BBC World Service: Eastern Europe

– in the House of Lords at 11:00 am on 24 November 2005.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Spokespersons In the Lords, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 11:00, 24 November 2005

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lady Rawlings, and at her request, I beg leave to ask Government the following Question:

What discussions they have had with the BBC regarding the proposed cuts to BBC World Service broadcasts in eastern Europe.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, the FCO was consulted, and the Foreign Secretary fully supports the proposed changes. The changes announced on 25 October reflect the World Service's strategy and vision for the future. They are part of a necessary and timely reprioritisation that will also introduce new online and TV services in line with growing audience demand. The World Service believes that the changes will lead to an increase in its global audience and impact.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Spokespersons In the Lords, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that we on this side of the House broadly agree with the underlying thinking on this change, particularly as the centre of gravity of the world economy is shifting eastwards and the Middle East and Asia are the rising areas? At the same time, would she accept that there are always bound to be one or two difficult decisions at the margins? One of them relates to Bulgaria, which I know my noble friend Lady Rawlings had particularly in mind, but it could be applied generally to south-eastern Europe, where there are still many delicate relationships and an urgent need for good and clear information of the kind that the BBC World Service provides. Will she examine the particular issue of World Service links to Bulgaria, which I believe have also been cut, and look at some of the south-eastern European issues where a little adjustment might save a lot of trouble and ill feeling?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, the Government welcome the support of the noble Lords opposite. In respect of Bulgaria, it is correct that the vernacular service is going to be cut. That is for two reasons. First, it has a very small reach and impact. A lot of research has been done into that. Secondly, Bulgaria is on the road to becoming a member of the European Union and its citizens have access to free and fair information. Therefore, the vernacular service is no longer necessary because Bulgaria is a free and open democracy.

Photo of Lord Sheldon Lord Sheldon Labour

My Lords, the BBC World Service has broadcast to eastern Europe since the early 1930s. We supported democratic forces in those communist countries. Why should we be turning our back on their, and our, success?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, we are not turning our back on those countries or on our success. The BBC World Service's contribution in the past to building peace and democracy in central and eastern Europe is widely understood and appreciated, but the world moves on. Those countries are now our partners in the European Union. Just as in the past the BBC World Service stopped broadcasting in French, German and Italian, so now those countries are part of the European Union and they are being treated on a par with other large countries.

Photo of Baroness Knight of Collingtree Baroness Knight of Collingtree Conservative

My Lords, if this matter has been prioritised previously, which the noble Baroness implied, what caused it to be deprioritised in order to be reprioritised now?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, I think I may have my priorities somewhat mixed here. If I understand the noble Baroness's question well, those countries were priorities in the past because they were in need of access to free and fair information. That is the excellent service that the BBC World Service provides. Now people living in countries in central and eastern Europe have access to the Internet and have a free press in their own countries. The BBC World Service wants to concentrate its efforts on other parts of the world where people are still in need of free and fair information, which they do not receive from their indigenous press.

Photo of Lord Tanlaw Lord Tanlaw Crossbench

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the BBC World Service is gaining increasing support on the Internet? I hope that that will apply to the areas covered by the Question. Is she aware that the chimes of Big Ben are transmitted over the Internet and are inaccurate to the extent of several seconds? That may not be of great interest to a number of noble Lords, but the BBC is synonymous with accuracy and truthfulness, and to a great many people the sounds of Big Ben across the world have meant a great deal. Would it not be possible for the BBC to link up with NTP, the Network Time Protocol, or DRM, the Digital Radio Mondiale, to achieve better accuracy for the rather wonky pips?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, I was unaware that the chimes of Big Ben are wonky when broadcast to some parts of the world. I shall certainly pursue the issue with the World Service. If it can make amends or improve Big Ben's clarity, I am sure it will do so.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader In the House of Lords, Leader, House of Lords, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, while these Benches support this reprioritisation, we are a little concerned that it was forced on the World Service by government limitations on its expenditure. Can we be assured that political judgment on whether broadcasting goes ahead is paramount in this matter? The BBC World Service is still the jewel in our crown as regards representation around the world. Television in the Arabic language is probably 20 years overdue and should be warmly welcomed, but we should also appreciate that not only the sound of Big Ben, but also the sound of "Lilly Bolero" means freedom to millions around the world.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, I am also an aficionado of "Lilly Bolero" and I, like the Government, believe that the BBC World Service is the jewel in our crown. I assure the noble Lord that it was an independent decision taken by the BBC World Service and it was certainly not a matter of cost-cutting. Over the past two spending rounds, the money made available to the BBC World Service has increased. It has received £239 million this year and it will receive £245 million next year.

Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative

My Lords, the Minister said that the world moves on, but in some countries it is moving backwards. In Russia, for instance, there is already more and more pressure on the free media. Television stations are not free and a lot of newspapers are being closed down. Russia needs the BBC World Service as much now as it ever did. I hope that some consideration will be given to that.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, when I said that the world moves on, I did not mean to imply that every country in the world was democratic or as free as we would wish. I understand that there is still a very lively vernacular service in Russian and I am sure that that will continue. That is important not only to Russia, but to the Russian-speaking countries of this world.