Orders of the Day — British Broadcasting Corporation (External Services)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:55 pm on 13th November 1979.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian 8:55 pm, 13th November 1979

I hope that the reply will be more pertinent than the comments on transcription and the answer to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). We have the undertaking of a full reply about the development programme.

I have a further specific question about one of the projects. What are the proposals for setting up a modern transmitter in the Seychelles or on the island of Mahé? That is important for the Horn of Africa, the Arabic services and the entire capability. It is wholly unsatisfactory that these services are frequently run from Ascension Island.

What are the Government's views on further contraction of this minimum spread of services? Without a sufficient spread there can be no quality, and that was well put in an article in the Spectator by Mr. Tim Garton Ash, called "How many divisions has the BBC"? He said: any cuts must diminish the range and depth of the service's overall news-coverage. If the experts of the Arabic services are dismissed, the World Service's coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict will be impaired. Yet it is precisely for its treatment of such topics, about which their own media are particularly biased, that Soviet bloc listeners turn to the BBC". I cannot make the point more crisply than that. We must preserve that minimum spread. If we go below the critical level, the whole house of cards will collapse.

For some years the external service has postponed such activities as sending personnel to the countries to which it is broadcasting. That may be all right for one or possibly two years, but standards cannot be maintained if it becomes the norm and not just the exception in a time of financial crisis. Not only in the Rapp report, to which there has been reference, but also in the Beeley and Duncan reports it is suggested that more such activities and much more investment are needed.

We are damaging the seed corn. The external services must not be treated on a stop-go basis. We need a continual rolling programme in order to go forward. It is a question not just of improving the audibility of services but of maintaining those services.

What is the Government's general attitude to more powerful transmitters? Britain operates on rather ancient transmitters, where as Qatar has a 1,500-kilowatt transmitter and Iran has one of 1,000 kilowatts. In that context, we should bear in mind our overall strategy.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) expressed concern about BBC external services being used as part of the propaganda process. Certainly my right hon and hon. Friends and I would not wish to see the services used as a tool for British interests. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton pointed out, the power of the services is that they give the truth and they are not seen as a propaganda weapon. It is because of their truthfulness that the services help Britain in a number of areas.

One service that I know something about, having had the good fortune to be in the country in the last 10 years, is the Burmese service. In 1976 our exports to Burma amounted to £7 million. In 1978, that figure had risen to £26 million. This is a time when Burma is opening up to the West and when British business men are showing enterprise in the country. The role of the BBC Burmese service is extremely important. Through the years of Burmese isolation regular programmes on British technology, business and industry kept the idea of Britain as a vital manufacturing nation and reliable trading partner alive. Is it now the time to put such a service at risk? Under the proposals, the BBC's Burmese language service could be abolished in the interest of financial economies.