Debate on World Service
Thursday 1 December 2022
Lord Alton of Liverpool to move that this House takes note of the importance of the BBC World Service and the impact of cuts to its services. (Crossbench debate)
Throughout the autumn of 2022 the BBC has been celebrating its 100-year anniversary.
But drastic cuts to the BBC World Service – and a loss of 382 jobs and the loss of radio services – have dampened the celebrations and left many dismayed and angry.
I am grateful to my Crossbench colleagues for choosing this Motion, to all noble lords who will speak, to the Minister who will reply, and to the Library for their background note. We especially look forward to the Maiden Speech of my noble friend, Lord Hampton.
When the BBC World Service started life in 1932, as the BBC Empire Service, Sir John Reith—later Lord Reith—played down expectations:
“don’t expect too much in the early days … The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good”.
Seven years later, in the context of a World War, any doubts had been dispelled and I wonder what Lord Reith would have made of BBC World Service audiences in 2022 of 365 million people—up 13 million people on the previous year – and news in over 40 languages.
He would certainly have approved of Allan Little’s story of how in Paris, an elderly Jewish man had agreed to give him an interview because, as a boy in hiding in wartime Poland, the BBC was the only way he kept hope alive.
Penelope Fitzgerald, who worked for the BBC during the Second World War, wrote a funny and touching novel “Human Voices”, set in the broadcasting studios during the London Blitz. It captured the spirit of wartime BBC in what was described as “a tribute to the unsung and quintessentially English heroism of imperfect people”.
Fitzgerald herself said that “Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.”
Trust and truth: so true today in the era of fake news and Putin’s propaganda.
Whether in struggles between democracy and dictatorship – as in Ukraine, Iran, North Korea, Burma or China today – or during the dark days of Nazi occupied Europe, the BBC World Service has always been trusted to provide dispassionate fact-based reporting and truthful reporting.
Even the late Mikael Gorbachev once said that he had relied on the BBC to learn what was really going on in the world.
I once met a young Ukrainian woman who told me that the proudest moment of her life was when she told her parents that she was going to work for the BBC World Service.
They had listened to it clandestinely throughout the whole Soviet era.
Last May the Minister told me that 5 million Ukrainians were listening to the BBC via its digital platform and that 17 million Russians—triple the usual number— had listened to the BBC during the previous week. Perhaps we can be told what are the current audience estimates? And do we now regret ceasing our radio broadcasts to Russia a decade ago – a bonus for Putin’s State controlled media.
I co-chair the APPGs on Eritrea and North Korea.
Seven years ago, at the conclusion of a long campaign I was able to thank the FCO and BBC for agreeing to begin broadcasts to the Korean peninsula – in the North a UN report detailed ‘an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought’ and denial of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association.’
Breaking such information blockades and our commitment to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – upholding the right to unimpeded free access to information and news – are central to the ethos of BBC World.
Eight years ago the Crossbenches in a previous Crossbench debate I spoke about its role in promoting our belief in human rights, democracy and the rule of law – what Joseph Nye described as the exercise of soft power – or “smart power” as I prefer to call it.
That debate followed a House of Lords Select Committee Report which insisted that the World Service represented “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion” –essential to UK diplomacy and prosperity.
But the ability to do these things depends entirely upon resources and the Select Committee pleaded that the budget is “not reduced any further in real terms”.
You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
That central question of funding will dominate today’s debate, and I know that my noble friend Lord Hannay will also speak to this.
Traditionally the funding came from the Government and therefore from taxation –based on the ability to pay.
By comparison the licence fee is regressive and not determined by income.
In a battle for tight resources the World Service is bound to suffer if it must compete with Doctor Whoor Strictly Come Dancing –or even domestic news services.
And why should we expect a listener in Liverpool to pay via their licence fee for services they don’t understand in a language they don’t understand which the BBC broadcasts to the listener in Lahore?
Or a viewer in Braford for BBC services in Beijing? Or a pensioner in Yeovil for services to Yangon?
This should not come from the licence fee but be seen as legitimate public expenditure via taxation.
As Tim Davies said at Chatham House last week: “there is only so much we can ask the Licence Fee payer in Penrith to pay for the language services…This is a strategic decision for the UK”
In 2014, World Service budget, given as FCO Grant in Aid, was £245 million pounds.
If grant had continued and had matched inflation it would have led to an increase of £62.69million – or a total budget of £307.69m pounds in 2022.
The actual figure, now rendered from the licence fee, is £95.4 million.
That is a cut of £213million pounds.
How much clearer and better it would be if World Service was funded once again from the FCDO –as part of a ringfenced allocation within a restored ODA budget.
After I drew the Minister’sattention to a Report by the National Union of Journalists which highlighted the damage being done to World Service by the uncertainty of funding he said that
“ the value this Government place on the service that is being provided internationally is absolute and there is no question of it being cut back.”
In January Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon told me:
“We strongly value the work of the BBC World Service in promoting our values globally through its independent and impartial broadcasting” and that
“The FCDO is committed to providing grant-in-aid funding for the BBC World Service through to 2025.”
But, like the curate’s egg, that grant funding is only there in parts.
The BBC says grave and deep cuts of £285m a year, necessitated by the government freezing the licence fee for two years, is leading to hundreds of key posts closing.
And this is happening as dictators and autocrats are more than willing to fill the void as the free world retreats from the global dissemination of news – and at a moment when, in places like Ukraine, Iran and Taiwan the need for objective news has never been greater.
The numbers are stark: 225 in United Kingdom, 156 in bureaux, 381 total job cuts out of Global Languages, which could amount to a fifth of staff. Although no language services will close, the BBC says some TV and radio programmes will stop.
BBC Arabic radio and BBC Persian radio will cease – all aimed at saving £28.5 million – on which my noble friend Lady Cousins will enlarge.
And what of the Bengali service?
What of the 40% of the world – 2- 3 billion people – that still has no access to reliable of affordable internet access?
Places like Northern Nigeria which are a breeding ground for the likes of Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa – about which my noble friend, Lady Cox will speak. How will the cuts impact our reach throughout Africa?
What is the future of the radio transmitting station in Kranji, Singapore – which can reach four countries that represent half the world’s population – in India, China, Pakistan, and Indonesia? And also, the BBC’s broadcasts to the Korean peninsula – for which I campaigned- about which I have sent the Minister details.
Deep cuts to the World Service language services follows separate “savings” to be made from the closure of the domestic BBC News Channel and BBC World News, with a single BBC News channel. In London, there will be 70 fewer television journalists following and reporting on news – aimed at a global audience led by international stories but shown at times in the UK.
Like Dr Doolittle’s fictional “pushmi-pullyu”, the joint channel will be a two-headed news beast, neither one thing nor the other. Stories about domestic matters will be continually fighting against a global news agenda and bumping important issues around the world off air.
A Motion tabled in the Commons on October 26th– EDM 504 -draws attention to the cuts in services and jobs but also underlines the role of radio when “digital only services are lost owing to the blocking of internet access” and expresses concern about the impact of the closure of BBC Persian radio services and BBC Arabic radio – with 10 million listeners – while an uprising is taking place in Iran.
Let me spell it out.
For the past three months, BBC Persian service has played a key role in covering the women-led, widespread anti-regime protests across Iran, and the brutal, violent crackdown.
Heavy censorship limits local media but BBC Persian has an average weekly audience of 18.9m with radio reaching a weekly audience of 1.6m people and producing material for BBC Persian website and social media.
Closing the radio means that from midnight to 5pmthe next day, for 17 hours a day, BBC Persian has no scheduled live broadcast. That space may be filled by a Saudi-funded channel.
And closing it while the regime tries to block digital and online platforms, is extraordinarily short sighted – something about which Lord Collins will say more.
While dozens of Persian service journalists were spending day and nights informing people of the protests, the BBC announced its plans to cut BBC Persian radio, resulting in the loss of 9 journalist jobs. The saving is understood to be less than £1m p.a.
And the journalistic work has come at a huge personal cost for brave BBC Persian journalists, and their families back in Iran who have faced harassment and intimidation, interrogation, arrest, asset freezing, and despicable pressure to force journalists to leave the BBC.
They face a barrage of daily abuse and threats online, simply because they are doing their professional job as independent, impartial journalists.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry recently labelled BBC Persian terrorist, which could have even more catastrophic consequences for journalists’ families.
Cutting BBC Persian, at a time of widespread protests across Iran, will be celebrated by those who rule Iran.
I have been told about prisoners held in Middle Eastern prisons whose only contact with the outside world is this BBC radio service.
For millions of others, trapped in the “prisons” of autocratic regimes which prohibit impartial local media these services are hugely valued as a rare place to hear the truth rather than unremitting propaganda.
Radio still matters.
As the free world retreats, step up Putin’s RT and the CCP’s China media. Trusted sources of news? You must be joking. But it isn’t funny.
Hasn’t anyone noticed that in the face of genocide against Uyghur Muslims, exiled Tibetans, threatened Taiwanese, beleaguered Hong Kongers, and brave dissenting voices throughout China, retaining a strong BBC presence is crucially important?
Welcome though resources for a new China unit, with a team in London, will be it should be “as well as” not “instead of.”
BBC World has given people hope in times of oppression, despair, and crisis and despite many competitors, it is primus inter pares. It is our best-known cultural export; the most trusted news brand; crucial to diplomacy, culture, and commerce. I hope the message from today’s debate during these 100 years celebrations – will be to insist that the BBC’s global reach is enhanced and not savagely cut; that it remains first among equals; that we will not accept the emasculation and irreparable degradation of British influence
conclusion of debate:
My Lords, it is clear from the Minister’s speech that he passionately believes in the BBC World Service. I hope that he will take our rich debate today to his ministerial colleagues as they reflect on the gap between resources and the ability of the BBC World Service to fulfil its mandate, not least to the 40% of the world without digital access. It may well be true but, compared with the number who listen from digital platforms, which can so easily be closed by regimes such as that in Iran, there are still 1.6 million people who listen by radio to the BBC Persian service.
I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Hampton on his maiden speech. I knew his late father; we became firm friends when he was a spokesman on Northern Irish issues and I was a spokesman on Northern Irish issues in another place. At the age of 18, his son invited me to speak at his school about the importance of getting involved in politics. I am very glad that I did not entirely put him off. It was wonderful to hear him today.
The noble Baroness, Lady Browning, said that we must look at this with fresh eyes, particularly the funding model. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said that the World Service is our greatest gift from Britain to the world. It should be a gift that goes on giving. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that “London calling” still means so much around the world. My noble friend Lady Coussins emphasised the importance of the BBC World Service in moments of jeopardy. It should not be a binary choice between radio and digital. “A voice for the voiceless,” said the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, said that once it is closed, it cannot easily be restored. The Minister referred to my noble friend Lady D’Souza saying that it is the jewel in our crown.
The noble Lord, Lord McInnes, said that our new Prime Minister should engage with the future of the World Service. Given the noble Lord’s previous role in Downing Street, I hope that he will draw Downing Street’s attention to our debate today. My noble friend Lord Hannay said that it is time for doubling down, not for cutting back. The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, said that it is crucial to our soft power, and for bettering understanding around the world. My noble friend Lord Hastings said that 40% of the world does not have access to digital services. He particularly talked about his own experiences in Nigeria.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, talked about the crucial importance of foreign language services, while my noble friend Lord Bilimoria said that “BBC” actually stands for “best broadcasting corporation”. He is right that it is a world leader and trusted, and that we should not be penny wise and pound foolish. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, said that the BBC World Service has a crucial role in promoting human rights and media freedom, and that we should not evaluate everything only by its cost but also by its value. My noble friend Lady Cox, with whom I travelled on three occasions to North Korea, and who has herself travelled regularly to places such as Burma and Nigeria, said that we must ensure that we do not block information to places and societies that are closed in such ways. She appealed for more, not less, reporting in places such as Nigeria and Armenia.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, was right: he took part in the last debate that the Cross Benches initiated on this and said that it would not be the last. He underlined the need to return to a traditional funding model. That was emphasised again and again throughout the debate, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, from the Opposition Front Bench. He said that we must be proud of the BBC World Service and that we should revisit this question, looking at updating the integrated review and reassessing the pattern of changing needs.
Just before this debate, we heard how a BBC journalist in China, Edward Lawrence, had been assaulted and arrested. On being freed, he has bravely returned to his work. For me, his story represents what today’s debate is all about. It underlines the importance of what the BBC World Service does, and your Lordships’ House must go on, as it has today from across the political divide, emphasising its importance and fighting for its future over the next 100 years.