Orders of the Day — Overseas Information Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 31st July 1957.

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Photo of Mr John Harvey Mr John Harvey , Walthamstow East 12:00 am, 31st July 1957

I wish to raise a matter arising out of the Government's White Paper on the overseas information services. I am aware that it is always easier to find reasons for spending money rather than saving it, and I want to avoid falling into the error, which it is so easy to make, both inside and outside the House, of deploring inflation one day and asking the Government to spend more money the next.

When I first read the White Paper, I felt inclined to agree with The Economist which, in a leading article on 20th July, said: By and large the new programme has a reasonably well proportioned look and, even where one is regretful, one cannot cavil at details too much when the overriding need for economy is so obvious. Since then, I have examined the matter a little more deeply, and I find myself particularly disturbed by the proposals to cut certain of the B.B.C. services to Western Europe. The cuts are designed to save about £200,000 a year, but at what cost are those savings to be made? It is important that the House should note these things.

I want to make a number of comments and to ask my right hon. Friend a number of questions in the light of which I hope that he will undertake to examine the savings again and see whether they are real savings in the best national interest. In paragraph 14, the White Paper says: The Drogheda Committee recommended the complete abolition of the French, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish and Portugese services. In paragraph 15 it says: Nevertheless, the Government have decided against the complete abolition of all these services In a debate in another place on 6th February, the noble Lord the Earl of Drogheda said: We did make a few suggestions of economy, but they were not, of course, very well received by anyone—except possibly the Treasury. I am not sure now that we should have suggested cuts in the Western European services to which the noble Lord has referred. I do not think that we should have done so at the time, had it not been one of those times of financial crisis which are now endemic."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 6th February, 1957; Vol. 201, c. 551.] In those circumstances, the Government cannot seek shelter behind the noble Lord over the matter of the proposed cuts.

As a boy, I was educated for many years on the Continent of Europe, and I still retain a live connection with many people in different countries of Western Europe. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, without the proposed cuts, even Poland broadcasts more hours a week to other European countries than does the B.B.C.? The Communist bloc, taken as a whole, does five times as much broadcasting to Western Europe as the B.B.C. does—before these projected cuts. Of course, there is the "Voice of America," but if it is proposed to rely on the "Voice of America" to take more of the load, let me say, without intending any unkindness to our American friends, that the voice of Britain has enjoyed an incomparable reputation in Europe ever since the war, and many would be sad indeed to hear it muted.

If the Government believe, with The Economist, that there is force in the argument that public money (even though the amount involved is relatively small)need no longer be afforded to maintain these particular contacts with the friendly peoples of friendly States … may I ask my hon. Friend whether he realises that the same argument could have been applied to Cyprus when the B.B.C. Cypriot service was abolished in 1951 and 1952?

May I ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware that the largest Communist Parties outside the Communist bloc exist in the friendly States of France and Italy? May I ask him whether, to take one specific point, Britain's future relationships with the Common Market may not well call for our point of view to be clearly put to our friends? May I suggest to him that our trade with our friends in Western Europe may well have gained much impetus from the prestige advertising of British pioneering and British achievement which the B.B.C. has been able to put over among its influential listening public in those friendly States?

May I in this connection ask him whether he is aware of a statement put out by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders on 17th July, in which it said: While the Society is very glad to learn of the Government's proposals to increase its Information Services abroad, it is extremely sorry that it should have been found necessary to make substantial reductions in the trans- missions of the B.B.C.'s European Service …. In their industrial and news programmes, the B.B.C.'s broadcasts to Western Europe carry an amount of information about the activities of the British motor industry. These transmissions, which helped in their own way to support the industry's own press work, are now to be terminated in the cases of Portugal, Holland and Scandinavia and reduced for France, Italy, Austria and possibly Germany. For a saving of £200,000 a year this seems a great pity. I should like to ask my hon. Friend whether he realises, too, that the B.B.C.'s broadcasts on tourism in Britain have brought to this country many visitors from these friendly countries in Western Europe, and this has assisted Britain's tourist trade.

I could quote many more facts and figures in support of my argument. Already the Communist bloc broadcasts to Sweden for some 33 hours a week against the B.B.B.'s three and a half hours, and now we are to discontinue this service altogether. The Communist bloc broadcasts to France some 78 hours a week against our 21 hours, and now we are likely approximately to halve this service.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend saw the French newspaper, Le Monde, on 17th July. At the risk of detaining the House a little while longer, because I believe this is important, I should like to quote two paragraphs: Great Britain is to increase its propaganda effort all over the world. But if the B.B.C. and the British Council are to lavish greater care on the Near and Far East, it will be to a certain extent at the expense of Europe At a moment when Britain's rôle on the Continent is giving rise to undeniable misunderstandings, such a decision will doubtless come as a shock to those countries who will no longer hear the traditional announcement first heard during the war years 'London calling' … The argument advanced to justify this policy is that democratic countries are sufficiently well-informed. Some people in London even consider that British 'propaganda' to such countries might be considered an impertinence. It seems too that in many ways this reorganisation of English radio transmissions reffects the illusion—a very widespread one in Great Britain—that European countries are 'necessarily' friends, and that it would be superfluous to give these countries a clearer idea of the attitude of the British Government. I wonder whether my hon. Friend saw the Portuguese Diario Popular of 16th July. I will not quote the whole of this. [Laughter.] My hon. Friends may laugh, but this is a matter of Britain's influence among her friends in Europe, and I find nothing to laugh at in any diminution of that influence. The Portuguese newspaper deeply regretted this decision.

In Norway, the same day, the Aftenposten said: There is no foreign radio station transmitting in Norwegian which is listened to so eagerly as the B.B.C. A very great number of Norwegians listen regularly to the news and other Norwegian programmes from the B.B.C. We believe that they have contributed much towards the understanding of British problems, and the transmission will certainly be missed". I do not think that my hon. Friends will laugh at this, perhaps the most important of all the quotations, from the Copenhagen Dagens Nyheder, which said, With some regret and a touch of dismay it must be affirmed that it is the voices of the West which are disappearing or becoming muted and it is the propaganda blast from the East—where no dictator needs to request Congress or a Parliament for grants—which is increasing in stridency. I make no apology for raising my voice in the House tonight in support of what I believe to be part of the essential defences of democracy. If we take this step back in order to save £200,000, let no one imagine that we can easily move forward again if we decide at some future date to reverse British policy. The Scandinavian expert cannot change into a Middle East expert and the Spaniard cannot readily be switched to the Rumanian front in the propaganda battle. If the Government insist on saving this £200,000, they will not be putting the machine into mothballs for possible future use but will be dismantling it, dispersing its staff and destroying its effectiveness. I hope I have shown that it will alarm many of our friends, dismay many of our traders and comfort only those who have no great love for us.

May I urge my hon. Friend, with all the force I can command, to take the case which I have presented tonight back to those of his right hon. Friends who share the responsibility for these decisions and to ask them to reconsider again whether in all the circumstances this would be £200,000 well saved.

Doubtless my hon. Friends want to get home, as I want to get home, and they will be glad to know that I have reached the last part of what I want to say. It is one more quotation from the Copenhagen Dagens Nyheder: England's B.B.C. is abolishing its long-established broadcasts in Danish to Denmark … The Information Department of the American Embassy in Copenhagen has been required to cut down its budget by 40 per cent. which, for the moment, means the dismissal of eight officials and reductions in the Library and Film Department … Soviet Russia is opening an Information Office in Copenhagen …