BBC World Service and British Council
Motion to Take Note
12.27 pm July 10th 2014
Lord Alton of Liverpool
To move that this House takes note of the role of the BBC World Service and the British Council in promoting British values and interests worldwide.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friends on the Cross Benches for selecting this Motion for debate today. It draws attention to the role of the BBC World Service and the British Council in promoting British values, part of what Joseph Nye once described as the exercise of soft power. It sits comfortably with the debate that will follow in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf, which draws attention to the role our legal institutions play in promoting Britain’s reputation and way of life worldwide.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who will participate, many of whom bring a lifetime of experience and knowledge.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, the Minister who will reply. The House of Lords Library also deserves our thanks for the excellent note it has prepared for today’s debate.
It hardly needs saying that all of our speeches will be held against a backdrop in the Middle East of the exercise of a different kind of power, characterised by visceral hatred and unspeakable violence.
They are being held in a climate in which fragile peace and seedling democracies, from the China Sea to the Ukraine, are at daily risk. That is to say nothing of global violation of human rights, from North Korea to Sudan, from Nigeria to Pakistan.
More than 30 years ago as a young Member of the House of Commons travelling behind the iron curtain, and in 1981 to India, Nepal and China, I first began to fully understand the importance of the BBC World Service and the British Council as agents for change.
The BBC World Service started life in 1932 as the BBC Empire Service, with Sir John Reith—later Lord Reith—warning,
“don’t expect too much in the early days … The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good”.
More than 80 years later, with a global audience last month of 265 million people and transmitting in English and 27 other languages, there is no doubt that the World Service has surpassed all of Lord Reith’s modest expectations.
Often, it has been the only lifeline to honest reporting of news and current affairs.
Mikhail Gorbachev said that he listened to the BBC’s transmissions. However, both organisations—the British Council and the World Service—promote the UK’s economic interests too.
In one survey of international business leaders in America, India and Australia, two-thirds said that the BBC was the main way in which they found out about the United Kingdom. Hence, the Motion talks about promoting our values and our interests.
During the past 10 years, as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and during visits to remote parts of Africa and Burma, my appreciation of the BBC World Service and the British Council has grown into deep admiration, not least for courageous BBC journalists, such as its chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet and the head of the BBC’s Burma service Tin Htar Swe, who were both recently honoured in the Birthday Honours List.
Courage, however, comes at a price.
Let us consider the 90 journalists killed since the start of the Syrian conflict three years ago, with scores of others kidnapped, or the imprisonment of journalists in Egypt, including Peter Greste, the former BBC journalist. James Harding, the BBC’s director of news, said that these jailings were an,
“act of intimidation against all journalists”.
Getting the news out and getting the news in are therefore two sides of one coin.
In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi says that World Service transmissions reach more than 80% of people. When I visited her in March last year, she told me that the World Service had been a game-changer. Of course, she also listened to the World Service during her many years of detention, describing it as a lifeline.
Believing passionately in the power of ideas, she used her Nobel Peace Prize money to establish her own Democratic Voice of Burma radio service.
At the World Service’s 80th anniversary commemoration held in December 2012 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, I was particularly struck by the words of a young Ukrainian woman, who described how her parents had illegally concealed a radio beneath their floorboards and would bring it out clandestinely to listen to the news from London.
She said that the proudest day of her parents’ lives was when she told them that she had secured a job at Bush House, where the BBC World Service was located from 1940 until 2012. Not without significance, the audience of the Ukrainian service has tripled in the past 12 months.
A long-serving BBC foreign correspondent, Allan Little, recalls an elderly Jewish man in Paris who agreed to give him an interview because, as a boy in hiding in wartime Poland, the BBC was the only way he knew to keep on hoping. He also recalls the old independence fighter in Zimbabwe who hated the British yet, when he wanted to know what was happening in the world, listened in secret. He said, “We listened to you and we trusted you”.
Like many, Little regards the trust placed in the World Service and the BBC, fiercely guarded across the world and over generations, as a kind of covenant.
Credibility and authority—what Peter Horrocks, the World Service director, calls “radical impartiality”—marks out the BBC from its competition in increasingly crowded airwaves and with the phenomenal growth of the internet.
However, at a meeting held here just two nights ago, Mr Horrocks also pointed out that a broadcaster such as Al-Jazeera probably has a budget two to three times bigger than that of BBC News.
If the BBC World Service is not to decline, I hope that the Minister will tell us that comparative resources will form part of the review of the BBC charter scheduled for next year. I hope that the Minister will also say something about the current ambiguity in the BBC World Service’s lines of accountability and its mandate.
On 1 April this year, a great and almost unremarked on change occurred when the Foreign Office ceased to fund the World Service.
From now on, the £245 million bill will be borne by the licence fee payer. In January the House of Commons Select Committee which looked at this question voiced strong opposition to the plans outlined by the BBC Trust for wider commercialisation at the World Service. Its March 2014 report, The Future of the BBC World Service, outlined concerns about the impact of changes in the funding of the World Service.
Although the committee welcomed budget increases, it urged the BBC to announce detailed future funding allocations to allow the World Service to plan for the longer term.
Many of us share the Select Committee’s apprehension that further commercialisation will both overinfluence the BBC’s decisions on where and what to broadcast, and diminish our ability to use the service to pursue foreign policy objectives.
The example of the BBC World News offers salutary lessons. Conceived as the sister television arm of the World Service, this continuous news channel has 74 million viewers each week in 200 countries, and powerfully projects British values worldwide.
Unlike radio, BBC World News is owned and operated by a commercial entity, BBC Global News Ltd, and relies entirely on subscription, advertising and sponsorship deals to survive.
The failure of the current business plan means that on the 17th of this month BBC World News is to announce what its managers are calling “significant savings”—that is, cuts. These will come on top of year 3 cuts to BBC News under the programme Delivering Quality First, which since 2010 has seen spending on news cut by 20% and the loss of 2,000 jobs in the BBC.
The danger of the commercial imperative alone is that the BBC becomes dependent on it and, instead of seeing such deals as useful, it sees them as additional resource. It cannot be in the British interest for the BBC’s presence in the global media landscape to be increasingly subject to the vagaries of the ups and downs of the advertising market. It is bad for Britain’s business needs, and it is bad for the business of what Britain is all about. I hope that the Minister will do her best to allay those fears today.
In considering commercial factors versus our Article 19 obligation under the 1948 declaration on human rights to take no notice of frontiers but to communicate information worldwide, the Minister may want to comment on the example of North Korea, which was recently listed by the United Nations as a “country without parallel” and a perpetrator of human rights abuses.
In the view of the author of the UN report, Mr Justice Michael Kirby, BBC World Service broadcasts to the Korean peninsula would be a welcome contribution to breaking the information blockade that imprisons North Korea.
Professor Andrei Lankov states in his book The Real North Korea:
“The only long-term solution … is to increase North Korea’s awareness of the outside world”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, will say more on this subject when she makes her speech, and we will return to it in a Question for Short Debate in a few days.
Staying with North Korea for a moment, I particularly welcome the British Council’s English language work there, which I have seen first hand.
I also welcome the work of the British Council in Burma.
During my 2013 visit, I gave a lecture at the British Council library in Rangoon. I am told that the British Council receives more than 200,000 Burmese visitors to its sites in Rangoon and Mandalay each year. The libraries in Burma have more than 10,000 members and there is a network of 19 remote learning centres across the country. The British Council’s Facebook page has 340,000 “likes”—almost a quarter of the total internet users in the country.
The British Council was established in 1934 and incorporated by royal charter in 1940. It has 70 British Council teaching centres in 53 countries. It taught more than 1 million class hours to 300,000 learners in one recent year, and it describes itself as,
“the world’s largest English-language teaching organisation”.
I know that other noble Lords will speak more about its work, but let me give the example of Project English, which has benefited more than 27 million learners in India already.
There is the Young Arab Voices initiative that has helped more than 25,000 young Egyptians, Tunisians and Jordanians.
But in 2010-11 the FCO grant was 27% of the British Council’s income. In 2013-14 that grant is forecast to be less than 20% of total income and the proportion is projected to decrease, reaching 16% of total income by 2015-16.
Last month, the Prime Minister said that British values are,
“a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law”.
But he went on to say that these values “do not come from thin air”, and resources do not come from thin air either.
We must be prepared to see the value of these amazing instruments of soft power and ensure that they are adequately resourced.
Our military response to global threats and new forms of terror will always require hard power, of course, but we are disproportionate in spending hundreds of times more on hard power than on soft power. Combining the two, what Hillary Clinton has described as “smart power”, should be part of our approach.
That is a view which was endorsed by the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence in its March 2014 report entitled Persuasion and Power in the Modern World. It said that:
“The ‘reach’ of the BBC and the British Council is immense, and this certainly adds to their ability to enhance the UK’s soft power”.
Before I conclude, I highlight for noble Lords a particular work by a notable champion of soft power, the former US ambassador to Hungary, Mark Palmer, who died a year ago. I commend his book Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World’s Last Dictators by 2025.
We have just 10 years left to meet the deadline he set, and I believe that the BBC World Service and the British Council have a crucial role to play in achieving that. I pay tribute to Mark Palmer, and I believe that we in this country could learn much from his ideas.
We can also learn from those put forward by the British Academy, which has said in a report that:
“UK foreign policy is too often conducted in a compartmentalised manner, with the would-be benefits of soft power either judged to be outweighed by security concerns, or simply never taken into account”.
Soft power is, as the report concludes,
“likely to become more important in international relations over the coming years. UK governments can help themselves simply by recognising this, and by providing enough resources for the development and maintenance of its long-term assets”.
In moving this Motion, I ask the Minister what steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to strengthen the deployment of soft power, how we are going to combine soft power with hard power, and to affirm, as I hope she will, our continuing belief on all sides of the House that the BBC World Service and the British Council are indispensable in promoting British values and interests throughout the world.
Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab):
My Lords, the number of speakers in the debate is testament to the huge respect in which both the World Service and the British Council are held in this House. I want to focus on the role of the British Council as part of the fabric that underpins the UK’s foreign policy, and our soft power. There are friends of the UK around the world for whom the first step towards engaging with our country was sitting in the library of the British Council office in their home city.
I have had a long connection with the British Council and was once one of its trustees. Since that time, the landscape in which the British Council operates has changed, and the council has changed, too. It is not widely known that the council now draws just 20% of its income from government, and as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said, that is set to fall further. The council exists to provide a public benefit. It has evolved to become a very significant social enterprise with a turnover of nearly £1 billion, but it operates in an increasingly commercial and competitive environment. Its bridge-building work between the UK’s cultural and education sectors, and those overseas, is funded by delivering commercial services. I have no doubt that this social enterprise model has created some challenges for the council, although I am glad to say that it continues to grow, to provide indispensable services and, most of all, to provide a network of well informed staff around the world. It is an exemplar of an entrepreneurial public service model and, in that context, offers excellent value to taxpayers.
I have seen this in the context of universities. The council’s network of international offices is envied by many of our competitors. It has the ability to provide market intelligence and to anticipate opportunities in countries where links are not well established. These are functions that we should protect and support, and I hope that the Minister will agree that the Government should continue to fund them. There is inevitably a tension between its cultural relations role on the one hand, and on the other the need to provide services for which universities are willing to pay. I believe that the council is well aware of this and is sensitive to it.
When I was chief executive of Universities UK, I created a small international and Europe unit. I am delighted to learn that this has grown to be a significant organisation, delivering millions of pounds’ worth of benefits by identifying opportunities, making links, influencing policy and negotiating collective agreements around the world. The council should be applauded for the way in which it has adapted to this changed landscape. It has recognised that it can be most effective by working in partnership with Universities UK’s international unit and with parts of government pursuing opportunities overseas, such as the UKTI education unit. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is important to ensure that those sources of support are well articulated, and work in complementary ways rather than creating confusion and duplication.
I like the fact that the British Council has been working closely with the international unit of Universities UK on an advisory service to help universities develop the rapidly growing area of transnational education. I like the fact that the council is working alongside Research Councils UK, the national academies, the international unit and a range of other bodies to deliver aspects of the Government’s newly announced Newton Fund, which supports research links with 15 emerging powers around the world.
Yes, the world has changed since the creation of the British Council. Yet it remains an important part of the UK’s effort to promote strong and lasting relationships internationally, including through education links. Reduced funding has necessitated changes in strategy, yet it has picked its way sensitively and effectively through this increasingly complicated terrain. It is a hugely valuable asset to the UK. We should be proud of it, and we should continue to support it.
Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (LD):
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for this debate. I speak on culture and media matters from these Benches, and I am an avid believer in the importance of the part played by both the BBC and the British Council in binding our nation together and defining us in the eyes of other nations. Yet their role and influence goes further, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. They are also key to the UK’s successful pursuit of soft power, defined in the very good recent report of a House of Lords Select Committee as,
“the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion”.
The pursuit of soft power is essential to UK diplomacy—and prosperity—in the 21st century. I declare an interest: I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Mexico, and in this capacity I have seen at first hand how cultural diplomacy is a major tool in pursuing collaboration on both an economic and a strategic level. In Mexico, the BBC is enjoyed, admired and trusted, and the British Council actively promotes British culture, language and values. Both are instruments by which those in Mexico understand who we are, what we stand for and what we offer.
2015 is the Year of Mexico in the UK and the UK in Mexico, and it will be a great mutual celebration. It will strengthen ties between our Governments, our people and organisations. This forging of greater bilateral trust and engagement will make both of us richer in every sense of the word. On the ground in Mexico, it is the British Council, alongside our embassy, that is making this happen.
I worked for the BBC across genres, across departments and across the globe. I remember that when filming years ago in the Gulf, a fisherman from Somaliland saw our camera and came up to talk. “BBC”, he said immediately, “BBC. We love the BBC”. He was talking about the World Service, which of course in those days was received through a physical entity known as a wireless, not through a wireless connection delivering to a multitude of platforms. The World Service has kept up with the times and now people across the world get their information through many devices, but whatever the device the BBC is respected as accurate, impartial, objective and free of national interests. This goes back to the Second World War. Penelope Fitzgerald, in her wonderful novel set in Broadcasting House, writes that the BBC was,
“dedicated to the strangest project of the war … that is, telling the truth”.
Over and over again we see people turn to it in times of crisis. Noble Lords may remember a photograph taken at the beginning of the Arab spring at a demonstration in Syria, of a young man holding up a placard with “Thank you BBC” written in English.
Charter renewal is upon us. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will agree that the BBC, funded by the licence fee, should be protected and celebrated. We on these Benches support the BBC taking over responsibility for the World Service from the Foreign Office, but the Minister will know that World Service funding has at this point been settled for only one year. Does she not agree that this makes important long-term planning difficult? I hope that she and the FCO will help in the charter process to ensure that the future of the World Service is not diminished.
Lord Williams of Baglan (CB):
My Lords, I welcome this debate on two renowned and much loved British institutions whose impact on the globe during the past century has been immense. We as Members of this House, and, indeed, the British people, can take great pride in what they have done to promote British values of decency, fairness and respect. Both the council and the World Service have ensured a lasting British impact and influence in all corners of the globe.
For reasons of time, and to reflect my own personal experience, I will concentrate my remarks on the BBC World Service. I declare an interest as a trustee of the BBC with responsibilities for the World Service. I should also note that I worked for eight years as a journalist and editor at the World Service’s then headquarters, Bush House, in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In a subsequent career at the United Nations I experienced at first hand, in Cambodia and the Balkans, how critical the World Service is for people caught up in the vortex of violence and conflict, where information is always the first casualty. In the Middle East, I have seen how vital are the BBC’s services in Arabic and Farsi, on radio, in television and online, for the peoples of that region, and perhaps now more than ever, when conflict rages and freedom of the press scarcely exists in any country from the Maghreb to the Gulf. The tasks facing the World Service are as great as ever. In this country, we look to the BBC for information, entertainment and education, but there are still all too many countries in this world where the BBC sheds light where darkness prevails. One of my former bosses, Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the UN, declared the World Service to be Britain’s greatest gift to the world in the 20th century.
I am pleased to say that today, in a striking example of the BBC World Service’s continuing relevance and agility in adapting to changing circumstances, the Foreign Secretary has agreed to a new Thai language digital service being established. This online news service is responding to the need for accurate and impartial news and current affairs at a time when the Thai media are subject to censorship following the coup d’état of recent weeks. I welcome this move, which is of considerable importance. It may be a model suitable for a Korean service, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has advocated for some time. Although there are many difficulties in that regard, not least the funding, I salute the noble Lord’s endeavours. When I left the BBC in the early 1990s we broadcast in more than 50 languages, and nearly all on short wave. That number has now diminished to 27 languages, plus English. Our capacity in east Asian languages is much weaker than it was, making a viable Korean service difficult, although we have an online presence in languages such as Mandarin and Vietnamese.
I can testify that much of the focus in recent years has been on launching television and online services in Arabic and Farsi, which have had a great impact throughout the region. Nevertheless, the withdrawal from short-wave broadcasting during the past decade has been too fast, and in some cases deprived some of the most vulnerable audiences that the BBC World Service should serve.
Despite this, the World Service remains the most popular and best known of all international broadcasters. Yes, it is under pressure from competitors and budget cuts, but it is still primus inter pares. Following the financial settlement of 2010, it needs now to do more to show its relevance to licence fee payers.
Closure of the 648 kilohertz medium-wave service was a mistake and I propose to encourage the BBC Executive to do more to promote not only World Service language and World Service English but languages such as Somali, Urdu and Hindi, which have more speakers in our country than Welsh or Gaelic. The impact of the World Service on domestic radio and television has already been apparent, and we are seeing rather fewer white men in suits in the world’s trouble spots. I believe that as we embed the World Service further into the domestic BBC, our people will increasingly see its value at home and abroad.
Baroness Northover (LD):
My Lords, may I remind noble Lords that this is a time-limited debate? When the clock reaches 4, noble Lords have had their four minutes.
Baroness Prashar (CB):
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for the opportunity to debate this topic, and for his introduction. The BBC World Service and the British Council are, of course, two of the best instruments we have for promoting our values and interests. I am proud to be the British Council’s deputy chair. This year is its 80th anniversary, and it has retained the same mission for which it was founded in 1934. It has, however, transformed its economic model and changed the way in which it fulfils that mission, in response to changing times.
The government grant now represents less than 20% of the British Council’s turnover. Entrepreneurship delivers the rest. This means that, at a time of declining public sector funding, it has been able to grow its influence for the UK. Some criticise this approach, seeing it as a deviation from its core function. In my view the critics are wrong. The mixed funding model is the engine that keeps the British Council’s global network in more than 100 countries running at a time of austerity. If we want to continue to benefit from the 80 years of relationships and experience that the council has established, it would be unwise to change the mixed funding model that has proved its worth for the UK.
The British Council’s establishment in 1934 was a conscious effort to counter extremist views, and spread values of democracy and free speech around the world. It has continued that work by taking the long view and maintaining a lasting presence in countries, even in circumstances when other forms of engagement are no longer possible. That continuity of presence and purpose has been central to the organisation’s success, and in creating the conditions for sharing our values and strengthening our business ties.
It was the British Council’s lasting presence in the countries of the former eastern bloc that proved so important 25 years ago. Staying in places such as Romania and Poland through the tough times meant that it was able to support these countries’ transformation into liberal open democracies. I could go on and give a number of other examples, but time does not permit.
The British Council’s cultural and artistic work, in today’s digitally connected world, is based on reciprocity—that is, on developing a shared understanding of the world through collaborative effort. This is the approach that we are currently using, for example, to work with South Africa to mark the celebration of 20 years of democracy, which will benefit not only South Africans but those in the UK.
The British Council’s school in Madrid, Spain, which opened in the 1940s during the years of dictatorship, offers bilingual and bicultural education, and was quite explicit about its intension to inculcate values of freedom, honesty, integrity and creativity. Now this school, in a different way, serves the same purpose as the British Council’s work in South Africa—promoting the aspects of our national life that are attractive to others, not least the excellence of our education and the values that underpin it.
This work does not set out overtly to export “British values”, but it is an indirect way of sharing important values—by keeping conversations going and by keeping doors open to exchange views, ideas and beliefs. Reciprocity and longevity are central to the British Council’s success, but those values do not always fit comfortably with the rather utilitarian and short-term views of those looking for immediate results.
The British Council has always had a degree of separation from the political arena and has had operational independence. Repeated studies and recent reports have shown that soft power should be, or appear to be, not closely state-directed. Those reports build on the Foreign Secretary’s concept of a networked world, which best sums up how the council will need to operate in future. That means that the British Council needs not only support but better understanding of how it operates and why. As the salience of soft power has increased, it is all the more important that the factors which have made the British Council so effective for 80 years are protected.
I should therefore be grateful if the Minister would assure the House that the Foreign Secretary and the FCO will do all that is required to ensure that the British Council’s entrepreneurial model and ethos will be supported. Any attempts to tamper with it or change it, as suggested by some, will be resisted—albeit with the promise of continuous improvement from the British Council. It would also be helpful to get an assurance that the British Council’s operational independence from government will be maintained.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords that when the clock reaches four, they have had four minutes.
Lord Sheikh (Con):
My Lords, I am pleased to speak in this debate. I think that we all appreciate the importance of soft power in the modern world. We must therefore make friends and influence people overseas. I am very supportive of the BBC World Service and believe that it provides a truly valuable service, but I shall focus today on the work of the British Council.
The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, building lasting relationships between the UK and other countries. The British Council has been building long-term trust, people-to-people connections and international opportunities for the UK for more than 80 years. Each year, it works with millions of people on six continents and in more than 100 countries. It is an essential part of our international effort to promote British values and interests.
I speak as someone who has benefited from the work of the British Council. Growing up in Uganda, I found the British Council to be an extremely helpful and informative organisation. The regional representative of the British Council used to come to our school to give talks. There was a British Council library in my home town, and I used to borrow books from it frequently. It was through the British Council that I learnt about Britain—its constitution, institutions and values. Indeed, my first knowledge of this House doubtless came as a result of the British Council. Little did I know that I would end up in your Lordships’ House one day—I would never have dreamt that when I was young.
I came to the UK to study by myself, and my family arrived later. When I came to Britain, I stayed in a British Council residence: first in Knightsbridge and, following that, in Lancaster Gate. The council also helped me to find private accommodation in London and once, when I was once in hospital following an injury, a lady from the British Council used to come to see me frequently.
I have nothing but admiration for what the British Council does. I have continued to support it in my work ever since. I have travelled a great deal abroad and have spoken to representatives of the British Council all around the world, including in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Jordan and Nepal.
The British Council does admirable work, but in this country, at least, it is not good at telling people what it does. We must therefore publicise its work. I was pleased to learn that only 22% of the British Council’s funding comes from government, with 63% coming in the form of fees and income from services. By 2015, government funding will be less than 20%. I am pleased that the British Council seeks to maximise earned income to minimise the cost to the public of its activities.
The activities of the British Council can be summarised under the following headings: English examinations, language school accreditation, arts, education and society and overseas development assistance. As noble Lords will be aware, the British Council’s activities are under review, with the findings expected later this year. I would like to add my views on the subject.
I have already said that more needs to be done to promote the work of the British Council. I also think that the British Council could move out of central government, with its multifarious activities taken over by the private sector. I also believe that we need to put more power in the hands of local groups. The British Council is already a very good employer in the areas in which it operates, but individual facilities must be given more autonomy. However, they must work hand in hand with our embassies to ensure a joined-up approach to our overseas activities.
I am passionately supportive of the British Council and hope that the Government continue to give it the support it needs to carry on with the work that it does so well.
Lord Eames (CB):
My Lords, the House must be in the debt of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for giving us the opportunity to debate this Motion. The expertise that is exposed in the contributions that we are listening to from all sides of the House speaks for itself. Perhaps I may presume to add two human faces in support of the BBC’s overseas programmes.
The first takes me back to the days of the hostage crisis in Beirut, in Lebanon, when I was privileged to lead the efforts on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury to gain the release of the hostages—British and Irish. I remember well the incident when a student in Beirut, with the gunfire surrounding us and the thunder of the gunfire filtering the air, said to me, “But for the BBC, we wouldn’t know what the outside world thought is going on”. That was a simple incident.
More recently, I visited North Korea, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted in his words a few minutes ago. From a most unlikely source, there was a remark that will live with me for a very long time. Obviously, I cannot disclose the complete circumstances, but the words speak for themselves. “Where”, he said to me, “is the BBC?”. If you knew the person who said that, the circumstances and the position that he held, it would set the balance right of many of the impressions that we have of what is going on in North Korea. Those words speak louder than statistics, transmission problems and the facilities needed, and I convey them to the House with great feeling.
In the present situation, vastly different to 1932 when this all began, with global conflicts and the transition from hard to soft power, the tactics that the BBC now employ to maintain that lifeline—a lifeline of voice, sound and meaning on behalf of our nation—must be maintained. Those of us who have contributed to the BBC’s overseas service, who welcome it and admire it, are among those most anxious that, in this period of financial change, everything is done in the new circumstances to maintain and advance the global role of such a service.
I implore the Minister, when she considers what she hears in this debate, to give serious consideration to those of us who worry that although a budget may be set forth with great hope and vision, there are always circumstances in which political reasons can be found to change it. I, for one, plead with her, as one who has been impressed with the way in which she listens to arguments such as this, to reassure the House that those fears are unfounded.
Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab):
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate, but I regret that he included the word “values” in the Motion. Not surprisingly, he said little about values in his opening remarks and made no attempt to clarify what those values are. That is my point.
We had a debate in this Chamber two weeks ago on the question, which was utterly inconclusive. It is instructive that both the British Council and the World Service in the briefings provided to noble Lords for this debate tried to define British values. The British Council described them as “respect and tolerance”; the World Service listed “fairness, integrity and independence”. “British values” means different things to different people; there is very little consensus on what the values are. Therefore, until such time as there is a settled view on what British values involve, it should not be seen as the role of the British Council, or indeed the World Service, to promote them, because what are they promoting?
The British Council and the World Service are institutions which I have supported and worked for and with for many years, and I have the greatest respect and admiration for them. Both have had to adapt to the effects of cuts in funding in recent times and each has accepted the challenges that brought with a determination to maintain their high standards and long reach. The British Council has had to bear a reduction in its FCO grant of around a quarter between the year 2009-10 and now. Rather than scale back its activities, it has grown its self-generated income and is on course to fill that gap. That is very much to be welcomed.
Every year with the assistance of the British Council more than 2 million people in more than 90 countries sit international exams leading to qualifications that improve their employment and life prospects in an increasingly competitive global market. However, the council’s activities form a two-way street, because by presenting the best of the UK’s cultural assets abroad they attract tourists, students and inward investment to the UK and build links between higher education institutions in the UK and overseas, expanding the exchange of research and innovation which benefits our economy.
The Foreign Secretary is currently considering the recommendations of the council’s triennial review and I hope he will ensure that when implemented it adequately reflects the fact that the British Council is a long-established and continuing success story which does Britain proud. Quite simply, if it did not exist, it would need to be invented. The same can be said of the World Service, which reaches more people worldwide than any other international broadcaster. Independent surveys consistently rate the BBC as the most trusted and best-known international news provider, as other noble Lords have already mentioned.
Three months ago the World Service underwent a fundamental change in its funding model. It was predicted prior to that—not least by a committee in the other place—that the move to licence-fee funding would see a reduction in services and quality of programmes, yet we hear that its funding this year has actually increased by more than £6 million. That is obviously very welcome, because despite suffering funding cuts in 2010 which led to the loss of a fifth of its staff, the World Service weathered that storm and today it can be said to be in very good health, with audiences are up by some 9 million on last year. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Alton, himself who referred to the situation in Russia and Ukraine as being largely responsible for that. At times of crisis, people know where to turn for dispassionate, fact-based reporting, delivered professionally by World Service staff on the ground.
I believe there remain concerns about governance. The man in charge of the World Service, Peter Horrocks, does not have the top-table seat in the BBC enjoyed by his predecessors, and secure guarantees are required over safeguarding the distinct nature of the World Service into the future. Equally, it is essential that the World Service should be taken into consideration when conversations around the BBC’s charter review and decisions about the future of the licence fee take place.
It is to be hoped that those in senior positions both at the BBC and indeed in government fully appreciate the huge asset that the World Service is both to the BBC and to Britain.
Lord Ramsbotham (CB):
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on obtaining this important debate. I am particularly glad that he mentioned the wider context of the soft power role of the World Service and the British Council in promoting British values and interests. I declare an interest as a member of the recent Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence and as a member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy.
My own practical experience of the BBC World Service was honed in Kenya and it became an affection when I was commanding a base on the remote border between Borneo and Indonesia during confrontation. My appreciation of the British Council was warmed four weeks ago when, with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Egypt, I visited Cairo. We were very impressed, first by the energy of the director of the British Council there, and secondly by the fact that he brought together some very interesting young students of English from Egypt who were able to explain to us the youth verdict on what was going on in Syria in a way in which we might not have otherwise realised.
I want to concentrate very briefly on three recommendations in the Select Committee’s report and say something about each of them. First, we stated:
“We are concerned that the Government are not currently doing enough to support the BBC World Service, and we urge the BBC and the Government to ensure between them that the BBC World Service’s budget is not reduced any further in real terms, and the opportunities for coordination across multiple platforms to deliver content are taken”.
The Government said that they disagreed with our recommendation but warmed us a bit by saying that they were currently working on a memorandum of understanding between the Government and the BBC.
Secondly, we stated:
“The Committee supports the use of DFID funding to assist the BBC’s development work, and we urge further consideration of how this type of support can be expanded”.
We were very glad that the Government welcomed the support for DfID funding because that opens a much wider consideration of the way DfID funding is applied anyway.
Thirdly, on the British Council, we recommended:
“The Government must ensure that the British Council is properly resourced”.
The response we got was:
“The Government is firmly committed to the work of the British Council and recognises its significant contribution to the UK’s strategic interests through its work … and the Government will continue to work with the British Council on future funding”.
I took particular encouragement from the use of the words “United Kingdom’s strategies” because they suggest that soft power was being consider in wider terms than it had been before.
Reverting briefly to the committee, witnesses we had were effusive in their praise of both institutions. In particular I was very glad that the trust they both engendered was mentioned. I like to think that the tide is now flowing in favour of soft power and I am very glad that the momentum initiated by my noble friend’s debate today may be maintained both by the debate on the soft power report and in the national security strategy 2015 when that is produced.
Viscount Colville of Culross (CB):
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Alton for securing this debate. I declare an interest as a producer at the BBC.
Noble Lords know the great reach of the World Service but I have my own experience. I was filming with the Evenki reindeer nomads in Siberia, 1,000 miles north of the Arctic circle. One evening, the young blades were going to take us to their nomad camp. It was supposed to be a three-hour journey. Unfortunately, they got a bit lost and it turned into a six-hour journey. The temperature was a little parky—minus 46 degrees. When finally we arrived at the camp, you can imagine our relief when we were shown our tent. Inside, warming the tent, was a marvellous gummy old Evenki lady who was chewing reindeer ligament to make it into thread for sewing. She looked at us and said, “I am so very pleased to meet the BBC. I have listened to you all my life. I have listened to your services through communism, through the chaos of democracy and through the autocracy of Putin. It shaped my view of the world. It shaped my view of my country”. I found that moving and very warming, literally.
Many noble Lords have spoken of the extraordinary work done by the World Service to project soft British power across the world and to shine a bright light of truth in places where it is being smothered by darkness and lies. I want to talk about the extraordinary work of my colleagues in the Russian and Ukrainian service of the BBC, who have seen the biggest audience increase of any service this year, to 14.5 million visitors monthly. It is not surprising as the Russian broadcast media has almost completely been taken over by government supporters pumping out nationalism and anti-western sentiment.
Earlier this year, when the Russian Government annexed Crimea, the anchor on the main Russian news announced that Americans must not forget that Russia can turn them to dust in 10 minutes. That was the anchor, not the Defence Minister or a nationalist. However, he has a point. Russia has a nuclear arsenal, an increasingly disciplined and well equipped army and a leader who appears to be prepared to attack its neighbours.
One of the great casualties of this year’s events in Ukraine, as in so many other conflicts, has been truth. The people of the Russia and Ukraine need disinterested news reporting to understand what is happening in their countries, and the BBC is providing that. I cite an example. In May this year, a bus carrying separatist troops was attacked outside Donetsk airport, and a number of separatists were killed. On that day’s evening news the Russians claimed a Red Cross vehicle carrying injured separatists to hospital had been hit by Ukrainian jets and 30 people killed. A Russian website even Photoshopped a picture of the Red Cross symbol onto the side of the vehicle. The BBC simply showed a picture of the vehicle, which did not have the Red Cross symbol on it. It reported that a vehicle with separatists on board had been attacked, it was not known how many were dead, and it was not known at that moment who had attacked them. The values of BBC journalism mean that reporters do not just say what they know but, equally importantly, say what they do not know. However, it is not just what is reported; it is also the tone and words used to report, which is so crucial. The Russians call the fighters in eastern Ukraine “supporters of federalism” and the Ukrainian media call them “terrorists”, while the BBC simply calls them “separatists”.
The inclusion of World Service funding in the licence fee means that whatever comes out of the charter discussions will affect it. We are told that another freeze in the licence fee would be a brilliant outcome, an improvement on the threatened move to a subscription service, which is being talked about. I ask the Minister to make sure that the funding is protected. People ask me why the licence fee payers of Britain should pay for the rest of the world to get the BBC when we do not benefit. In fact, World Service reporting increasingly affects the BBC journalism we receive in this country. Journalists from the World Service are used to report on our main news broadcasts in Britain. Last week, for instance, when there was the attack on Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine, there were no main BBC reporters present. The World Service reporters were the only people there. If you cut them you will also cut the news service that we receive here.
The BBC World Service is a global treasure which must be guarded and nurtured. I am so very proud to be the citizen of a country that supports an organisation transmitting what I see as British values: truth, free speech and democracy.
Lord Loomba (LD):
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this important debate. In my brief contribution, I want to focus on India and education.
Taking first the BBC World Service, one of the many advantages of this wonderful institution is that radio broadcasts are available in Hindi. This increases the awareness of British current affairs enormously, which contributes to the cultural interaction between India and Britain. The English-language programmes provide something similar. For example, the “World Have Your Say” programme facilitates discussion of current affairs and cultural ideas, while documentaries increase knowledge and interest in British culture and events. Such programming can also assist in British efforts in international development, through the promotion of British values and increasing mutual understanding between the two nations.
Importantly, the English-language broadcasts also encourage the listeners in their own use of English and therefore provide an invaluable learning tool. There are resources devoted to the BBC “Learning English” programme, which provides free language-teaching resources to those studying English in India. It is clearly of great benefit to everyone involved that the ability to speak English is spread as far as possible. For example, many English speakers in India are of great benefit to British industry in India.
I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government have ever carried out any focused research on how far the BBC World Service is responsible for educating listeners about British culture and British values, particularly in India. Have people been asked why they choose to listen to the BBC World Service? Do we know what they get out of it? Do we know what they would like to see more of? I would be interested in the answers to these questions. If they are not being asked, I would suggest that perhaps they should be.
Turning to the British Council, the UK-India Education and Research Initiative is a programme that develops leadership, innovation and technical skills in leading educational institutions in India. In turn, this develops partnerships between these institutions and British universities, as well as with industry in the United Kingdom. This programme is supported by both the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; but the initiative I have highlighted would not have happened without the British Council. It is a vital tool in promoting Britain to the rest of the world, and is invaluable in shaping the way in which Britain is viewed.
Lord Empey (UUP):
My Lords, there is so much unanimity about the House today that we are in danger of being over-repetitive. However, in a world increasingly dominated by social media, which shape the views of so many impressionable young people around the world, the World Service can provide the United Kingdom with an opportunity to project in a professional and authoritative way our views on key global events. One has only to look at the propaganda that is being put out on social media by the ISIS people, who are brainwashing a young generation of people, including, sadly, people in our own country. But the one thing we do not want the World Service to become is an instrument of propaganda. It must retain a degree of independence and objectivity; otherwise its credibility throughout the world will be lost.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Watson, who is not now in his place, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, mentioned the position of Ukraine and Russia. I did not think that I would see in this day and age Cold War-style propaganda coming from Putin and his people. The reports that I listened to were so outrageous, so inaccurate and so misleading. Indeed, they were very dangerous because we know from experience that inappropriate reporting can lead to actual death and destruction on the ground. The material that was coming from Russian sources was absolutely outrageous. Having a source, an anchor, from which people can get reliable information, particularly if it comes from one of our own institutions, is something about which we should be proud.
I have to say that I have some more general concerns about the BBC. I know that the House will return to that issue when the discussions on the licence fee and so on come up. The BBC has perhaps lost focus in recent years. We have seen senior executives coming to the other place to defend the indefensible. That is most unfortunate. However, it is things such as the World Service that give many people in this country a sense of pride that there is something there to defend, protect and ensure. I often wonder whether the production of mindless game shows and other such programmes is really the core of the public service broadcasting ethos that I am sure many people in this House would wish to protect. However, we will have an opportunity to return to that issue. We certainly have not heard the last of it.
I am sure that the Minister will wish to look at the accountability aspect. The report from the Select Committee asked, “Do we want to have proper accountability to Parliament for the activities of the BBC in general?” We certainly do. If the accountability mechanisms are there, a lot of the problems that we have had in recent years will no longer be so strong.
In summary, I must say that the World Service is something that we are very proud of; it is something that is very successful; and I sincerely hope that it is long spared to promote truth and justice throughout the world.
Baroness Coussins (CB):
My Lords, I will focus on the ways in which the World Service and the British Council need and use foreign languages. I do not question for a moment the importance of teaching and learning English around the world. However, in the 21st century, speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English.
I declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages, whose secretariat is provided by the British Council, and as one of the vice-chairs of the British Council All-Party Group.
The World Service operates in 28 languages. Five of the language services were cut following the spending review in 2012 and others were reconfigured to reflect changing use of media. The Hindi service was one of those cut, but then reprieved—I believe because of a commercial funding partnership. I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify how the very successful Hindi service is now funded and whether it is now secure. What of other language services that were not reprieved? For example, I believe that there is no longer a service in Spanish to Cuba, or in Portuguese to Africa. Perhaps the Minister could say whether these two have been reviewed. It is the Foreign Secretary who decides whether to open or close a language service. I should like to know what the criteria are, what the process is, and who else is consulted.
The World Service plans to boost language service websites, do more multilingual programming and more translation of key TV programmes. Multilingual journalists do such a great job because they bring not only language skill but the local and cultural knowledge that goes with it. They can analyse and interpret, interview and comment, in a way that no monolingual could ever hope to. However, the pipeline of talent for multilingual journalists is in danger of drying up. The UK lags well behind our international competitors and things are getting worse. GCSE take-up has improved but there is an alarming drop at A-level. Forty-four British universities have scrapped language degrees since the year 2000. We are not taking advantage of the linguistic talent of the 4.2 million people in the UK whose first language is not English but who speak some of the languages in demand for business, diplomacy and the World Service. These include Korean, Arabic, Turkish, Mandarin, Pashto and Farsi.
The British Council plays an important part in keeping this pipeline open. It supports thousands of students every year through the Erasmus programme. It brings native speakers into UK classrooms—nearly 2,000 last year—through the language assistant scheme. Its partnership with HSBC promotes Chinese. Other schemes support school partnerships with francophone African countries to support French, and with Brazil to develop Portuguese. Despite this, only 9% of English 15 year-olds are competent in a foreign language beyond a basic level compared with 42% across 14 other countries. Languages are compulsory up to age 16 in 69% of independent schools, but in only 16% of state schools. It will be 2025 before we see the full impact of the Government’s policy on key stage 2 languages. In the mean time, a whole range of relationships, services and functions which collectively constitute the kind of soft power spearheaded by the World Service and the British Council could be unsustainable unless the Government get a grip our languages deficit.
I ask the Minister, finally, whether she will initiate a coherent cross-departmental languages strategy. The FCO has continued responsibility for the World Service language services, as well as being the department with a most excellent resource itself in the language centre, so it surely has the authority and the enlightened self-interest to take this step.
Baroness Hooper (Con):
My Lords, I, too, welcome this debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing it so thoroughly. Because they operate overseas and mainly to overseas audiences, both the BBC World Service and the British Council—particularly the latter, perhaps—are not widely understood and appreciated in this country. More should be done to raise their profiles with the taxpayers who fund them.
Given the number of excellent and informative contributions today and the quantity of briefing that has been put together, as well as the Select Committee report on soft power, there is clearly plenty of evidence of the valuable roles that these institutions play in promoting the United Kingdom and its values and interests worldwide. So I do hope that this debate is well reported. It may be that the British Council’s cultural programme for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will also be helpful in bringing its role to the attention of the British public.
As a member of the all-party group on the British Council, I intend to focus on this side of the debate. The all-party group which is chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has given us, in both Houses of Parliament, the opportunity to hear from a series of regional directors who operate in the Middle East, China, Latin America, Afghanistan and elsewhere. From these meetings, the way in which the British Council’s educational role, in particular the teaching of English, visibly supports the UK efforts to maintain and increase trade and commerce is made very clear. Sadly, these meetings are not always well attended by Members of Parliament, which suggests that many do not perhaps consider this area of their work as a high priority. I think that is terrible. It means in turn that when budget and funding issues arise, there may be insufficient champions of these institutions in the other place. Perhaps after the next election we can do something about that.
In the few minutes that remain, I would like to revert to an issue that I raised with your Lordships on other occasions. As has been said, the British Council does valuable work overseas in promoting British universities and other educational establishments in selection processes for fellowships and scholarships, and also in encouraging the formation of student alumni associations in various countries in order to maintain the links that have been formed. I am particularly aware of this in Mexico, because there are significant numbers of Mexican students who come to this country and many of them become leading figures in the political world and in industrial fields. Maintaining that link is important and valuable.
I believe there is also a role for the British Council in this country. In the old days there was a British Council presence in most university cities—my noble friend Lord Sheikh referred to this. The British Council provided a centre not only for overseas students to meet and relax but also where they could meet British people. Too often nowadays students come to this country and remain in an international grouping, having little or no contact with British people or the British way of life. It is not likely that we will be able to return to the concept of a British Council house in every university city, but if the British Council were to take a lead in providing co-ordination in this area, I ask my noble friend whether the Government would be prepared to support it.
The Earl of Sandwich (CB):
My Lords, honest and accurate reporting plays a vital role in conflict, as my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames reminded us just now. We all benefit from the risks that these men and women take in the course of their duties. We would do well to remember them more often.
I sincerely congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on securing this further instalment of a time-honoured debate. The BBC World Service has a well deserved reputation for the integrity and honesty of its reporting and for its diplomatic outreach. It is also highly respected among news reporters themselves, who are the best judges of what can and cannot be trusted. I have some experience of the World Service in developing countries. For example, I thought highly of Focus on Africa for many years and I occasionally contributed to it.
I was pleased to learn that the Afghan service is not winding down in line with ISAF’s defence arrangements but will continue. The BBC reaches around 25% of those in Dari-speaking areas and 21% of those in Pashtun areas every week, which is quite a high proportion. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the FCO and DfID will continue to support programmes such as the radio soap opera “New Home, New Life” and “Afghan Woman’s Hour”. Many such programmes have international development content, as my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham mentioned, and a BBC survey found that 39% of listeners to “Afghan Woman’s Hour” were men learning about women’s issues such as domestic violence and equality of opportunity.
There have been other successes through the training of local journalists, including refugees: Yalda Hakim, who was born in Afghanistan in 1983 and fled with her family into Pakistan, later returned to Kabul as an Australian broadcast journalist and is currently working for BBC World News.
As has been said, it was a great disappointment to those who follow eastern Europe that under the 16% cuts proposed in the review several services were scheduled to close, including those in the western Balkans. This came at a time when the concept of European Union enlargement not only had become a priority but was one area where the EU could demonstrate considerable success. We have heard since then that through force of circumstance there seems to have been a change of heart. I understand that the Ukrainian service has been much more active, with more local journalists, and has trebled its audience. What changes have taken place in the coverage of events in eastern Europe? Are people there becoming limited to online and digital services, or do they benefit from the full range of live radio reporting?
It is an important time for our relations with Russia. The BBC’s Russian service seems to have continued and expanded its audience, but I would like to hear whether the Minister thinks it is going to confront the Kremlin’s hostile propaganda about the European Union. Incidentally, I recommend to colleagues the BBC’s monitoring service, which, in spite of cuts, still collects news from all around the world. This week, for instance, I learnt that the St Petersburg migration service has had 22,000 applications from would-be migrants and refugees from Ukraine—only on the World Service.
I will say a final word about the British Council, of which I am an enthusiastic supporter. Its office in Juba, South Sudan, remained open throughout the conflict last December. This is an excellent example of the transformative value of culture during conflict. The council has developed an amazing and daring range of projects, and I hope that it will be able to reopen its office and continue.
Lord Crisp (CB):
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate and on putting values and British interests centre stage, and indeed on linking them. We may not be able adequately to define British values, but I think that all the versions we have seen are pretty compatible with each other. I am also very clear that British values are central to the UK’s reputation and influence in the world. Like others, I see this around me in many different parts of the world.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Alton’s concerns about the resources and support for the World Service and the British Council, and will listen to the Minister’s answer with great interest. The report from the British Academy that has been referred to encouraged the Government to invest in and sustain soft-power institutions such as these over the long term and at arm’s length. That seems to me to be the right formula. That report also pointed out that everything British people do abroad is taken as a representation of the country or a projection of Britain abroad, and it referred to the compartmentalisation of government on this. Those are the points that I want to take up, and I shall ask three questions about them regarding these two great institutions—in other words, how they link with other British activity abroad.
I shall start with what I know about, which is health. You cannot now run the Department of Health or the NHS without having a global perspective on national policy. This means many things, from sharing in the management of global academics to, just as importantly, the mutuality of learning and sharing of research in policy development. There is now an established tradition of health as foreign policy and health diplomacy. I am delighted that the Government have set up Healthcare UK to lead this work and to develop these relationships, building largely on the NHS; what could be more emblematic of British values than the NHS? I believe that this is true in other areas and assume that therefore most, if not all, domestic departments need to have some kind of foreign policy, if you like. I wonder how strongly government departments are encouraged to develop relationships with the World Service and the British Council to develop this role.
The comments about activity being a projection of Britain abroad also reflect the importance of civil society and the links of all sorts between hospitals, schools, villages and commercial organisations that exist across countries and continents. Moreover, in today’s atomising society, people-to-people links are more important than ever. People get their news, information and opinions from diverse sources. People are influenced by people like them. National boundaries have become largely meaningless in the way in which people relate to each other around the world. In that context, I also note that today’s Britain is rich in diversity of cultural backgrounds and languages, and in familial and religious links that circle the globe. These, too, are a projection of Britain abroad, a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute and perhaps second-by-second source of interactions globally.
These reflections leave me with three questions for the Minister. What can she say about relationships between domestic departments, such as health and education, and the World Service and the British Council? Do these organisations reflect the full range of interactions and possibilities, or is there more that should be done to encourage these departments to engage? Secondly, what contribution can and does the very diversity of the UK population make to the UK’s soft power? That question may go a bit beyond the remit of this debate but it links to my third question. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s reflection on how effective the Government think these two great institutions, the World Service and the British Council, are in using and harnessing the power of electronic communications and social media to project and develop the UK’s reputation globally.
Lord Parekh (Lab):
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, on securing this debate. I shall introduce three reservations about the discussion that we have had. First, I do not think that it is a good idea to couple the BBC with the British Council. We should not lump them together because they play different roles in our policies. The British Council is expected to promote Britain abroad in a way that the BBC is not; the latter is an independent organisation and expected to be a voice of impartiality and objectivity.
Secondly, although both are asked to promote British values and interests, we are not entirely sure what British values are specifically in mind, especially in relation to other countries that share almost all our values. When we talk about British interests, we also need to bear in mind that there can be genuine disagreement between two political parties, or between the British Council and the BBC itself, about what British interests are. We should therefore allow for a divergence of views.
The third thing that slightly worries me is the notion of soft power. I have always felt uneasy about it because it seems to be an oxymoron; if it is too soft then it cannot be power, and if it is power then it cannot be too soft. I generally find that if everything is geared to the mobilisation of power, we are in danger of corrupting almost everything that we value because it then becomes an instrument of mobilising power. I want to stay away from the language of “hard power” or “soft power”, whatever “soft power” may mean, and talk instead in terms of moral authority. We as a country want to be trusted and respected; our intentions should be recognised as honourable and other people should want to listen to us. When we express an opinion, people should say, “That’s a mature society reflecting a view. We’d better hear it”. This is not the same as soft power because it is simply us being ourselves, living up to our own ideals and, in the process, exerting a silent influence on others, not deliberately but through people recognising that we have something to say and respecting our moral stature.
Having got rid of these three general points, in the minute that I have left I want to turn to three questions that I have for the Minister.
First, so far as the BBC is concerned, people are simply amazed that we in this country should have an organisation which we fund and over which we can exercise control and yet we restrain ourselves and allow it to speak freely, including criticising the country. The BBC already exemplifies an extremely important value. That means that we should keep a distance between the BBC and the FCO.
Secondly, we are not entirely clear about the role that ethnic minorities can play in projecting Britain abroad. They are our ambassadors and they should be invited to play an important role in the thinking of the BBC and the British Council. I am thinking, for example, of the fact that the Foreign Secretary has announced that we will be having a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. That is one thing in which the Indian community here could be more effectively involved—certainly, the Gandhi Foundation, of which I happen to be the president. The Gandhi Foundation and other bodies have views on what kind of statue to have and how it should be organised and so on, and I recommend that they should be involved.
Lastly, while the British Council has an important role to play in projecting Britain abroad, I am not entirely sure that it has always been as imaginative and inventive as it could be. Great changes are taking place in the world at large—in India, for example. The British Council could play a major role in bringing the debates that are taking place in India to Britain. Likewise great change is taking place in Britain and those debates could be projected to India so that people can become familiar with how profoundly Britain is changing. I hope I have made some of the points I wanted to make and I would welcome a response from the Minister.
Lord Jay of Ewelme (CB):
My Lord, I have great admiration and respect for both the British Council and the BBC World Service but I want to focus in the few minutes I have today on the BBC World Service. If I may be allowed one small comment on the title of the debate, I would have preferred to talk about the BBC World Service as promoting British interests through promoting British values, which would have guaranteed the independence and objectivity that are so important to it and to which other noble Lords have referred.
The BBC World Service has built up a huge and justified reputation for clear and objective reporting of developments around the world, and it is listened to for that reason. The more closed and controlled the regime abroad to which it is broadcasting, the more important its broadcasts and values are to the people who listen to it. That is why a number of noble Lords who have spoken today, and whose views I share, would very much like the BBC World Service to be broadcasting to North Korea. I know there are difficulties in that but I think it is an aspiration that it should keep.
Those who listen to the BBC World Service in countries like North Korea know that the broadcasts come from London but what is even more important is knowing that they are independent and unbiased. For that reason I, for one, am glad that the World Service is now funded from the BBC’s budget and not from the FCO’s. When I was in the Foreign Office and travelling, for example, in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, I found a certain wry scepticism as to whether the BBC World Service could be genuinely independent when funded by the state. The BBC is seen as pretty independent, largely because every Government thinks it is part of the Opposition. That seems to me to be a better place for the BBC World Service to be. I am sure that Members of this House and others will put the necessary pressure on the BBC to ensure that the World Service gets the support and the funding that it needs.
Perhaps this is rather daring in the light of what one or two others have said, but I want to finish by saying a word or two about the values that we hope the BBC World Service and the British Council will promote. The British Council sums those up pretty well in its latest annual report, speaking of our openness and pluralism as a society, to which I would add tolerance. These values come under attack from time to time, sometimes from within, sometimes from without, but they seem to have an enduring quality. They include an openness to ideas; an outward-looking society; a free if, we hope, responsible press; and a plural society, open to and respecting different cultures and faiths as long as they respect us too. We do not always keep to that, of course, and our press and the social media tend to focus on our failings and not our success. I thought it sad last week that more prominence was given to the intemperate remarks of a young Briton in Syria than to the appeal by British imams, Sunni and Shia, for those who want to help those suffering in Syria and Iraq to do so through respectable and responsible charities rather than through fighting. I would add to that list of values a tolerance of others and a respect of others’ views at home and abroad. It seems to me that openness, pluralism and tolerance within a democratic society governed by the rule of law are important values in an unstable and rather dangerous world. The more that the BBC, particularly the World Service, can do to promote those values overseas in its own way, the more it is not just helping those who live in other societies but promoting British interests too.
Lord Luce (CB):
My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Jay that really what we are debating today is the promotion of British interests through British values. That is an important way of looking at it.
I want to go back to focusing on the excellent report of the Select Committee on soft oower, which my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham mentioned earlier. It highlighted the importance of not only the British Council and the BBC World Service but the Commonwealth in the promotion of British values and interests. I should like to see a strengthening of that connection between the Commonwealth, the British Council and the BBC. I do not need to deploy the arguments about the Commonwealth to this House. It represents 25% of the world’s population and a cross-section of nations, religions, cultures and values, but it has a common set of values through the Commonwealth Charter. I welcome the fact that, in paragraph 155 of the report to which I referred, the British Council talks about the need to not underplay the value of the Commonwealth to the United Kingdom. The report states:
“It brings countries together and celebrates and promotes shared values and experiences”.
An excellent example of this is the collaboration that is taking place now in Glasgow between the British Council, the BBC and the Commonwealth, where they are promoting British culture through music, dance, film, visual arts and the written word against the background of the Commonwealth Games, which are about to open. I am very proud of the fact that, as a former Arts Minister, I nominated Glasgow to be the European City of Culture in 1990. Another example is the collaboration between the BBC, the British Council and the Commonwealth Secretariat connecting a network of pupils aged between seven and 14 in 100,000 schools throughout the Commonwealth. I can think of no better way of strengthening soft-power links than through children at school, using the Commonwealth, the British Council and the BBC as the asset.
I want to ask the Minister two questions. First, does she recognise that the collaborative project in Glasgow could have an enormous impact within the Commonwealth as a whole if it does not end at the time of the Commonwealth Games but is built upon thereafter? Secondly, does she agree that the 53 Commonwealth countries should make sure that their work features in any long-term planning at the British Council and the BBC, and that any reports that they make should embrace the Commonwealth approach? I am not suggesting that any of this should be at the expense of the work that the British Council and the BBC do outside the Commonwealth but I think we are throwing away a real asset and benefit to Britain if do not urge closer collaboration between those three groups.
Baroness Berridge (Con):
My Lords, whether the BBC World Service can fulfil its role is dependent on where it is broadcast. The BBC charter states that it should deliver news to,
“audiences with the least access to high quality impartial news”.
Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel and Aung San Suu Kyi are just a few of the notable modern heroes who testify to the importance of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC World Service when information is scarce. However, at a time when promoting British values is a role for our schools, the role of the BBC World Service in that task should not be underestimated. There are more than 2 million listeners here in the UK, but when I checked the annunciator in my office this morning I noticed that the World Service is not broadcast through our channels here. Perhaps that is something that we may look at remedying in the light of today’s debate.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in congratulating the BBC today. In light of the military coup in Thailand and its effect on free information, today marks the start of a digital news stream in Thai and English. I also commend the BBC for finding funds at such short notice for that service. The UK’s contribution to aid in Syria for the refugees is a stunning £600 million. Has DfID made sure that the many people residing in refugee camps who have access to television and radio have access to the BBC World Service? That is not conditionality, it is merely common sense.
Two vital countries, North Korea and South Korea, enjoy no radio broadcasts in either English or Korean by the BBC World Service. South Korea, a G20 country, the 15th largest economy in the world, with bilateral trade with the UK of £500 million a year, has no broadcast. Surely BBC broadcasts to that peninsula, promoting our interests and values, would increase that.
North Korea has a Cold War information embargo and is ranked 178th out of 179 countries for freedom of access to information. Why, then, is the BBC World Service not there? The BBC cites two main reasons. First, do North Korean people have a means to listen? That is, of course, hard to establish in a closed country but a 2010 survey of defectors found that 27% listened to foreign radio before escaping. Surely there were similar issues during the Cold War when the BBC broadcast. Of course, the Chinese might jam the signal to their 2 million ethnic Korean population, and perhaps only a small percentage of the North Korean population would be reached. However, the BBC funds minute services: in the Uzbek language to 400,000 listeners, and in Tamil to an audience of 200,000. The second reason given is that it would cost about £1 million to launch the service. However, surely the option of funding this from top-up advertising, as happens in Berlin, could be considered. The radio service would cover Seoul, which is a huge market, and advertising on the Korean-language website would surely be an avenue to explore.
The BBC is innovating technologically at break-neck speed, but is there such innovation around funding? Could it not even attempt to crowd-fund this? Perhaps more conventionally, can my noble friend the Minister outline whether DfID funding could be made available to fund such a service?
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea by Justice Michael Kirby claimed that the practices of the North Korean Government were so appalling that they conjured up,
“images of the Holocaust and the great suffering of the Jewish people and other minority groups in Nazi Germany”.
Yet despite these violent barriers that prevent ordinary North Koreans from receiving information from the outside world, many still do. I grew up during the deep recession of the 1980s, and we saw the importance then of broadcasting to closed, mainly communist, countries. If the North Korean people are brave enough to try and listen, we should broadcast.
Lord Wilson of Tillyorn (CB):
My Lords, like others, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Alton for the chance to debate these two terribly important institutions. A good deal has been said about soft power, and I am tempted to cite a moral tale from classical Chinese Taoism: the power of water. Water appears to be the most flexible, malleable thing that there is, but it is about the strongest thing there is. You can try to dam it, you can try to divert it, but it will always get through. That is not quite a motto to put up on Broadcasting House, but it is something like that. If the British Council and the BBC keep going long enough, they get through.
I will concentrate on two areas concerning the British Council. I am a huge enthusiast for the BBC World Service and, like many others, I have depended on it for much of my life, but I have been involved, directly or indirectly, with the British Council—I declare that interest—having some time ago been a trustee for eight years and a chairman of the Scottish committee.
From practically nothing, the British Council operation in China has grown to an enormous size. There is a staff of something like 350. There are operations in Beijing and three other major cities. The potential there is colossal. It is said that some 300 million people in China wish to get more involved in the learning of English; that is of course something that the British Council does superbly. Another important thing, referred to by my noble friend Lady Coussins, is that the British Council goes in two directions: it also helps to recruit teachers of Chinese to come to this country and help people here to learn Chinese. That two-way process is valuable.
Another thing which comes from China is part of the process of “slow movement”. Many years ago I had a Chinese friend who had never left China. In the short period between the defeat of the Japanese and the victory of the Chinese communists he was involved with the British Council in Beijing; he did plays and learnt a lot. He was one of the most knowledgeable people on the subject of British literature I have ever met. After all the vicissitudes and problems of the Cultural Revolution, he eventually became a rather significant person in the Chinese cultural scene.
That is part of my water analogy. It is a drip that started a long time ago, but the power of that drip is realised long after. I suggest that it means that you cannot create a balance and loss sheet every year for the British Council. You have to think long term, not just about what is happening in the course of one year.
The British Council is also an interesting example of an organisation in the UK which very early on realised the significance of devolution and the re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament, and placed itself so that British Council Scotland was seen to be valuable. There were those who said that there should be a “Scottish Council”, but people quickly realised that that would be very expensive indeed; and that, more importantly, the British Council could do it as well if not better than a separate one. The work that could be done by a regional part of the British Council is invaluable. As my noble friend Lord Luce just said, British Council Scotland and the British Council being involved in the Commonwealth Games is a good example of that.
If, in September, the vote goes for a continuation of the union, it will be important not only that British Council Scotland shows that it represents culture in Scotland as well as in the whole of the UK, but that British Council Wales and British Council Northern Ireland and the regions of England also do the same. You need a British Council which is truly British, and not just part of an organisation.
Finally—if I am not going too far—on money from teaching English, it is sometimes said that the triennial review may say that the British Council’s role in teaching English should be reduced. I hope that the Minister may be able to assure us that that will not be the case. Of course there should be competition in teaching, but earning that amount of money is one of the things that enables that great organisation to do so much else as well.
Lord Cromwell (CB):
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Alton, as many have before me, for securing this debate. I will say a few words about the World Service.
Some years ago, I was in western Sudan on a motorcycle and needed to stop for the night at a village. I did so and, during the evening, the local policeman brought out into the street a radio on a table, around which the villagers gathered and listened to the news from London, as they clearly did every night. The policeman turned to me and commented, “The BBC. Now we know what’s really going on”. That story has always remained with me and I know that many of us in this House have other versions—from Timbuktu to Kathmandu.
There has also been reference to the World Service’s actions in Russia. I should alert your Lordships to some inaccuracy abroad. I was taken to a school in the far north of Russia. On my arrival, two small boys were heard to discuss my appearance. One said to the other, “A Lord, and still alive!”, to which the other shook his head disapprovingly, and said, “Yes, but without his dinner jacket”.
The World Service, as a source of balanced and accurate international coverage has earned an audience of many millions around the world. Whatever our definition of British values, it is clear that some states, now in the ascendant, do not share them and are spending heavily on their own version of soft power activities. If we believe in sharing our core values, we need more than ever to ensure that we are heard alongside and above those voices, not only those of states but also those of organisations. The World Service is such a powerful instrument of soft power quite simply because it is seen to be independent. It stands apart from the organs of the state; it projects a way of living and thinking, rather than current political policies, and it is famous for consistently telling the truth. That is the World Service brand.
That is also why successive financial cuts to the World Service over recent years have been so worrying. Time does not permit detailing them here, and others have touched on them. There have been expansions in other areas to set against this—the Persian and Arabic World Service TV audiences, for example; these now number some 50 million viewers. That growth in audience numbers, in a younger audience and with the wider range of media now deployed, suggests that the World Service is thriving. I celebrate that, as I am sure we all do.
I have two concerns. In seeking to be popular, the World Service must not become populist. In seeking to be contemporary, it should not become simply commercial entertainment. This is something which others have touched on, and I believe that there will be increasing pressure for it to do so.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, what hard evidence is there that moving on to the BBC licence fee has created a more stable basis for the World Service to plan ahead, or is it still beset by uncertainty? Secondly, does she agree that the World Service should grow and be at the heart of BBC strategic decision-making processes, and is that reflected in sufficient representation at board level? Thirdly, if the World Service budget does come under pressure, will the Government step in to assist, or will they simply declare it to be out of their hands?
As an outward-looking nation, the continued success of the World Service is vital to our future. It needs to grow in coverage, not to cut corners. That needs more resources year on year, not less.
Lord Bach (Lab):
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak for the Opposition in this excellent debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing it, and all other speakers who have added to it immensely with their wide expertise.
Before beginning my remarks, I have to declare an interest—which has already been declared for me—as chairman of the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group. The make-up of its officers is truly all-party. The secretary is a Conservative Member of Parliament and its treasurer is a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. As the House has heard, two of its vice-chairs are the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, from the Cross Benches, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, at whose feet I often sit to learn about foreign affairs and particularly about the British Council. I suppose that I should also declare an interest as a British Council child—my father was a senior British Council officer for many years.
I believe that both the institutions we are discussing are profoundly important to Britain’s place in the world. I call them institutions, as we have during the course of this debate, as a mark of respect. They have both earned that title over time. We have heard many examples of the good that they do in today’s world. They are something of which this country can be proud—not only in the field of soft power but because they are a significant part of modern Britain itself. We would be a much less civilised country without them. Each faces challenges of its own and I shall try to deal with some of these. However, if there is one overriding danger that both face, it is the danger of short-termism. That was exactly the point that the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, made a few minutes ago. By that, I mean the tendency of Governments—Governments of all complexions—not to think sufficiently of the long term.
In the British Academy paper The Art of Attraction, which some of us were sent for this debate, the authors make that point powerfully in relation to both the World Service and the British Council. In the summary, it says:
“Despite their relatively low cost to the public purse, higher education, cultural organisations, arts and museums, the BBC World Service, and other soft power assets have not been protected from financial cutbacks. Neither have the substantial advantages of proper investment in them been fully recognised. If governments are patient enough to wait for the long-term gains, they will reap more benefits than by striving too hard to deploy these potential assets or by running them down for the quick fix of improving a budget deficit”.
“Governments would be well-advised … To invest in and sustain soft power institutions such as the BBC, the British Council, and the education system over the long term, and at arm’s length”.
I accept that it is much easier to say all that than actually to do it, but I believe that it is an argument that demands very serious consideration.
There was a general feeling that the cuts made to the World Service and the British Council following the 2010 spending review were unfortunate, to say the least. My right honourable friend the shadow Foreign Secretary argued at the time that foreign policy should advance British values and British interests—which are almost exactly the same words as are used in this Motion. I am sure that the Government would agree with that statement. Of course the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could not be exempt from cuts, but was it wise to reduce expenditure on those two organisations, given their reach across the world and their significance to millions around our planet?
Here we are sometime later, and challenges still abound. However, there seems to be a consensus—certainly in this House, shared by the major political parties, but outside it too—that both these organisations are an essential part of the soft power agenda. This was recently reported on by the Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Howell.
The World Service reaches a huge proportion of people worldwide. Not surprisingly, it has been warmly praised in this debate, in the same way as it is praised outside Parliament too. The fact that so much jamming and blocking takes place is surely another huge compliment to this service. If its broadcasting did not have an effect, why would some Governments seek to prevent it? As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, stressed in his opening, we should be very concerned by increasing violence and intimidation against journalists the world over.
The move to licence fee funding is clearly a significant step, and it is good that the BBC has managed to put some—I think it would agree minor—new investment into the World Service. However, as has been said, the real test will come in a little while, when the charter is up for renewal. We will then be able to judge better what will happen in the future. Alternative sources of funding are of course a fact of life for the World Service; and I note the corporation’s belief that, at most, that could and should provide no more than 10% to 15% of World Service funding in the long term. The point has already been made about the new digital news stream in Thai and English. It is hard to overstate the crucial role that the World Service plays. Does the Minister agree that Her Majesty’s Government must do all in their power to ensure that such a crucial asset is not allowed to wither away?
The British Council has had to undergo huge changes in the past few years, too. A grant cut of 26%—down to £154 million in 2014-15—befell the British Council as a consequence of the spending review. On its own, that would have been near fatal. However, as we have heard, thanks to the leadership that the British Council has shown—great credit should be given to various previous chairmen of the trust, and in particular to the chief executive, Sir Martin Davidson—it has built up at least 75% of its income through fees and income from services and commercial activity. Frankly, that mixed economy of mixed funding has allowed the British Council to continue its vital work in nearly 150 countries and territories.
I shall conclude with a couple of points. First, these days the British Council plays a significant role in areas of the world where enormous changes take place every day. It is in the front line in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. It represents British interests and does good in very difficult circumstances, from Syrian refugee camps to Ukraine. That demands special qualities from its staff, not least courage, whether they are local or British. The British Council libraries have of course been a council tradition for very many years, and around the world, many of them have been modernised. The old saying is apparently still true—that in various countries the protesters protest in the streets during the day, but in the evening they sit in the British Council library and talk. That is a reputation that the British Council should be proud of. The council has been very quick to respond to changes taking place in the world. Just look at its current work in countries such as Burma—where it has worked closely and very successfully with the FA Premier League—Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and, as we have heard, Sudan.
Secondly, about two years ago I instigated a debate on the British Council in your Lordships’ House. One message that came across from around the House, and it is even more relevant today, is that the council must remain a public service organisation. That allows it to have the influence that it has. There was much concern that the balance between public funding and commercial income should not go too far in the latter direction. If the council should ever be considered primarily as a commercial organisation, its influence would gradually disappear. Any Government must constantly be alive to that danger. We await the outcome of the triennial review. Can the Minister tell us when we can expect it? This has been an excellent debate and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Con):
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this debate. I also thank all noble Lords for a wide-ranging debate with incredibly thoughtful contributions.
As this House is aware, the Government are a strong supporter of both the BBC World Service and the British Council. Both organisations are hugely valued—and valuable—soft power assets for the United Kingdom. They are both, rightly, known and respected around the world for working hard to promote and model—dare I say, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Watson—the UK’s values of fairness, dignity, liberty and justice. I have just given the noble Lord another list. However, I take his point on the difficulty of a full and final agreed list of definitions of British values. Quite rightly, today there has been much praise and support for both organisations. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and other noble Lords, that when the Government faced very difficult financial decisions to reduce the deficit, these organisations could not be exempt.
The BBC World Service has—as this House knows, and as we have heard from the noble Viscount, Lord Colville—a global reach. It provides audiences across the world with free, fair, impartial and informed national and international news, and its global mission and reach is even more important in these troubled times. It helps to protect the most basic of human rights—the right to freedom of opinion and expression—allowing people to receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers. Although the World Service is no longer funded by the FCO, we remain fully committed to supporting its work and global role. We continue to work with the World Service in support of our mutual objectives.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, asked specifically about funding. The BBC funding of the World Service for 2014-15 is £245 million—£6 million more than the final year of FCO funding. That includes £8 million of new investment in digital and multiplatform use programming. No announcement at this stage has been made on the funding for 2015-16. However, the BBC has publicly committed to maintaining at least the £245 million for the 2014-15 financial year, until the charter review.
The Foreign Secretary’s responsibilities have not changed. He will continue to agree with the BBC Trust the objectives, targets and priorities of the World Service, and the languages in which it is provided, and will continue to meet the chair of the BBC Trust annually to discuss performance and achievements.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, and a number of other noble Lords referred to the Thai language service. The Foreign Secretary was of course pleased to approve the BBC’s approval of the establishment of a digital Thai language service. Mr Swire, the Minister for South East Asia, said that that was an “excellent idea” which would,
“help support the freedoms of expression and thought which are such critical parts of any successful democracy”,
and that the initiative,
“embodies what the BBC is all about”.
As my noble friend Lady Berridge said, it was a timely and much-needed move.
My noble friend Lord Loomba spoke about the BBC World Service India service. The BBC World Service carries out an extensive range of surveys in all its 27 foreign language services, which is included in its shaping of its service offering. Within that there is a survey of the specific language service that the noble Lord spoke about. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, spoke about specific programmes in Afghanistan. While I cannot speak about the programming decisions or schedule of the BBC World Service regarding Afghanistan, I assure him of our ongoing commitment to democracy, freedom of expression and women’s rights. Indeed, DfID’s commitment to those very specific issues will form the backdrop of any support and funding.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Jay, my noble friend Lady Berridge and other noble Lords, spoke about the possibility of a BBC World Service presence in North Korea. We agree that there is a pressing need for a free, fair and impartial news service in the DPRK. Unfortunately, actions taken by the DPRK authorities severely limit the ability of North Koreans to listen to the cross-border broadcasts currently provided by a number of organisations.
I know that noble Lords have heard me talk about this from the Dispatch Box on a number of occasions; I am not sure that the same response will give much comfort, but I will give it anyway. In late 2013, following a review and having considered all the options, the BBC World Service board concluded that it was not currently possible to offer a meaningful, impactful and cost-effective Korean language service. However, the BBC World Service has said that it is keeping the situation under review. However, I can assure noble Lords that, through our embassy in Pyongyang, the UK is one of the few countries able to engage directly with the North Koreans, complementing the efforts of others such as the United States who support broadcasts into North Korea.
My noble friend Lady Berridge spoke about a service to the whole of the Korean peninsula. I understand that the BBC has considered extending a service to the whole Korean peninsula as an option, but it concluded that that would be complicated from an editorial point of view. Due to the different markets, technological development and audience needs, a single editorial proposition serving such a wide population was not felt to be the most appropriate way forward. I also understand that the FM spectrum in South Korea is now full, and that permission for any further foreign news on a BBC FM frequency would not now be possible there.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked about languages generally. The BBC World Service is operationally, editorially and managerially independent. Decisions on the establishment of any language service are for the World Service to consider and, if appropriate, are then proposed to the Foreign Secretary to consider. The kinds of factors that are taken into account include feasibility, reach, impact and cost effectiveness. I will certainly pass specific comments on a coherent, cross-government language strategy to the Department for Education.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about coverage in eastern Europe. I can inform him that the BBC’s audience in Ukraine has trebled in recent times and now numbers about 600,000. The BBC’s Ukrainian and Russian services have been crucial to the BBC’s coverage of the current situation there, working with correspondents in country and with BBC news gathering to provide domestic and global news.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport will continue to have responsibility for the licence fee settlement and charter review. The FCO will provide policy advice and support to the DCMS as appropriate. The long-term future of the BBC and the BBC World Service will be addressed in the next charter review—my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter, and the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Alton, asked about that. As noble Lords are aware, the current BBC charter ends on 31 December 2016. The Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport can start the review process and begin considering options at any point before the charter expires.
The noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, asked some specific questions; I hope that the following will address them. The BBC Trust has responsibility for governing the World Service and does this in the same way that it approaches governance of the BBC’s other UK public services. If the budget is changed by more than 10%, the BBC board must seek the approval of the BBC Trust. As I have said, the Foreign Secretary’s responsibility for agreeing the objectives, priorities and targets for the World Service have not changed. As he made clear when he gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee on 12 March this year, he will continue to hold the BBC’s feet to the fire in protecting the interests of the World Service. FCO and World Service officials are continuing to work together on existing and new areas of collaboration.
I turn now to the British Council. The Government recognise the concern over cuts to FCO grant-in-aid funding for the British Council, which is why we did not pass on previous reductions in the FCO budget until the year 2013-14. However, the council, like all FCO-funded organisations, has had to bear a share of cuts to departmental spending. Let me assure this House that the Government are committed to supporting the work of the council through grant-in-aid funding, for example by increasing funding for the important overseas development assistance work it does. The £0.5 million cut to the council’s budget for 2014-15 was mitigated by an increase to funding for overseas development assistance activities. Additional ODA funding of £10 million in 2015-16 will mean that the overall grant-in-aid funding to the British Council for 2015-16 will increase by £2.1 million. The council will also receive additional funding of £1 million from the Cabinet Office for its GREAT campaign activities.
The British Council’s work reaches people in more than 100 countries. It plays an invaluable role in promoting British values and interests overseas. It supports and promotes the UK’s world-leading higher education system. It celebrates, teaches and expands the use and benefits of the English language. It shares with people across the globe the UK’s values, arts and culture.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, asked about funding for the following year. We expect the 2015-16 additional ODA funding of £10 million will mean that the overall grant-in-aid funding to the British Council for 2015-16 will increase by £2.1 million overall from the 2013-14 budget.
As I informed the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in answer to a Question on 7 July—or perhaps a letter—details on the triennial review of the British Council are being finalised and the report and recommendations are with Ministers for approval. We hope to lay that report before the House rises for the Summer Recess. I will ensure that the views of the noble Lord, and the specific suggestions of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, my noble friend Lady Hooper and the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, are taken into account as those reports are considered. The Foreign Office and the British Council have worked closely throughout the review process. At this stage it would be inappropriate to say much more.
My noble friend Lady Hooper asked about the specific contact the British Council has with UK cities and its co-ordination with universities. This is currently being discussed by the British Council’s board of trustees as part of its overall engagement strategy in the UK. I await any further recommendations or information that may come from that.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, spoke about the British Council and the Commonwealth Games. We of course support the British Council’s programme of cultural and educational projects during the Commonwealth Games, some of which were referred to by the noble Lord. Through them, we aim to make international connections between Scotland, the wider UK and the Commonwealth. This includes initiatives such as Commonwealth Class, a joint initiative from the BBC, the British Council and the Commonwealth Secretariat that offers free access to teaching resources, classroom activities, online debates and competitions to mark the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. It is a dynamic and engaging resource that will introduce pupils to Commonwealth values, as set out in the Commonwealth charter.
I ask the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, to bear with me in the use of the words “soft power”. I hope I can give him some examples. I refer first to the GREAT Britain campaign, which promotes British excellence around the world, with ambitious targets to increase trade and investment, tourism and study in the UK. The campaign is active in more than 144 countries; it has secured an economic return of more than £500 million from its first year of activities; and it is expected to deliver a further £600 million to £800 million from the 2013-14 funding. More than 1,000 inward-investment leads have been generated from that campaign. It is another example of soft power.
I will also refer briefly to the Chevening scholarships. Only yesterday my right honourable friend the Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire welcomed around 600 current and former Chevening scholars to Chevening House to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chevening scholarship programme. He briefly discussed with me the people who were attending. The list was incredible: Foreign Ministers, Finance Ministers, vice-presidents and high-level scholars from 144 countries and territories around the world. There are now 43,000 alumni who are long-term friends of Britain in influential positions in government, business and civil society, who help us to achieve our mutual international objectives and promote our excellent universities and higher education around the world. In 2015 we will triple the Chevening scholarship programme, so that many more scholars can study in the UK. That will be another important aspect of our soft power.
I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and his colleagues for the work they did on the report of the Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence. As the Government said in response to that report, the UK is most effective as a global actor when it draws together all its instruments of national and international power: political, economic, military and the soft power that I referred to.
The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, asked about diversity as a form of soft power. I refer to it within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as “Heineken diplomacy”, because diversity allows us to reach those parts of diplomacy that we would not otherwise be able to reach. I could give noble Lords numerous personal examples in relation to the foreign policy work that I have been involved in. I think it is right that we also use that diversity domestically, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, in relation to, for example, the work that he does. I will certainly make sure that his organisation is brought to the attention of the India desk in light of the recent announcements.
I hope that I have covered both the British Council and the BBC World Service in some detail but also given a slightly wider perspective of how they fit into what I think is our much broader and wider soft power influence. I reiterate the Government’s commitment to the global work of the BBC World Service and the British Council—both of which, as we heard today, are widely accepted as important partners and assets in the UK’s approach internationally.
Finally, I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this important debate.
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for the way in which she has responded to what has been an amazingly rich and incredibly well informed debate. All the speeches in your Lordships’ House today have come from either personal or professional experience. The number of people who said that they had heard the World Service in remote parts of the world was striking. We travelled from the remote parts of the Borneo borders to the Arctic Circle, and we were also in Tehran, Beijing, Afghanistan, North Korea, Egypt, Russia, Juba and even at one point Glasgow. We have travelled widely.
We also heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, along with my noble friend Lady Prashar, their first-hand experiences of either being trustees or working today in the British Council or, in the case of my noble friend Lord Williams, of being a trustee of the BBC World Service. They gave professional and intimate accounts. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, described himself as a child of the British Council, his father having worked for it. I can only say that if that is his parentage then the British Council has a great deal to be proud of, as we do in this House, because he is a pretty good advertisement for it.
We also heard about the importance of the foreign languages that can be promoted via the British Council and the BBC World Service, and our Commonwealth links. Regarding soft power versus propaganda, the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, made an important point about moral authority. We talked about accountability and the question of values. I think it was Gertrude Himmelfarb who said that sometimes “values” is rather a weak word in comparison with “virtues”. However, I think that perhaps we are also rather modest in this country and do not like to talk about any of our institutions in immodest terms. The British Council and World Service were described by my noble friend Lord Williams as “two renowned and much loved” institutions. We do not often like to talk of them in quite that way, but we have nothing to be ashamed of. These are two wonderful institutions that reach vast numbers of people all over the world.
It was the Prime Minister, describing values, who said that British values are,
“a belief in freedom, tolerance of others”—
“tolerance” was a word that my noble friend Lord Jay returned to—
“accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law”.
That is a pretty good starting point. We may have others that we want to add to the list, and we may have concerns, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, described, but at least today’s debate has given us a framework.
As we proceed to the triennial review of the British Council and think about the future funding of the BBC World Service, the Government will be in no doubt as a result of today’s debate that your Lordships in all parts of this House—even though the debate was initiated from the Cross-Benches, there have been valuable contributions from all parts of the Chamber—will be watching not just with apprehension and concern but in the great hope that the Government will continue to support both the World Service and the British Council. With those remarks, I conclude the debate.
UK Parliament told that the CCP needs to understand that the courageous dignity of Hong Kong’s people has united East and West, young and old, and parliamentarians from all political traditions.
April 14th 2021 - UK Parliament told that the...