Orders of the Day — Broadcasting, Far East (Agreement)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th January 1949.

Alert me about debates like this

5.4 p.m.

Photo of Mr Charles Hobson Mr Charles Hobson , Wembley North

I beg to move, That the Agreement, dated 7th December, 1948, between His Majesty's Postmaster-General and the British Broadcasting Corporation, a copy of which was presented on 8th December, be approved. This Agreement provides for the British Broadcasting Corporation to construct a powerful broadcasting station on a site in Malaya and to send broadcast programmes from it when it is ready. The site of the station is at Tebrau, in the State of Johore.

Since last August, the Corporation has, under a temporary agreement, been sending out programmes from an existing station of lower power in Singapore. This station was previously operated by the Foreign Office. The Agreement now before the House provides for the working of the low power station by the B.B.C. to continue until the new high power station is ready. The new station is expected to cover a much wider area and to make B.B.C. overseas programmes available to millions more listeners in Far Eastern countries than is now possible either by direct broadcasting from this country or by means of the low power station now in use at Singapore.

The establishment of a broadcasting station overseas is a new departure for the B.B.C., although such a development was foreshadowed by the Royal Charter—Command Paper No. 6974—granted as from 1st January, 1947. No change is involved in Government policy towards the B.B.C., and what is in prospect is merely a means of increasing very considerably the effectiveness of reception of B.B.C. overseas programmes in their present form in the Far East.

The objects of the Agreement I am asking the House to approve are to provide for the construction of a permanent station and to apply to the service to be conducted by the B.B.C. the provisions applicable to the B.B.C. Overseas Services operated from this country. These provisions appear in the B.B.C. Licence and Agreement dated 29th November, 1946—(Comd. Paper No. 6975)—which was approved by the House on 11th December, 1946. The Licence and Agreement related only to stations in the British Isles and it is for this reason that a new Agreement is now necessary.

Hon. Members will perhaps recall that the B.B.C's. Licence and Agreement required the approval of the House. Standing Orders of this House Nos. 71 and 72 provide that all contracts for the purpose of telegraphic communication beyond the seas, extending over a period of years and creating a public charge, must be approved by a resolution of the House. The Agreement now before the House comes within the scope of the same Standing Orders, it being intended that the cost of the undertaking should be charged against the yearly grant-in-aid for the B.B.C. Overseas Services. I therefore ask the House to approve the Motion.

5.9 p.m.

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

This proposal envisages, I believe for the first time, the operation of broadcasting by the B.B.C. outside the United Kingdom. It is a little unusual, indeed it is almost unique. for us to be able to congratulate His Majesty's Government on what does appear to be a singularly sensible venture. Let us hope that this will be followed up by starting direct telephone communication with Singapore and Malaya. Incredible as it may seem, it is impossible, I believe, at present, for anybody in London to telephone to Singapore or anywhere in Malaya. Undoubtedly we suffer from inadequate broadcasting facilities in the Far East. There is very little relaying of British programmes in Burma, or in other parts of the Far East and in Malaya in particular where at present such relaying would be of very great value.

There are one or two points about the Agreement upon which we should like further information. Obviously, it is the general practice that transmitting stations, and studios and receiving stations should be some distance apart, but it would appear to raise considerable defence difficulties to have the transmitting station 20 miles away on the mainland in the State of Johore and the receiving station and studios on Singapore Island. We are near enough to the difficulties which overwhelmed us in this part of the world during the war to realise the very considerable local defence problems involved. Past actions of His Majesty's Government have not led us to believe that there is very brilliant co-ordination between different parts of the Administration. I hope that the Ministry of Defence was consulted before this particular location was decided upon. An assurance to that effect from the hon. Gentleman would be very welcome.

It is not so much the setting up of a broadcasting station that is of paramount importance or that matters for our future influence in the world, but what is broadcast when the station is set up. I hope that local people, with local knowledge of what the people in the Far East are anxious to hear, will be given the task of devising the programmes and arranging for their transmission; that we shall not have too great an attempt to uplift people quickly or too many educational talks; that we shall remember the problems of reception and the type of people we are trying to reach, and that we shall, in the first stage at any rate, concentrate more on the entertainment side of our broadcasts, never overlooking the fundamental need throughout to try to put the British case, which we believe to be unanswerable, to the peoples of the Far East.

I have taken the trouble to read some of the more recent broadcasts from London to this part of the world. Presumably the proposed new station is to replace this existing service At a time when there is a breakdown of authority in many parts of the Far East it is somewhat odd that recently we should have broadcast about the occasions when British trade unions had been in conflict with the law, or that a few days ago no less than two pages of script should have been broadcast in the Far Eastern programme describing in detail the unofficial London bus strike. That was scarcely a good illustration of how we manage our industrial affairs.

Photo of Mr Harry Randall Mr Harry Randall , Clitheroe

But we do not want suppression of news.

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

Of course not, but where we are picking and choosing things that will give a fair impression of Britain as a country that is gradually recovering its position in the world, it is a little strange to devote so much time to something which the official unions themselves regarded as an improper strike and which was certainly rather a humiliating incident in our post-war industrial life.

Above all, I hope that we shall make plain our position about Communism and use the machinery of the new broadcasting facilities to make our views known to the very many millions of friends or loyal fellow-subjects in Far Eastern countries. In particular, this broadcasting station will reach the people of Indonesia. We cannot shut our eyes to the realities of the situation there. In another place, these words were uttered: The action of the Dutch in Indonesia is fundamentally right. I cannot understand the British Government condemning the Dutch action as too severe——

Photo of Mr Francis Bowles Mr Francis Bowles , Nuneaton

The hon. Gentleman must not go too wide in what he is saying. It seems to me that he is going rather wide now.

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

With due respect, I was quoting something that I suggest should be broadcast, and I shall explain the implication of my quotation: I cannot understand the British Government condemning the Dutch action as too severe. Is it not time to ask where the Foreign Office is leading us? Those are not my words, but those of a recently ennobled Peer Lord Milverton, when talking about Indonesia.

Photo of Mr Francis Bowles Mr Francis Bowles , Nuneaton

The hon. Gentleman is really going far too wide. I must ask him to confine himself much more to the terms of this Agreement.

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

I conclude by saying it is essential that we should not stand, as the noble Lord said we were now doing, in palsied indecision. We should let the people of the Far East know where we stand.

Following on that quotation I take it that I should be in Order——

Photo of Mr Francis Bowles Mr Francis Bowles , Nuneaton

The hon. Gentleman is out of Order in quoting from a speech in another place made in this Session. He cannot, therefore, go on doing that.

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

I was going to remind those hon. Members who listen to the Far East broadcasts, of certain recent broadcasts—I think that this will be in Order—to the peoples for whom the new station will cater. I quoted the remarks of the noble Lord only to indicate the puzzlement and wonder that must be in the minds of the people who listen to our broadcasts. They do not know exactly where we stand on the issue that to them matters more than anything else. On 15th January we broadcast to the Far East that the Trades Union Congress was trying to eradicate Communism, and had declared war on it. That was in the Far Eastern programme, which these new proposals will partially replace. Two days later—three days ago—on 17th January, in the Chinese news bulletin, we broadcast an account from what was called "The Socialist 'New Statesman and Nation's' article, and their eulogistic tributes to the Communist leader in China, Mao Tse-Tung," even quoting in this British broadcast that: Mao and his party will bring a new spirit of creative energy into Chinese life. The revolution which began in 1911 enters on its second phase in 1949. Thousands of listeners in the Far East must wonder where we stand on this vital issue, and how we can try to build up Western Union's resistance to Communism and at the same time undermine Western European States' resistance to Communism in the Far East.

Photo of Mr Charles Hale Mr Charles Hale , Oldham

Would the hon. Gentleman go one step further and give us a list of the papers which he suggests should be, and those which he suggests should not be, quoted in disseminating news?

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

Certainly not. If we are to use this broadcasting service properly and give the Government the power, particularly that in Clause 4 (2), for which it is asking to control programmes and policies, we ought to try to make up our minds on what is the attitude of the Government to Communist infiltration in the Far East; and, having made up our minds on that attitude, to see that by using Clause 4 (2) that attitude, and that attitude alone, is conveyed as official policy to the peoples of the Far East.

Photo of Mr Arthur Skeffington Mr Arthur Skeffington , Lewisham West

Is it not a fact that the quotation the hon. Gentleman has given was only one of a series of quotations which were given to illustrate opinion from a variety of sources in Great Britain?

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

It was the only paper quoted as being a Socialist journal in that particular broadcast. The announcer made it clear that it was a Socialist paper. Listeners in the Far East, therefore, had quotations only from that paper from the Socialist benches, and could be forgiven if they thought that those views represented Socialist policy. They know that we have a Socialist Government and it was not asking very much of them to assume that it was official Government policy.

In fairness to the recent broadcasting services, I am glad to say that prominence has been given over the Far East network to the speech made by Mr. Malcolm MacDonald, who was quoted two days ago in the Cantonese news bulletin and represents more adequately and accurately what our people as a whole feel about what is happening in South East Asia than some of the things to which prominence has also been given. As he said, speaking of Malaya, the British are working towards a government of the people of Malaya, by the people of Malaya and for the people of Malaya, but the Communists are working for a government of the people of Malaya by Chinese thugs, for Russian commissars. I am delighted that those robust words were quoted in the Cantonese news bulletin. I wish success to this new venture and hope that no weakness, muddle or indecision on the part of H.M. Ministers here will add to difficulties there, and we wish all whose Empire service lies in this field every possible success.

5.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Charles Hale Mr Charles Hale , Oldham

I wish to correct the misapprehension which might go forward that His Majesty's Government have reserved the right to be consulted about matter to be broadcast. They have the right to be consulted about the times and the languages—in other words about the ambit and the kind of broadcasting to be done but no right to be consulted about what is put over in the broadcast. That remains the responsibility of the Corporation.

I rise to put one point only, which seems to be a point of substance. The erection and development of this broadcasting station is welcomed all over the House. It is to disseminate news, information and views of the British way of life in a world which is now becoming a modern Tower of Babel by the use of mechanical means. It is also to be used to some extent to give a political viewpoint, not a party viewpoint, but a political approach, on matters of foreign affairs which clearly are of concern in the Far East. I wish to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General what consultations there were with the Australian Government before this agreement was entered into.

Photo of Mr Charles Hobson Mr Charles Hobson , Wembley North

The responsibilities of my right hon. Friend under the terms of the Charter include the responsibility of administering the Vote. Questions of policy come under the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Commonwealth Relations.

Photo of Mr Charles Hale Mr Charles Hale , Oldham

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend. We are glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in his place and he can intervene if he wishes to do so. I am not asking this as a point of criticism, but I think it an important point. Australia's interest in this matter is as great as ours and the Empire and Commonwealth as envisaged in the speeches of hon. Members opposite has ceased to exist. There is a Socialist Government in Australia sharing our common approach and I hope the Under-Secretary will forgive me for saying that in matters where there is some little difference of opinion they are usually more progressive than we are, or they arrive at the right conclusion a few days before we do. But in general there is complete unity of approach and complete unity of view and it seems to me that Australia's concern in the islands to the north and north-west is of fundamental importance.

If the Commonwealth approach has been neglected in this matter, I suggest that we should communicate with the Prime Minister of Australia, or the appropriate officials, because, although they have commercial broadcasting in Australia, in addition to A.B.C. they have Government control over the allocation and erection of stations and have a considerable say in the matter and if they like to take a share in the administration and responsibility they should do so. We have recognised the principle of condominium in the Pacific and I do not see why we should not do so over the air. That would be a substantial contribution to Commonwealth understanding. It could not possibly do any harm, but could quite conceivably do a world of good.

5.25 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Brown Mr William Brown , Rugby

I am heartily in favour of the idea of establishing adequate and sufficiently powerful overseas broadcasting Stations, but I am bound to ask why the Government should choose Singapore. Why do they choose Malaya? I should have thought there were a good many places in the Far East less liable to danger, internally and externally, in the years to come than Malaya. We all know what has happened in China during the last few weeks and the effect of what has happened there is to bring Burma, Malaya and Indo-China right into the front line of Communist attack. There may be very adequate technical answers to the point, but I should have supposed that Australia would be a better location, or, possibly, Ceylon. There may be technical reasons why it is not possible to choose those countries, but I should like to hear something from the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to explain why this should be done in Malaya. I think it immensely important because we may find we have built a magnificent radio station only that it should fall into Russian-dominated hands at a later date. Therefore, the case for the choice of Singapore ought to be made in this House.

I do not envy those who are to have charge of this job of choosing matter which may be suitable for one country but not for another. I think it would be beyond the wit of man to devise a programme common to all those countries which is not liable to criticism in respect of some. Any subsequent speaker would have no difficulty in digging out a dozen broadcasts on which he could make some point of criticism. I share the hope that this station, when built in Singapore, or wherever it is to be, will be used to propagate the British way of life and I hope we shall not carry our sense of British fair play to the point of folly in dealing with Communist propaganda. One of the tragedies of this world is that it is not the bad men who are helping Communism very often, but the good men, the men who are so fair that they give Communists an advantage of which Communists make ruthless use. I hope the news bulletins will be vigorous and strong and that we shall recognise Communism to be what it is—the enemy of us all—and that this station will be an instrument for combating it in the Far East. I hope we shall have the case made out for the selection of Singapore and Malaya as the site for this station.

5.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr Christopher Mayhew Mr Christopher Mayhew , Norfolk Southern

I shall do my best to answer some of the questions, even at so short notice. I was very glad to hear that in principle this decision of the Government and this Agreement is approved by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) on behalf of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown)——

Photo of Mr William Brown Mr William Brown , Rugby

On behalf of my party.

Photo of Mr Christopher Mayhew Mr Christopher Mayhew , Norfolk Southern

—on behalf of his party. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedford was corrected on an important point by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale), namely, in his reference to the use of the Government's powers in relation to the output of the B.B.C. In fact we have not taken the powers suggested by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford and I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that it would be wrong for the Government to take those powers.

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

I was not going beyond what is in the Order, or trying to give a false impression. If I did so, inadvertently, I am sorry. The Agreement says in 4 (2) and 4 (3): The Corporation shall consult and collaborate with the Departments so specified and shall obtain and accept from them such information regarding conditions in and policies of His Majesty's Government towards the countries so prescribed and other countries as will enable the Corporation to plan and prepare the broadcast programmes in the national interests. I did not wish to give an impression that they went further than that. The Government cannot dissociate themselves from providing background information which a broadcasting station may or may not use as it thinks fit.

Photo of Mr Christopher Mayhew Mr Christopher Mayhew , Norfolk Southern

That gives a better picture of the position.

The second question which the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford asked was about consolation with the Ministry of Defence. I can give him the assurance for which he asks. There was consultation. We have had great difficulty in choosing the site for this broadcasting station, not merely the strategical site, to which the hon. Member for Rugby referred, but the tactical site, so to speak, in the terms mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford. We had the greatest difficulty in finding the site and it was largely for technical reasons that we have chosen the site which has been decided upon. I will not go into those technical reasons at length but I assure hon. Members that many of the factors mentioned were carefully considered. We are satisfied with this site, although it may have drawbacks; one was mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham asked about Commonwealth consultation. The Commonwealth was informed that these decisions had been taken. My hon. Friend mentioned Australia, but it is not only Australia which will, we hope, be affected by this Agreement. There are India, Ceylon, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries quite apart from foreign countries where we hope that this radio station will have an influence. I do not think it will be practicable to run a broadcasting station with a consistent policy, a consistent attitude, with up-to-date news, etc., by a co-operative venture so to speak. I think if one is dealing with this as a practical matter Great Britain must take the lead in the conduct of it.

Photo of Mr Charles Hale Mr Charles Hale , Oldham

The defence of the Northern Territory of Australia is very much a matter of the islands surrounding that Northern Territory. Australia has a special interest. No one was suggesting a co-operative venture, but is there any objection to offering a seat on the Board to Australia, for example?

Photo of Mr Christopher Mayhew Mr Christopher Mayhew , Norfolk Southern

I am sure that any views of the Australian Government on this subject will come to us. There is constant consultation on all these matters of foreign policy. That would include foreign publicity policy. I have no doubt that important matters of policy, for example the northern islands, would be a proper matter to be brought to our attention by Australia. It is the hope of the Government that this station will be a link and a binding force between Commonwealth countries of South-East Asia in the way suggested.

There are two main criticisms I would make of the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford. The first is that his approach so far as the output of the station is concerned seems to me to be a wholly negative one. He seemed to think that this broadcasting station would have the wholly negative aim of destructive criticism of Communism in the Far East. I do not deny that it will be one of the tasks of this station to combat the misrepresentations and distortions of Communist propaganda against Britain, British democracy and the British Commonwealth in the Far East. But I hope that it will have a positive influence by projecting the achievements and aims of British democracy. We have a fine story to tell in the Far East, where there is great interest in Britain and British democracy. We have only to look at certain independent countries to see that the influence of Britain from the economic and political point of view is strong in many ways. We want to strengthen that by spreading the truth about British democracy. We do not want to begin negatively with merely destructive attacks on Communism, although we shall not hesitate to defend ourselves against unfair and unscrupulous anti-Colonial propaganda in particular which is being launched against us in the Far East.

My second criticism of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford is that he showed scant respect for the need for objectivity in our output. That is, he criticised the B.B.C. for referring to unofficial strikes in this country and for quoting the "New Statesman and Nation." I grant him quite freely that neither unofficial strikes nor the "New Statesman and Nation" are in any way typical of our great British democracy, but the supposition that we ought to give a one-sided interpretation all the time is certainly not an attitude which I feel should be adopted. We need a little subtlety in our projection. All people who were concerned with political warfare during the war came out of it feeling that it was essential to tell the truth and be objective. In the long run it paid.

I should be sorry to adopt the kind of policy which seemed to be foreshadowed in the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford, or that the B.B.C. should lapse from their high standards of objectivity in the Far East. We hope that the B.B.C. will build up the same kind of reputation in the Far East that it has built up in Europe with its European services. If it does that, it will be doing a fine job for British democracy and for peace in the Far East.

5.37 p.m.

Photo of Major Donald Bruce Major Donald Bruce , Portsmouth North

There are one or two technicalities which I should like to put to the Assistant Postmaster-General. I should like to know on how many wavelengths it is proposed we shall broadcast from this station? Difficulties always arise when wavelengths are considered. As anyone in Europe knows, there is great congestion of wavelengths here, but I doubt if that would apply in the Far East. There are other problems. If one wants freedom from interference one chooses the short waves but that raises other difficulties which make it necessary to have very good receivers to get adequate reception. If one wants to broadcast by long wave, and if there is to be a sufficient range and freedom from interference, great power is needed behind the transmission. How do the B.B.C. propose to tackle these problems? Do they intend to utilise long waves, short waves or medium waves, and what methods have they adopted for securing wavelength co-ordination with the other States which are broadcasting in the same area?

5.38 p.m.

Photo of Mr Charles Hobson Mr Charles Hobson , Wembley North

It is difficult to answer questions of the technical character which my hon. and gallant Friend has raised. I can tell him the frequencies upon which the present low-power station at Singapore is operating, but the difficulty about the frequency upon which the new station will operate is that the allocations of frequencies are decided by international agreement. Unfortunately I cannot answer my hon. and gallant Friend because a conference is sitting at Mexico City, the purpose of which is to allocate the frequencies internationally. Until that conference has made its recommendations I am not in a position to say precisely on which wavelength the station will operate.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Agreement, dated 7th December, 1948, between His Majesty's Postmaster-General and the British Broadcasting Corporation, a copy of which was presented on 8th December, be approved.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. Adams.]