Orders of the Day — BBC (External and Transcription Services)

– in the House of Commons at 9:26 pm on 23rd July 1981.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Kershaw Mr Anthony Kershaw , Stroud 9:26 pm, 23rd July 1981

I am grateful for the chance to raise the question of the proposed reductions in the external services of the BBC. We have two assets in the BBC—the English language and its high reputation, based on its activities during the Second World War, which it has managed to maintain.

We are to be asked to approve reductions in expenditure on the overseas services at a time when our country has reduced political power and when there is an increase beyond imagination of the power of the spoken word that reaches out beyond frontiers and speaks to each man in his own tongue.

The BBC is an objective organisation in transmitting news. Its activities have been supported on many occasions by the House and it is appropriate that we should take seriously yet another attempt to cut its services. The proposal is to cut seven languages and the transcription service. I believe that I carry a majority of hon. Members with me in saying that that is regrettable.

This is not the first time that a cut has been proposed. In 1979 the House forced the Government to retract after they had made similar proposals. This is also not the first time that Parliament, under Governments of both parties, has cut the BBC overseas service. It has already suffered six cuts in eight years—in stark contrast to other countries, both allies and others. I understand that we are about eleventh in the league of broadcasters, just ahead of North Korea and Albania.

The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs examined the BBC's estimates for 1981–82 and concluded that no cuts should be made in its activities and that increases devoted to audibility should remain. The two most important places that we singled out were Hong Kong, to give audibility to China, Japan and Korea, and the Seychelles, to give audibility to East Africa.

When we were taking evidence it was known to our witnesses that further cuts, those that we are debating, were proposed in the next Estimates. The Committee took it as a discourtesy that it was never informed of that proposal.

No doubt it will be said in debate by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, whose difficult task it is to defend the Government in this matter, that spending is in fact increasing, because the capital programme is up by £4 million, whereas the cost of the language service is down by £3 million. Thus, there is £1 million extra expenditure. I suggest that that is a debating point. The capital programme only restores the cuts that were proposed in 1979, and most of the capital programme referred to so generously in the Government's proposals is in the form of promises. We understand that we shall have £100 million during the next 10 years. We shall see.

The Prime Minister said, in defending this proposal, that it is no good having programmes if the audibility is no good. I regret that the Prime Minister was advised to say something of that nature, because there is no correlation between the capital increases that we are offered and the cuts that we know we shall suffer. Some of the frequencies that are to be cut are already extremely audible, and some of the ones that are to be boosted are to be cut. To speak so loosely, as if they were opposites in the argument, implies a lack of study of the subject.

The frequencies that are abandoned will, of course, be lost and we shall not be able to regain them. They will be taken over by other countries, and even if later we think better of it and decide to try to get ourselves on the air again, we shall discover that that audibility has been lost.

Even more important than frequencies, because I assume that the mechanics can be overcome in due course, the audience will be lost. Audiences cannot be so easily resuscitated. Once given up, they are difficult to regain. Perhaps it would not be too tactless to remind the Foreign Office that in the last series of cuts that were proposed in 1979, which the House prevented, it was proposed that Turkey should be cut out. That did not happen, because of our efforts. The following year the Foreign Office came back with a request that Turkish broadcasts should be increased. Such changes cannot be made easily, they are very ineffective and inefficient when they are made, and audiences are lost.

Perhaps it would be of some interest if I were to detail some of the services that it is proposed to cut out. The first is the French service. That broadcasts for 21 hours a week and it costs just under £300,000. The audience, which, of course, is sophisticated and easy to assess, is about 2 million or a little less in France and 350,000 in Belgium, as well as an audience in Switzerland. The research shows that two-thirds of that audience is under the age of 35.

I understand that the Lord Privy Seal thinks that it is useless to broadcast to our sophisticated neighbour. I suppose that he imagines that they will buy papers, or take Hansard, and read what we are talking about. However, I assure him that that is not true. Even if it were true, it does not apply to the Burmese programme. I doubt very much whether the Burmese get the Stroud News and Journal very often in Rangoon.

It is nonsense to say that we do not need to speak to our close friends. Of course, we need to do that. The difficulties of the negotiations of the Common Market and the ever-present difficulties of the world economic situation demand that we should be able to talk to our neighbours. Apparently, they demand summit meetings in places like Ottawa. Communications with our closest and most sophisticated allies are very important.

Italy falls into more or less the same category. We broadcast for only seven hours a week to Italy at a cost of £200,000, but I understand that the audience is about 1 million every time. Italian speakers in Switzerland also hear it.

We also broadcast seven hours a week to Spain. The Warsaw Pact broadcasts 80 hours a week to Spain. That service costs us less than £200,000 a year and attracts an audience which in 1976 was estimated at just under 1 million. After the debacle over the honeymoon in Gibraltar, the Lord Privy Seal should want more, not less, broadcasting there.

Britain is the only country in the world that broadcasts to Malta in Maltese. Censorship in Malta is not exactly what the House would approve of. Although we broadcast for only seven minutes a day, it is much appreciated. It is a source of uncensored news that is much valued. As Malta was our ally in the last war and at other times, it seems a pity that that service should be abolished to save a few pounds.

The BBC has been broadcasting to Brazil for 43 years. It is the largest and potentially richest country in South America. It is regarded as economically and politicaly so important that it was one of the first countries that the Foreign Secretary visited when he was appointed. Each day more than 1 million people listen to the BBC in Portuguese in Brazil.

Burma is an isolated country to which we broadcast seven hours a day. We have a staff of six people. We cannot rely upon sophisticated sampling techniques in Burma, but it is estimated that that service attracts the biggest overseas BBC audience.

There have been many letters in The Times about Somalia. Our service there costs £170,000 a year. I understand that it almost takes the place of the morning or evening service in that country. It is a great pity that we propose to cut the service to that country, which is vital strategically and has a long tradition of listening to the BBC.

The transcription service is less well known in Britain than it should be. The proposal is to abolish that service. It employs a staff of 117 at the BBC. They have an output representing 785 hours per annum. I have a document which explains what the transcription service does. The BBC is the largest international distributor of radio programmes in the world. In the financial year April 1980 to March 1981, it sold 43,550 records and tapes to over 850 broadcasting organisations in 99 countries. It represents over 36,000 hours of British broadcasting and more than 5,000 British actors, musicians, scientists, politicians and others take part. It is, therefore, a large service. We do not see it in Britain but we should be aware of it.

It is the only transcription service in the world for which charges are made. Because of its excellence, it is the largest such service. Overseas radio stations transmit what they buy. The studio quality is excellent because short wave transmissions are used. It is much appreciated.

We have the largest library of broadcast programmes amounting to 30,000 hours of the best of British music, drama, literature, science and education. There are over 500 new programmes a year, of which 40 per cent. are original. Topical tapes bring the British scene to places overseas. They are sold. I understand, for example, that the tape of the wedding next week has already been bought by 46 radio stations.

The news that the transcription service is to be abolished has provoked indignation and dismay all over the world. Messages have been sent from the United States, Canada and many other countries. The Caribbean, which otherwise has been abandoned by British radio, feels that the transcription service is the only direct voice. The topical tapes are sold to 89 stations in 65 countries.

An enormous amount of support for British art, festivals and theatres comes from people who have gained knowledge of them through BBC tapes. Messages of support have been received from many countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Barbados. The manager of the Barbados radio station says that he is amazed, surprised and shocked by the announcement. He considers the action most unreasonable and says that it clearly shows a lack of interest in the New Commonwealth. Saint Helena claims that the school broadcasting system will have to be closed if it does not receive material from the BBC. The Cook Islands in the middle of the Pacific say that 70 per cent. of their programmes are provided by the BBC, and they do not know what they will do without them.

The Solomon Islands say that it will be a heavy blow to the world's largest broadcasting service, as well as to British prestige in the developing countries. They wrote: Who now will move to fill this void? We wait with apprehension. I do not know whether the director-general of the New Zealand station is a relation of the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), but he thinks that the closure will be utterly disastrous. Australia is horrified to hear of the proposed cuts to the BBC. It wrote: What has Britain left if you tamper with the B BC? Our listeners are reacting with dismay to this news. It is clear that the news has horrified a great many of our good friends around the world. Some of the countries are not large. They rely on the tapes as their opportunity of culture from the old country, which otherwise would not be available.

All that disruption is to happen simply to save what Lambeth council would spend in a few hours. It will cause 200 redundancies at the BBC. The skilled teams will be lost and dispersed. The British influence will be lost. An impression will be given that we do not care about the places that I mentioned. Britain's position in the world will be diminished. All that will happen for a small saving that could be found elsewhere. The Government are mistaken, and should think again.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North 9:43 pm, 23rd July 1981

I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Stroud (Sir A. Kershaw), on his extremely careful and lucid exposition of the case. He put it in the manner in which hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to put it to the Minister. He went into great detail about the areas that wall be cut. His exposition will shorten and simplify my speech.

This is one of those sad moments, such as the debate on overseas students' fees, in which we have seen the wilful surrender of Britain's position and influence in the world in the mistaken pursuit of quite piddling economies. The debate is a rerun of the controversy of 1979 when the Government were forced to retreat on their proposals for cutting BBC programme services. They have to satisfy themselves with £2·7 million taken from the capital programme.

Some of us believe that the Minister has not forgotten his defeat on that occasion. He is back with vulpine intent and determined to win where he was forced to retreat before. The thoughts uttered by the Select Committee this week, which I believe will be echoed on both sides of the House tonight, should again give him pause for thought and reconsideration. We are being presented not merely with a rerun of the 1979 argument, when the Government were conclusively routed by their critics on both sides of the House, but with the seventh cut for the BBC's external services in eight years. How mad can the Government get?

These services are the voice of Britain overseas. They are far better value for money than many of the overpaid and pampered diplomats whom in the past we have sent abroad. The services which were to be chopped in 1979, if the Minister had had his way, were French, Italian, Greek, Burmese, Maltese, Spanish and Turkish. The Minister has returned and he is replacing the cutting of the Greek services with the Portuguese services to Brazil and the cutting of the Somali services instead of the Turkish services.

These proposals have been unanimously hammered in the press. Each newspaper, according to its particular point in the spectrum, has seized some item of expenditure that is odious to its own tenets by way of comparison. The Guardian has said that if these services are axed the sum that will be saved will be just about enough to buy three tanks. The Daily Telegraph, putting it rather differently and in its own language, has said that the amount that the Government are trying to save in reducing the external services of the BBC is about as much as the taxpayer gives to British Leyland every day before lunch. These are trifling sums whichever metaphor one uses. They are trifling in every area but one, and that is in the broadcasts to these countries overseas, the reception that they have, the friends that Britain has made and influence that has been disproportionately exerted as a result.

This is a retrograde step which will diminish both the range of the services and the general esteem in which they are held. We are used to Treasury Ministers who do not know their Parsee from their Pushtu sniffing around the BBC looking for various cuts. We are used to the Hooray Henrys from the Foreign Office reporting back that within the areas that they serve in the diplomatic corps the BBC services overseas are difficult to pick up. All too often that is because these diplomats—we have all met them—do not speak the vernacular and are not familiar with how to operate a short-wave transistor. In its report, the Select Committee called attention to the number of diplomats overseas who do not speak the vernacular of the country in which they serve. Someone said last week that they substitute that lack of knowledge by going on to the rooftops and speaking English very slowly and very loudly.

We are not accustomed to a Foreign Office Minister trying to tell us of his munificence in the atmosphere of the cuts and saying that there is more money for the BBC's overseas service than ever before and that the 33 remaining services will be heard better because of the seven that have been axed.

What is the truth about that? The hon. Member for Stroud has dealt with that in part. Many of the projects that are incorporated into the "exciting" capital sum that will be dangled before us over the next 10 years are those that have been delayed already, and sometimes for a long time before 1979. We know that £53 million of the sum stated is to be allocated after the current PESC period ends in 1985. We shall be interested to know who has made the allocation. Has the Treasury given approval item by item to the £53 million, much of which is to be expended after 1985? Has it made allowances for the rate of inflation until 1990? Has it made allocations for the capital projects? Of course it has not. We know that it is all jam tomorrow.

Last week Mr. Gerard Mansell, a distinguished acting director-general of the BBC and the immediate past managing director of the external services—among his other claims to fame he was my first boss when I went to work in the external services 20 years ago next month—wrote to The Times last week to challenge some of the assertions that have been made by the Minister. He went over the ground that I have covered and went on to say: It is a misunderstanding of the true position to suggest that it is better for 33 services to be heard well than for 40 services to be heard inadequately. The BBC External Services hive a larger following, worldwide, than any other international broadcasting organisation. This would not be the case if audibility was not at the very least acceptable in large parts of the world for those for whom the services are intended, as I know from my own extensive travels over many years. He went on to say that Some of the services to be abolished are themselves well heard, as witness the Somali Service, with its vast following from the President down. Others, like the French Service will not live to see the benefit of investment originally intended for them. He also asked, if the service to Russia is, as is now suggested, inadequate, why is it that the Russians go to such lengths to jam it? The jamming of services to the Soviet Union, which was instituted only about a year ago, was essentially because that service was getting through to the Soviet Union all too effectively. I support the improvement of the transmissions to those parts of the world, but not only to those parts of the world. We are in danger of neglecting broadcasting to our friends and of broadcasting only to those States that we see as hostile to us in a way that may alter the perception of BBC overseas services, as in the past they have been seen to be something more than a Government propaganda operation.

We must broadcast to our friends of today who may, because of a coup d'etat of tomorrow, become imperilled or more in need of our service, because none of us has a crystal ball.

Photo of Mr Gary Waller Mr Gary Waller , Brighouse and Spenborough

A little while ago the hon. Member mentioned the Turkish service and he also said that things can change rapidly. Is it not a fact that in 1979 the Government intended to axe the Turkish service, yet a short time after its reprieve it became necessary to increase the Turkish service? My hon. Friend the Minister may say that even if it had been axed it would have been possible to bring it back into existence. However, is it not a fact that if it had been axed it would have been almost impossible to bring it back quickly to the existence that is so valuable today, bearing in mind events that have taken place subsequently?

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

The hon. Member is right and leads me to my next point, which is that in the period before and after I worked for the external services there were various proposals from Governments to close down services. In 1957, the Portuguese service was closed—that is Portuguese to Portugal. Now, because of some curious quirk or a personal whimsical preference of the Minister of State, we are to go on broadcasting in Portuguese to Portugal but not in Spanish to Spain. We are not to carry on broadcasting in Portuguese to Brazil, which is a larger country, where we have many important trading links.

We closed down the Portuguese service in 1957 and we did not reopen it until 1963. A price was paid for that. I suppose that this is ancient history, but I hope that no one will mind my relating it. The price that we paid was twofold. First, we had to rebuild our listenership and recover the frequencies. Secondly, we had to assemble a cadre of skilled broadcasters. When the Portuguese revolution broke out in 1974, the Portuguese service was by then back on the air and was able to cope, but there was a good deal of disaffection and some trouble. There had to be some dismissals from the Portuguese service at the BBC, in part because the continuum of that service had been broken by the time it had been off the air. Perhaps as a result the coverage was less good at that tense time when Portugal could have gone back either to a Fascist State or towards an East European style of totalitarian State, if Senhor Cunhal had had his way. A sophisticated interpretation, in the classic BBC sense, of what was going on in Portugal was needed at that time.

In 1963, when I worked for the BBC, the Thai service was closed down. There was a rumpus about that, because people did not need a crystal ball to see that services to Thailand and South-East Asia would be crucial as the American imprint upon South-East Asia grew. Whether one accepted the domino argument or the other argument about the tragedy of American involvement in South-East Asia, it was clearly necessary to have broadcasts to that part of the world.

Mr. Macmillan's Government of the day turned around almost as soon as the Thai service had gone off the air. The excuse of a Royal visit to Thailand or a Thai Royal visit here was used to reinstate the service. In that case, there was not too much delay. However, the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) was quite right to say that, had the Turkish service come off the air and stayed off the air, as the Government wished and intended in 1979, it would have been extremely difficult to get the frequencies back and to reassemble the trained staff at the moment when, following the military coup in Turkey, it was necessary to broadcast to that country in a more intensive manner.

The hon. Member for Stroud has already dealt with the other services that will be closed. But I do not look at Spain today and see a country that has now emerged into the untroubled sunlit uplands of multi-party democracy to which we do not need to broadcast. I see a country with which we have disturbing differences. As has been said, the events over Gibraltar this week show how much mutual incomprehension still exists. Most of all, I see a country where the King is in daily threat and where elements within the military intend to kill the King. There is no question about that, because he foiled the last coup d'etat. Any hon. Member who has been in a country where a coup d'etat has taker place will know that what happens first is that the military surrounds and takes over the television and radio stations.

The Minister of State will be able to check this out from his officials who sit at the Spanish desk and who so distinguished and covered themselves with glory over the incident of the Royal honeymoon and Gibraltar. They ought to be able to tell him that during the recent attempted coup in Spain there was a pretty bleak moment when the Spanish television and radio services were off the air. Many hundreds of thousands of people in Spain, either directly or otherwise, knew that the King had denounced the coup and had called on Ministers to go to the Zarzuela Palace and said that civilian rule should be maintained simply because they had heard it on the BBC. We are throwing all that away for a few thousand pounds a year. It is quite monstrous.

There is a question mark over many other countries. No one quite knows what will happen after the next Maltese election, if it takes place. No one quite knows the extent of our services and interests in Burma, but it is a fact that we are the only Western broadcasting service transmitting to Burma.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull Central

Is my hon. Friend aware that at present, when the Burmese service is being cut, the Foreign Office information department is circularising hon. Members about the importance of Burma's outlook and its economy?

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. It links up with what I am saying. It is certainly true that when the BBC official responsible for that department of external broadcasting was last in the Far East he was received by General Ne Win virtually with the honours of a Head of State. There is no question but that General Ne Win and the ruling circles in Burma take the BBC external service seriously.

The same is equally true of Somalia. I am now trying to speak in terms that will instantly recommend themselves to the Minister of State. The cuts are proposed in the wake of our attempts to wean the regime in Somalia away from the influence of the Soviet Union. We have tried to build up a counter-balancing force in the Horn of Africa against Soviet penetration in Ethiopia and against Soviet-backed attempts to use the Ethiopians to overrun the Ogaden and Eritrea and even perhaps to establish hegemony in that whole area. Our principal friends and perhaps allies for the future in that area are therefore in Somalia. Somalia is in a position to benefit from investments made in the last few years in improving transmitters broadcasting to that country. To wipe out the service to Somalia, again, is an extremely retrograde step.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

Having been in Burma, albeit 13 years ago, and knowing the Ne Wins very well as well as many other people in Burma, I believe that the cutting of that service is a matter of considerable consequence.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. Indeed, I am buoyed up by the support that I am receiving from all parts of the House. I see still on the Minister's face the flicker of sceptical disbelief for which he is well known. The hour is still early. I hope that many of his hon. Friends will have heavier methods of persuading him than are open to me.

In conclusion, I was talking the other day to a senior official from the People's Republic of China who was over here with his Minister. He is in a position to be a considerable friend to this country when he goes back in matters economic, the placement of trade contracts, and so on. He was educated in Shanghai and spoke English. When he could, he listened to the BBC external services in English and also in the vernacular. He and others like him very much welcome the Select Committee proposal that the Hong Kong transmitter should go ahead quickly, paid for out of the Contingency Fund. Absolutely unsolicited by me, he said that he had read with great regret that BBC services all over the world were being cut. He said that we could not know what it was like to live through the early years of the Maoist regime, to keep one's head down for that period only to be overwhelmed after that by the cultural revolution, literally never knowing from one day to the next whether one would be lynched by the Red Guards. Throughout that period, the links with the West and the fact that he could listen to Western broadcasts which gave him some idea of what was going on in the world were of crucial importance to him

The Minister of State will no doubt say that services to China are not being axed, so that that gentleman will be all right. So he may, but what about people in an equivalent position in countries to which we are ceasing to broadcast? As has been pointed out, if we lose a frequency we are in danger of not getting it back, and if we lose a listener we many lose more than a friend—we may lose a country as well.

I believe that these services are value for money and should be sustained. It is a foolish and retrograde step to attack them in the way that the Foreign Office has done, and I hope that this debate will persuade the Minister, even now, to think again.