be a very big and difficult market and the jamming is set to continue, both in terms of TV and of course on the internet. They do seem to have the most efficient firewalls in the world.

  Q1699  Bishop of Manchester: Given the influence of China in that whole area, to be able to get in there one day would presumably be a very good example of the BBC and the United Kingdom Government working together.

  Lord Carter of Coles: Absolutely, that is very important, but it is also interesting that the BBC on the other hand has not discontinued its Japanese service some years ago. It is this point of continual reprioritisation.

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