My Lords, throughout the autumn of 2022, the BBC has been celebrating its 100-year anniversary, but drastic cuts to the BBC World Service—and the loss of 382 jobs and of radio services—have dampened the celebrations and left many dismayed and angry. I am grateful to my Cross-Bench colleagues for choosing this Motion, to all noble Lords who will speak, to the Minister who will reply and to the Library for its background note. We especially look forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Hampton.
When the BBC World Service started life in 1932 as the BBC Empire Service, Sir John Reith—later Lord Reith—played down expectations:
“Don’t expect too much in the early days … The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good”.
Seven years later, in the context of a world war, Lord Reith’s doubts had been dispelled. I wonder what he would have made of BBC World Service audiences in 2022 of 365 million people—up 13 million on the previous year—and news in over 40 languages. He would certainly have approved of Allan Little’s story of how, in Paris, an elderly Jewish man had agreed to give him an interview because, as a boy in hiding in wartime Poland, the BBC was the only way he kept hope alive.
Penelope Fitzgerald, who worked for the BBC during the Second World War, wrote a funny and touching novel called Human Voices set in the broadcasting studios of the BBC during the London Blitz. It captured the spirit of the wartime BBC in what was described as:
“A tribute to the unsung and quintessentially English heroism of imperfect people”.
“Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.”
Truth and trust: so true today in the era of fake news and, especially, Putin’s propaganda.
Whether in struggles today between democracy and dictatorship—as in Ukraine, Iran, North Korea, Burma, China and elsewhere—or during the dark days of Nazi-occupied Europe, the BBC World Service has always been trusted to provide dispassionate, fact-based and truthful reporting. Even the late Mikhail Gorbachev once said that he had relied on the BBC to learn what was really going on in the world. I once met a young Ukrainian woman who told me that the proudest moment of her life was when she told her parents that she was going to work for the BBC World Service. They had listened to it clandestinely throughout the whole Soviet era.
Last May, the Minister told me that 5 million Ukrainians were listening to the BBC via its digital platform and that 17 million Russians—triple the usual number—had listened to it during the previous week. Can he tell us what the current audience estimates are? Are we happy that ceasing our radio broadcasts to Russia a decade ago has been a bonus for Putin’s state-controlled media? Was this a wise decision?
I co-chair the all-party parliamentary groups on Eritrea and North Korea. Seven years ago, at the conclusion of a long campaign, I was able to thank the FCO and the BBC for agreeing to begin broadcasts to the Korean peninsula. A United Nations report on North Korea showed a country in which there was
“an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought … as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.”
Breaking such information blockades and our commitment to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—upholding the right to unimpeded free access to information and news—are central to the ethos of the BBC World Service.
Eight years ago in a previous Cross-Bench debate, many of us spoke about its role in promoting our belief in human rights, democracy and the rule of law—what Joseph Nye described as the exercise of soft power, or smart power as I prefer to call it. That debate followed a House of Lords Select Committee report which insisted that the World Service represented
“the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion”.
This is essential to UK diplomacy and prosperity, but the ability to do these things depends entirely on resources. The Select Committee pleaded that the budget
“is not reduced any further in real terms”.
You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That central question of funding will dominate today’s debate. I know that my noble friend Lord Hannay will also speak to this.
Traditionally, the funding came from the Government and therefore taxation, based on the ability to pay. By comparison, the licence fee is regressive and not determined by income. In a battle for tight resources, the World Service is bound to suffer if it must compete with “Doctor Who”, “Strictly Come Dancing” or even domestic news services. Why should we expect a listener in Liverpool to pay via their licence fee for services in a language they do not understand which the BBC broadcasts to the listener in Lahore, or a viewer in Bradford for BBC services in Beijing, or a pensioner in Yeovil for services in Yangon? This should not come from the licence fee but be seen as a legitimate public expenditure via taxation. As Tim Davie said at Chatham House last week:
“there is only so much we can ask the licence fee payer in Penrith to pay for the language services … This is a strategic decision for the UK”.
In 2014 the World Service budget, given as FCO grant in aid, was £245 million. If grant had continued and matched inflation, it would have led to an increase of £62 million and a total budget of £307 million in 2022. The actual figure, now rendered from the licence fee, is £95 million. That is a cut of £213 million. How much clearer and better it would be if the World Service was funded once again from the FCDO, as part of a ring-fenced allocation within a restored ODA budget, as the Minister referred to in answer to the Question that preceded this debate.
When I drew another Minister’s attention earlier this year to a report by the National Union of Journalists which highlighted the damage being done to the World Service by the uncertainty of funding, he said
“the value this Government place on the service that is being provided internationally is absolute and there is no question of it being cut back.”—[
In January, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, told me that
“We strongly value the work of the BBC World Service in promoting our values globally through its independent and impartial broadcasting” and that
“The FCDO is committed to providing grant-in-aid funding for the BBC World Service through to 2025.”
However, like the curate’s egg, it is there only in parts.
The BBC says that grave and deep cuts of £285 million a year, necessitated by the Government’s freezing of the licence fee for two years, is leading to hundreds of key posts closing. This is happening as dictators and autocrats are more than willing to fill the void as the free world retreats from the global dissemination of news and at a moment when, in places such as Ukraine, Iran and Taiwan, the need for objective news has never been greater. The numbers are stark: 225 jobs in the United Kingdom, 156 in bureaux and 381 total job cuts from global languages, which could amount to a fifth of staff. Although no language services will close, the BBC says that some TV and radio programmes will stop. BBC Arabic radio and BBC Persian radio will cease, all aimed at saving £28.5 million. I know that my noble friend Lady Coussins will say more on this.
What of the Bengali service? What of the 40% of the world, 2 to 3 billion people, who still have no access to reliable or affordable internet services? Places such as northern Nigeria are a breeding ground for the likes of Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa, about which I know my noble friend Lady Cox will speak. How will the cuts impact our reach throughout Africa? What is the future of the radio transmitting station in Kranji, Singapore, which can reach four countries that represent half the world’s population—India, China, Pakistan and Indonesia? What about the BBC broadcasts to the Korean peninsula, for which I and the all-party group campaigned successfully? I have sent the Minister details on this and hope he can say more about the future of that service.
Deep cuts to the World Service language services follow separate “savings” to be made from the closure of the domestic BBC News channel and BBC World News, with a single BBC News channel. In London, there will be 70 fewer television journalists following and reporting on news, which will be aimed at a global audience led by international stories but shown at times in the UK. This is like Dr Dolittle’s fictional pushmi-pullyu; the joint channel will be a two-headed news beast, neither one thing nor the other. Stories about domestic matters will continually fight against a global news agenda and bumping important issues around the world off the air.
“digital-only services are lost owing to the blocking of internet access”,
and expresses concern about the impact of the closure of the BBC Persian radio service and BBC Arabic radio—with 10 million listeners—while an uprising is taking place in Iran. Let me spell it out: for the past three months, BBC Persian has played a key role in covering the widespread women-led, anti-regime protests across Iran, and the brutal, violent crackdown that has followed. Heavy censorship limits local media in its broadcasts, but BBC Persian has an average weekly audience of 18.9 million people, with radio reaching a weekly audience of 1.6 million people and producing material for the BBC Persian website and social media. Closing the radio means that from midnight to 5 pm the next day—for 17 hours—the BBC Persian service has no scheduled live broadcast. Of course, we are now told that this space may be filled by a Saudi-funded channel. Closing it while the regime tries to block digital and online platforms is extraordinarily short-sighted. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, feels deeply and strongly about this and will no doubt refer to it.
While dozens of Persian service journalists were spending day and night informing people of the protests, the BBC announced its plans to cut BBC Persian radio, resulting in the loss of nine journalistic jobs and a meagre saving of around £1 million. We should note that this journalistic work has come at a huge personal cost for brave BBC journalists and their families back in Iran. They have faced harassment and intimidation, interrogation, arrest, asset seizing and freezing, and despicable pressure to force them to leave the BBC. They face a barrage of daily abuse and threats online, simply because they are doing their professional job as independent, impartial journalists. The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently labelled BBC Persian as terrorist, which could have even more catastrophic consequences for journalists’ families. Cutting BBC Persian at a time of widespread protests across Iran will be celebrated by those who rule there. I have been told about prisoners held in Middle Eastern prisons whose only contact with the outside world is this BBC radio service. For millions of others, trapped in the “prisons” of autocratic regimes which prohibit impartial local media, these services are hugely valued as a rare place to hear the truth rather than unremitting propaganda. Radio still matters.
As the free world retreats, step up Putin’s RT and the CCP’s China media—trusted sources of news? You must be joking, but it is not funny. Has no one noticed that, in the face of genocide against Uighur Muslims, exiled Tibetans, threatened Taiwanese, beleaguered Hong Kongers, and brave dissenting voices throughout China, retaining a strong BBC presence is crucially important? Welcome though resources for a new China unit with a team in London will be, it should be as well as, not instead of. I declare my interests as a patron of Hong Kong Watch and my work with all-party groups.
To conclude, BBC World has given people hope in times of oppression, despair and crisis, and despite many competitors, it is primus inter pares. It is our best-known cultural export; the most trusted news brand; and crucial to diplomacy, culture and commerce. I hope the message from today’s debate during these 100 years celebrations will be to insist that the BBC’s global reach is enhanced and not savagely cut; that it remains first among equals; that we will not accept the emasculation and irreparable degradation of British influence overseas; and that we will look again at a funding model that is wholly unsuited to ensuring that, in the battle of ideas between dictatorship and democracy, our voice in the UK is not silenced. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for bringing this very important debate to the Chamber today. I begin by paying tribute to all those reporters and newsgatherers around the world who risk life and limb, and very often the safety of their own families, to deliver the news in a format which not only we can trust in this country but is trusted and respected globally.
It is not just because I am an insomniac that I am a great fan of the BBC World Service. I do not go to sleep until the business news is finished, which I think takes me up to about two o’clock in the morning, but there we are—I was always told that once you get older you need less sleep. I enjoy the World Service, but so too do the 458 million people a week who hear it in 43 different languages. We have heard the noble Lord, Lord Alton, explain the financial crisis that is threatening the World Service, and I am very concerned that certain languages are proposed to be dropped, including Chinese, Arabic and some from the Indian subcontinent. That is very concerning.
Correspondents in 75 news bureaus around the world collect this news for us. In my childhood, my late mother worked most of her working life for BBC Monitoring at Caversham Park, so as a girl I grew up knowing many of the people who translated the news from Russia during the Cold War, and I grew to have a great respect for the work they did and the standard they set in reporting news from across the globe.
The BBC also reports between nations—how important that is for those countries where freedom of speech is challenged on a daily basis. The financial situation it faces, due mainly to the frozen licence fee at the moment but also, along the lines that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has so clearly described to the House today, to this change of making the BBC itself fund so much of the World Service from the licence fee. That idea is past its sell-by date. The Government must take this debate today and look again with fresh eyes at how the World Service, if it is to be retained, can maintain its reputation, as it must. The financial settlement for the World Service must be reconsidered. It is really quite anachronistic to say that this is just like any other programme coming out of the BBC. We have heard, and those of us who speak to people who listen to the World Service from other countries know, that it is not only respected but relied upon. It may be a national treasure to us, but it is regarded as a national treasure in many other countries as well.
The ability of Governments to deny internet access is also an issue that I want to raise. I fully understand why the BBC has plans to increase its digital output; that is very important. However, there are times when radio transmission is equally important—for example, very often in circumstances where people are either at war or in conflict, or where there is a regime in place that simply wants to deny its own people the opportunity to hear the truth. Of course, it is the truth for which the BBC World Service has such a good reputation. The Government have a role to play here. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that I hope that he will take this Bill—this debate, I should say, although it should be a Bill—away and see this as a sea change in the way this House regards how the future of the BBC World Service is to be managed.
I finish with a report from Reporters Without Borders. It was produced in May of this year, so it is very up to date. It showed that journalism is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries it ranks, and the situation is ranked as “very serious” in a record 28 countries. I am 76—go on, I have said it—and I have lived through the end of the Second World War and the Cold War, when we were all taught in school what to do if the bomb was dropped, but I find the world a very dangerous place, far more so than I remember it, in terms of uncertainty, in the course of my lifetime. The world needs the BBC World Service; the Government must secure it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Browning. I am delighted to know about her nocturnal habits; I will not share mine with noble Lords, but I do not have her stamina to carry on as late as she does. However, I have listened to the World Service, particularly when abroad, and found it useful on occasion to pick up and to follow. I will depart a little from her in terms of the concerns she has about new technologies, because I believe that perhaps there are opportunities here that we are not looking at sufficiently. However, the points she makes are very important and we should reflect on them.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate and for his comments. He is truly one of the consciences of the House and constantly reminds us of things that we sometimes tuck away and do not think about enough—I am grateful to him for doing it again on this occasion. He is also tireless in pursuit of his pursuits but also gracious with us, which makes him very easy to work with.
I am looking forward to that maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, and I hope that there will be many more of his speeches to come.
This is a debate which perhaps could have laid with the DCMS as the sponsoring department, but we are grateful to have the Minister from the FCDO responding. I am looking forward to his comments, and particularly to his take on the wording, which has carefully been put in front of him, on whether he is able to encourage the importance of the BBC World Service—I hope he will be able to do that—and whether he will reflect on the impact of the cuts, which is much in line with both previous speeches. How does he reconcile the FCDO position on this, and what will he do about that in terms of funding but also, more importantly, with regard to the constitutional issues raised by it?
On the money points, the point has been made, which I want to echo, that the World Service is funded mainly by the UK licence fee. The licence fee is of course a tax on the receipt of telecommunications, not a fund for the BBC. We need to remember that that is the way in which it is framed in the law and how it is actually used in practice—of course, that raises issues about non-payment. What is the Foreign Office’s position on that? We know that the BBC licence fee is under review; does it have a position, has it been made public, and, if so, could he share that with us? If, for example, he is minded towards a subscription view, does not that have quite serious consequences for the way in which the BBC is able to fund its World Service? A subscription will certainly reduce the amount of money available and would play to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his comment about why people who perhaps do not have any direct use for the World Service will be prepared to pay for that as it goes forward.
My second point about the way in which the funding currently operates is the question about grant in aid. The grant in aid from the Foreign Office, welcome though it is, is relatively small relative to the overall cost of the BBC and only a quarter of the current cost of the World Service. There is also a timing and a longevity point—this has been mentioned in relation to inflation, but it is wider than that. Can the Foreign Office do anything to try to align better the funding streams it is able to provide to the BBC and to link those to the licence fee settlement? After a lot of fuss and bother last time round, the Government, slightly unwillingly, agreed to work on a five-year basis for the BBC, so at least it has some longer visibility about where its funding is coming from, pace inflation, because working on a five-year or 10-year basis is a lot different from the rather uncertain way of doing this at each spending review. Spending reviews seem to come even more frequently than snowstorms, and we are not very long-sighted about this if we are going to wait only until the next time, when the next Chancellor or the next crisis curtails the previous plans. These are important matters.
Finally, on governance, it is important to note that the BBC is governed by royal charter. That used to be a very secure way of doing it but is rather less so following recent discussions in the last five years. The royal charter currently says that
“the BBC should provide high-quality news coverage to international audiences”.
So are we saying, if we are changing this, that we want to change the charter in this respect and make it on a fee-based basis? Are we really saying that or do we believe, as others have said, that the World Service is indeed
“perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world this century”?
We need to be certain about what it is we look for, and if we are happy with the current arrangements, the consequences of that are different constitutional arrangements and different financing. These are important matters which cannot be ducked.
Does the FCDO agree with the director-general’s changes? If it is merely funding a body that has full responsibility for its own actions, it should not have too much to say, despite what the licence agreement requires in terms of the BBC agreeing with the Foreign Secretary. What happens about going digital—does it have a view on that? These issues need to be taken into account as we go forward. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, as ever, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and I associate myself with the questions he has just asked. I think they belong to a wider debate we must have about the BBC. Nevertheless, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on the timeliness of this debate, as was illustrated by the Urgent Question that went just before it.
On Monday, the Prime Minister made the traditional foreign policy speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, in which he set out his views on Britain’s place in the world. In examining that role in the world, it is essential that the strength and influence of the soft power provided by the World Service is recognised. “This is London calling the world” still carries a resonance and respect that is unmatched by any other international broadcaster. The World Service could have no higher compliment than the efforts which authoritarian regimes such as Iran, China and Russia make to try to silence it.
The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, set out many of the facts that are put in strength of this case, and five minutes is a short time to make all the points. Therefore, although I am grateful for the many briefings I have received, and I assure the authors that they will not go to waste, I want to concentrate on this question of funding. It is important to ensure that the funding of the World Service and its remit are considered in wider terms, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has just said. These decisions should be made by government and Parliament assessing all factors rather than by a cash-strapped BBC under constant attack from vested political and commercial interests.
That would mean reversing the decision taken in 2010 to place responsibility for funding the World Service with the BBC. In 2011, the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place warned that this would have
“major long-term ramifications for the future of the World Service”— and so it has proved.
I was a member of the coalition Government at that time and must accept my share of collective responsibility for it. It was clearly a mistake, and I support calls for a new regime, for funding the World Service, or a return to the former one, in the light of today’s realities. I suppose my defence for this change of mind is the dictum, often attributed to Lord Keynes, that when the facts change, I am entitled to change my mind—and, my goodness, have not the facts changed in the last 10 years?
A decade ago we were about to open the new “golden age” in our relations with China to which the Prime Minister referred in his Mansion House speech. Putin’s Russia had not emerged as the aggressor it is today, Brexit had not occurred, and an influential wing of the Conservative Party had not targeted the BBC in its culture wars. Whatever the rationale behind the decisions taken in 2011, they do not apply to the conditions we face today.
World Service funding needs to be assessed and provided in response to specific needs and national priorities, not as a response to the immediate budget constraints of the BBC. Its funding, as has been said, should revert to being a parliamentary grant in aid, with all departments that benefit from its work sharing the burden. In making that assessment we should also recognise the benefit of the World Service to our whole broadcasting ecology by providing correspondents with deep empathy and understanding of their home territories. This feeds into the BBC’s general news coverage and more general provisions, from documentaries to specialist podcasts. Here I associate myself again with a tribute to the courage and fortitude of the correspondents who carry out this work for us.
I wish the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, well in his maiden speech. I hope that this debate will give Parliament and government pause for thought about how we keep and sustain the soft power assets of the World Service and its wider cultural and reputational benefits during those difficult times.
In his Mansion House speech when he was Chancellor, the Prime Minister promised that the integrated review of foreign policy would be with us early in the new year. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the review will include an assessment of the contribution of the World Service to achieving our aims, along with a clear commitment that the World Service will have the budget to fulfil those objectives in the years ahead.
My Lords, in 2017 the then International Relations Committee, of which I was a member, published a report of our inquiry into the Middle East, during which we held a round-table discussion with 30 young people from almost every country in that region. We asked them what they saw as the main positive British social and cultural influences. The BBC World Service was named overwhelmingly as one of the top three, the other two being Premier League football and Monty Python.
I endorse everything that my noble friend Lord Alton said about the importance of the World Service as a tool of soft power. One reason it is so effective is its extensive range of foreign language services, at the last count broadcasting in 43 languages. However, since 2012 these services have also been subject to various changes and cutbacks, driven in part by overall budget constraints and in part by strategic or operational decisions on what the most appropriate broadcasting format is for a particular language service, with a shift to digital being the prevailing change, as we have heard. In the latest strategic review, seven language services became digital only, with Persian and nine other languages having their radio service closed completely.
I get the overall case for digital but ask the BBC and His Majesty’s Government to think again about whether digital-only services are always the right way to go, especially in the light of another important aspect of the latest review, which said:
“The World Service will continue to serve audiences during moments of jeopardy and will ensure audiences in countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Afghanistan have access to vital news services, using appropriate broadcast and distribution platforms.”
Although not mentioned in that list of countries, Iran is currently a clear case for where digital services may not be the appropriate platform in moments of jeopardy. We know that internet access there is restricted or blocked, so reliance on old-school radio broadcasts may well be the best or only way to provide access to those vital news services. I hope that the World Service can find a way to be flexible within the parameters of its new strategy by accepting that in some places, at some times, language services by radio will be best suited to moments of jeopardy.
Such flexibility will undoubtedly not be cost-free. Can the Minister give an assurance that additional funding from the FCDO will be made available to enable the World Service to provide services on the most appropriate platform or media in challenging situations? Does he agree that when and if a new funding formula or business model for the BBC replaces the licence fee, a separate, dedicated impact assessment should be made of any new proposal’s impact on the World Service specifically, taking into account its soft power value?
Another indicator of how important and effective the World Service is and has been in Iran is the length that the Iranian authorities will go to in stopping people working for it, whether in Iran or London. Dual nationals especially, and their families, have been targeted with harassment, death threats, arrests and detention, simply because they work for the World Service. Since 2017, and reinforced in October this year, the Iranian Government have pursued criminal investigations into BBC Persian staff, alleging that their work constitutes a crime against Iran’s national security. Over 150 individuals, mostly dual nationals, are the subjects of an injunction to freeze their assets. Interrogation techniques have become more frightening and aggressive towards elderly parents, siblings and other family members. Female staff in London are being particularly targeted with online attacks, fake stories about rape and sexual harassment by male colleagues, and fake pornographic pictures posted on social media. Staff have been unable to return to or visit Iran to see sick or dying elderly relatives, for fear of detention or worse.
Can the Minister please update the House today on what further steps the Government can and will take to up the ante on their representations to the Iranian Government? The problem has not eased up; it has escalated, most notably since the World Service coverage of the protests since the death of Mahsa Amini.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for tabling this debate, and for his excellent exposition of the impact and importance of the BBC World Service.
The BBC World Service is one of the most potent ways in which we can act in the world, not least to help those persecuted people who often are voiceless. I think of the debate that we had a couple of weeks ago about the hundreds of thousands of women on the streets of Iran. I think about the debates and Questions in this House about the various persecuted people in China. They need accurate reporting and, very often, knowing that something is being reported gives people hope and keeps them going when they are being crushed by their own authoritarian leaders.
The World Service is a way of spreading our values, encouraging change, and providing an independent and impartial voice to those who are voiceless. Accurate and truthful reporting is an increasingly rare phenomenon in our world. Sadly, we saw what happened in America under President Trump but, more worryingly, under President Putin and from China, we realise the huge amount of energy being put into suppressing truthful and accurate reporting. I think of those words of Jesus:
“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Truth is very often unpalatable. It is often unpalatable to the powers in this country but, ultimately, the facts and the truth are what we need. It will help us, however painful it is, to build a better and fairer world.
“The UK’s soft power is rooted in who we are as a country: our values and way of life… It also enhances our ability… ultimately, to effect change in the world.”
Therefore, it is ironic that a Government who support soft power are now cutting the World Service. Surely these two things do not go together. It is precisely because the World Service broadcasts unbiased reports, offering information often covered up by authoritarian regimes, that it is so powerful. Many people in many different parts of the world look to the World Service for independent and accurate reporting. Since September, the journalists at BBC Persian have been bravely covering the ongoing protests and the brutality against women by the Iranian regime, which the Iranian state news and local media have not. It is extraordinary that BBC Persian has been deemed a terrorist organisation, having its assets frozen and with journalists even being arrested. Yet, as we have heard, it is a service that reaches over 20 million Iranians weekly. Surely, at a time when the Iranian people are standing up against horrendous injustice, we should not be cutting one of the few lifelines that these people have.
Of course, the cuts to that service will affect not only the Iranians but people across the entire region. The BBC proposes to close BBC Arabic, a radio network that has operated for 84 years and reported independently and impartially on such events as the Arab spring protests some years ago. The BBC also plans to reduce its presence in Myanmar, when the Rohingya and other people are facing the most appalling persecution. I have already mentioned the challenges in China.
The BBC World Service is uniquely positioned to challenge these regimes simply by reporting the truth. It is an essential element of the UK’s soft power and a vital lifeline to many people. I support the many noble Lords who have already spoken in the debate to underline the importance of the service and to urge the Government to come to a new settlement to ensure not only that it is sustained but that its service is enhanced.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate. I endorse his words and those of noble friends who have spoken before me. I agree with the majority of what has been said.
This debate gets to the heart of what we wish our international standing to be, and what it actually is. Cuts to the BBC World Service threaten to undermine the reach and quality of its reporting, to open the door to unsavoury competitors, and to reduce the influence of one of our most valuable institutions, which is a tremendous force for good and a source of soft power.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister spoke about how
“our country has always looked out to the world.”
He set out his ambition for a foreign policy upholding freedom and openness, and a Britain engaging with the world from the Arctic to the Indo-Pacific. I admire and support his vision but it cannot be achieved without resources, nor is it consistent with further cuts to the World Service.
The last few years have been a reminder of the importance of the World Service. Information is more available than ever, and trustworthy information all too hard to find. Misinformation can be fatal for individuals, ethnic groups and societies, as we have seen in Myanmar during the ethnic cleansing operation against the Rohingya.
In this context, the World Service is crucial—for the Russian dissident, the Syrian refugee and the Afghan girl hoping to learn about the world. Its investigations have real world impact: a pioneering report by “Africa Eye” resulted in prison sentences for militias who massacred civilians. The efforts of autocracies to circumscribe the World Service and prevent its reporting are in themselves testament to its importance.
I know that my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues recognise the value of the World Service. This was reflected in the very welcome additional support they provided for journalism in Russia and Ukraine earlier this year. In a crisis you need the BBC, but if it is to be able to fulfil the crucial roles that they value it must have sufficient funding not just in a crisis but at all times, so that it can maintain and build the knowledge and skills which make it so important.
The World Service is already making cuts of £28.5 million by 2023. It will have to cut 382 jobs, as we have heard. These are cuts to expertise and experience. Local journalists, working in the language of the people they are reporting on, are an important source of knowledge for their colleagues in the BBC, for us in the United Kingdom and for audiences around the world. Once lost, knowledge and experience are not easily regained. I hope my noble friends in government will heed that point in relation to the rest of the FCDO’s work and partners as well.
How you deliver news also matters. According to the International Telecommunication Union, there are 5.3 billion internet users worldwide. That leaves 2.7 billion people offline—people for whom radio is often a crucial service and connection to the wider world. We must not leave them without access to reliable information. If future savings are required, which seems likely following the two-year freeze in the BBC’s licence fee income, without more funding from the FCDO it will be not just individual jobs at threat but entire language services.
The World Service does offer value and not just in what it provides; its value is compounded by what replaces it. We can see this clearly in the western Balkans. The BBC closed down the last of its local language services in the region in 2011. I welcome the fact that it re-established a Serbian service recently, but in its absence other international “news” services have been able to flourish. Sputnik and Russia Today have a significant malign presence. Sputnik’s Serbian-language reports are provided free to local media, working closely with Russia’s proxies to spread Russian propaganda and undermine liberal democratic values and aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration. The news as told by Sputnik portrays NATO as a threat and Russia always as a friend. Divisions are emphasised and exacerbated. The results can be found in polling which shows that Russia is seen as a strong and reliable ally and that the Kremlin’s narrative around Ukraine is widely believed.
This is why the BBC matters. Its reporting shapes global understanding of the most important issues that affect us and with which we grapple. The integrity of the World Service reflects on Britain, benefiting our trade, cultural reach and reputation. It is also an exemplar of soft power in undermining those who would rather that the truth does not come out.
I recognise that we live in difficult financial times but, as with all our overcut spending on diplomacy, these are very small sums in the Treasury’s accounts. For a marginal saving, we undermine a key institution. Even as we aspire in our rhetoric to be outward looking, our actions tell a different story.
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but we are some way over time and we are pretty tight on timings for this debate. I urge her to immediately conclude her remarks.
My Lords, as I stand to speak for the first time in this magnificent Chamber, I thank all those who have made my first days here so painless: the doorkeepers, with their remarkable knowledge, my noble friends the Cross-Bench Peers and all those who I have encountered along the way. I particularly thank those numerous people whose endless patience I have tested by asking for directions. The Palace of Westminster has truly tested my sense of direction.
My noble friend Lord Alton rightly raises questions about the impact that cost-cutting will have on the quality of output of the BBC World Service. The BBC World Service always makes me think, perhaps unusually, of my mother-in-law. She has lived as a British national for many years abroad, a number of which were spent behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. She and my father-in-law would listen religiously to the World Service. It gave them a lifeline in a time of relative isolation. It is a voice that gives comfort to British and non-British alike, piercing borders to offer relatively unbiased information, gaining the trust of millions worldwide.
That trust and the high quality of journalism and reporting that the service delivers have contributed to an extraordinarily valuable brand for both the BBC and Britain, creating an instantly recognisable vehicle to convey Britishness and British values as a form of soft diplomacy worldwide. It truly brings the BBC’s core purposes to inform, educate and entertain to a world stage.
I take this opportunity to declare my interest in the “educate” element. As well as being a hereditary Peer, I am a working teacher and head of department in a state secondary school in Hackney. I took my oath three weeks ago and will be managing those two roles alongside each other. I am of course struck by the vast differences between those two halves of my new life, but I am also energised and excited by the opportunity to bring together my learning from both sides and to use what influence I can to improve outcomes for underprivileged children in the UK.
Through my work, I am reminded every day of the challenges young people face and how difficult and sometimes tragic lives can be, but as a teacher, for every story that depresses there are a thousand moments to inspire and cheer. We are a nation that creates outstanding institutions, such as the BBC World Service. I would like to work with noble Lords to consider how we bring more of that national creativity, resourcefulness and ambition to help our younger generations, recognising that these children will one day lead our country, run our industries and be the backbone of our communities. Education is my passion, with an added interest in the creative industries and how we nurture young British talent to develop what is an increasingly powerful and valuable segment of our national market. I look forward to engaging further on these topics in the House.
My Lords, I rise to congratulate the noble Lord on a heartfelt, informative and inspiring maiden speech. I am honoured to be able to say a few words, but I have to confess there is precious little information publicly available on our new colleague. We know his full name is John Humphrey Arnott Pakington, 7th Baron Hampton, that he is a photographer and that he was born under the sign of Capricorn. Beyond that, we know almost nothing. I was fortunate enough to have a brief meeting with him yesterday. His conversion from photography to teaching followed a visit to Venice with his wife, during which he saw the light. Seriously, his story is a wonderful one. He clearly loves his job as a teacher in design and technology and as head of department at an academy in east London. Even a short conversation with him revealed his real commitment to young people, and to the role of education and the creative sector in empowering them and driving our economy forward. We are truly fortunate to have him as a colleague on our Benches. I hope he will forgive me for concluding with a word of advice. If at any time he finds himself assailed with shouts of “Order! Order!”, all he has to do is just sit down. In fact, in this House, when in doubt it is always best to sit down.
I begin by stating the obvious again about the vital role that access to information plays. In its absence, Governments cannot be held to account and citizens are demeaned with false information. This in turn can promote hatred, damage people’s health and undermine democracy. Bad information thrives in an information vacuum. The opposite can also be demonstrated. Countries with an independent media thrive better and prove to be more resilient in the face of attacks on democracy and civil liberties. We live in a world where disinformation is flourishing through social media channels.
I would like to give one or two examples of this dilatory impact. The NGO Full Fact is a growing organisation that focuses on tracking down the origins and impact of false information. Recent studies have included the worldwide circulation of untruths about Covid-19. Working with sister organisations in Europe, Full Fact established that the false belief that Muslim communities were somehow receiving preferential treatment was common to all certain European countries. In Spain, there were widespread claims that users’ WhatsApp activity would be monitored or censored. In the UK, people attempted to burn 5G towers in the mistaken belief that the network was somehow involved in the spread of depleted immunity to Covid. On a more political level, we know that whole nations can be persuaded to adopt dangerous attitudes towards minorities and enemy nations, entirely without foundation. Currently, this is seen in Russia, and the exponential rise in Russian subscribers to BBC World Service is testament to the yearning for clear, fact-based, impartial journalism in the face of systemic propaganda. During the first five days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were 77 million unique visitors to the BBC English online and almost 200 million views of the live page on Ukraine. Russian visitors to BBC.com increased by 252% in early March. The BBC World Service output was and is perhaps the most effective bulwark against the Kremlin’s disinformation, and may yet prove to be a factor in bringing the war to an end.
This is really at the heart of our debate today. The UK boasts a service of incomparable journalistic standards and reach. It is the jewel in the crown of overseas influence, knowledge and trust. As we know, the UK has suffered a crisis of political trust in recent times, which thankfully did not extend to BBC World Service. It is sobering to note that the BBC has a global weekly outreach of 492 million individuals. If ever a nation sought to increase its soft power role, it could do worse than attempt to create a broadcast service along the lines of the BBC, and yet in the past few years the Government have gradually limited the resources needed to maintain this service in its broadest spread and highest standards. The reliance on the licence fee, frozen until 2024 and in the midst of rising costs, created a serious emergency. The recent agreement of additional funds to meet the demands of the Ukrainian war, although hugely welcome, does not begin to restore services in some local languages, such as Chinese, Hindi, Farsi and Arabic.
It has taken many decades for the BBC to build the trust of its listenership, yet one or two relatively minor government actions can undermine that trust in minutes. Given the extraordinary influence of the BBC, this should be at the front of the Government’s mind when undertaking the difficult task of balancing a budget in times of deep scarcity. A final point has been made by William Moy, the chief executive of Full Fact, that the data show that where information sources are growing, there is different content for different consumers. Where information sources are shrinking, the opposite is true, resulting in the fragmentation of societies in terms of the information received. Since democracy relies to a very large extent on a shared reality, the Government, in their deliberations on further cuts, should note this trend.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for yet again bringing another important topic before your Lordships’ House and I echo the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, in saying that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, often provides a conscience for this House. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, on an excellent maiden speech.
In beginning my remarks, I have to apply a self-correction. I would love to stand here today and say that all the financial resource available to the BBC World Service must continue to increase at a rate such that services can be provided as they always have been. But I am very mindful that in two weeks many of us will be speaking in the debate obtained by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, on the reduction in and availability of ODA. At this time we must be fully engaged with and understanding of the financial situation the country faces.
Today’s debate is surely an opportunity to ensure His Majesty’s Government fully appreciate the strength of feeling in this House, and that we marshal for the Minister the arguments and ballast he will require in discussions with the Treasury. It is welcome that extra funding for services in Russia and Ukraine has been provided in this calendar year. That is an important sign that the strategic importance of the BBC World Service is understood at government level, and the argument now needs to be pressed home.
My own reasons for maximising the support available for the World Service are twofold. First, I would begin with the promotion of the journalistic values of impartiality and freedom of speech. It is no coincidence that, in the top 10 countries with the highest engagement with the World Service, number six is Iran and number eight is Afghanistan—hugely disproportionate to those countries’ sizes but fully registering the importance of the BBC World Service to the people of those countries. So many in Iran and Afghanistan, in a state of brutal dictatorship and authoritarian martial law, rely on the service we provide to ensure that there is an impartial and locally informed voice that can be listened to.
To me, that sums up the vital need for the strong continuation and expansion of the service, focused on the areas where the greatest difference can be made. Yes, means of engagement may be changing, but I take the point that shortwave radio is still very important and agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, that flexibility is required in providing the service.
The other great strength of the World Service, and why it is so far ahead of its international equivalents such as CNN or Al Jazeera, is its ability both to be authoritative and to work with local journalists. This is not about parachuting in British journalists; it is an absolutely post-colonial vehicle for the expression of British impartiality and values.
That brings me to my second reason for supporting in such strong terms the continuation of the World Service. In a world where we are continually told that Britain is no longer a global influencer, we have here a vehicle for the promotion of British values and the support of human rights that we know to be a success story. In 2021 the integrated review, which is now being updated, described the World Service as one of the UK’s “soft power strengths”. In the last century, Kofi Annan said the World Service was
“perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world this century”.
For me, as a passionate defender of the United Kingdom, the World Service also ensures a tangible expression of Britishness that virtually no one in these islands would disagree with. The integrity of the United Kingdom relies on a shared identity and solidarity. What better means of that than support for a first-class brand through the dual funding of the licence fee and FCDO support through our taxes? Institutions that are admired across the world, such as the World Service, are important internally as much as externally. In a world where we seem to be in a constant phase of self-questioning and self-doubt, I hope that, as Minister for the Union, the Prime Minister will take a keen interest in continuing the support for this great institution.
Finally, I hope my noble friend the Minister can reassure us that he has listened to what we have had to say today. This is about not exempting the World Service from the harsh realities that other areas of aid and development funding are currently facing but ensuring that the vital lifeline and the institutional importance are not lost in the coming years.
My Lords, I only truly understood and valued the significance of the BBC World Service for Britain’s soft power influence around the world when I was our ambassador to the UN from 1990 to 1995. That was the period when Mikhail Gorbachev, rightly or wrongly, attributed the failure of the hard-line coup against him in 1991 to the BBC. It was also the period when the first post-communist Albanian ambassador to the UN arrived in New York speaking perfect English despite having never travelled outside his country before. “How did you do it?”, I asked. “Oh, I listened to the BBC every day,” he said.
The BBC was influential because of its global network of reporters, because it is fast and accurate and because of its journalistic professionalism; it is never simply an apologist for our Government. Since that time, now 30 years ago, the value of that national asset has increased both overall and relatively, as other feeders of our soft power—our aid programme and the British Council—have been cut back.
Moreover, the need for its qualities in a world awash in misinformation and disinformation, much of it purveyed by authoritarian regimes that are our adversaries, has increased. It is needed to counter the jihadist propaganda of terrorist organisations such as IS and to provide a window on the world to oppressed groups such as Iranian women. The absolutely disgraceful harassment by the regime of BBC Persian’s journalists and their families is, in an odd way, a back-handed compliment to the BBC. It is needed, too, to set out the facts during a world crisis such as that in Ukraine. The reporting of BBC journalists such as Lyse Doucet, Jeremy Bowen, Steve Rosenberg and many others is something of which we can all be proud.
I argue that it is a time for doubling down, not cutting back, but that is not what is happening. That is why I greatly welcome the success of my noble friend Lord Alton in securing this debate. I also welcome the contribution of my noble friend Lord Hampton, who put the issues on a much higher level.
I believe the root of the problem is the decision to fund the World Service from the licence fee—a clever trick by a clever Chancellor of the Exchequer, but a fundamental mistake all the same. Why on earth should we expect the BBC to find the right balance between its domestic and overseas services when the latter are an integral part of our foreign policy? Does any other country do that? No. Is it effective and efficient? Not really, since the FCDO is now having to top up the resources available to the BBC’s overseas services by an increasing amount each year.
Surely it would be better to go back to the old system of bearing the cost of those overseas services on the FCDO budget, paid for out of general taxation like other parts of our overseas expenditure. Would that not prejudice the impartial reputation of the BBC? I do not believe so. I doubt whether one person in a million among the BBC’s viewers and listeners knows or cares a thing about the origin of its resources.
The key to impartiality is the professionalism of the BBC’s journalists and the prohibition on any meddling in its editorial freedom, which was as rigorously observed when its resources came from the Foreign Office budget as it is now. So it is for the BBC to decide the allocation of resources and its editorial policy, which is why I will not enter into the argument as to whether it is getting the balance right between digital and audio services.
I am of course aware that this is hardly a propitious moment to be making the case that I have put forward, but the present financial arrangements are neither sustainable nor, I suggest, beneficial to the national interest.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate, and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, on his inspiring words about encouraging young talent.
The BBC World Service plays an unmatched role in representing the UK to the world. In truth, it is hard to overstate the importance of the World Service. Through its TV, radio, online and social media platforms it provides news in 41 languages and currently reaches 365 million people every week. The BBC is the world’s most trusted and best-known international news broadcaster, with the World Service the most trusted international news brand.
In an ever more complex information environment, where many news consumers live in countries with limited press freedom, the BBC World Service is a shining light. In a world increasingly swamped by “fake news”—a world where people can no longer agree on what constitutes reality—the need for fact-based reporting and trusted news sources has never been greater. We saw that during the Covid-19 pandemic. In regions with media restrictions, figures leapt up; visitors to the BBC News Arabic website tripled and BBC News Russian figures doubled, compared with December 2019.
As others have said, the BBC World Service’s provision of trusted information is recognised as being key to the UK’s soft power and in promoting UK democratic values. A recent British Council poll conducted by Ipsos MORI showed that, among younger educated global audiences, the World Service was the best-known institution across all the countries surveyed, and that this was strongly linked to positive views of the UK.
Through its international news services and other, more varied content, the BBC World Service is our voice to the world. That voice enables the exchange of ideas, fosters mutual understanding, and contributes to the UK’s wider objectives in foreign policy, international trade and inward investment.
Maintaining UK soft power and influence matters now more than ever, so the proposed £28.5 million cut to the World Service budget and near 20% job losses are alarming. We all recognise that the BBC is facing a highly competitive global news market and the frozen licence fee is clearly a major challenge, but its decision to cut the World Service is, in my view, a wrong move.
Careful corporate messaging talks about accelerating its digital offering and moving production closer to audiences to drive engagement, but this is not just about transitioning from shortwave to web radio or cutting back on non-news programming. I am grateful to the NUJ’s briefing spelling out the impact of the cuts in stark terms. The reality is a loss of one in five jobs; the closure of Arabic, Persian, Uzbek, Hindi, Chinese and Indonesian radio services, among others; and moving roles to countries where jailing journalists and state suppression of the media are daily risks.
The impact will be profound. I will reinforce an example raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. BBC Persian has had a key role in reporting the women-led, anti-regime protests across Iran. Heavy censorship by the authorities means that these are not covered by local media. Closing the radio service will mean that for 17 hours a day BBC Persian has no scheduled live broadcast, and the NUJ warns that that space may be filled by a Saudi-funded channel. Yes, BBC Persian reaches half its audience through digital and online platforms, but the Iranian Government have a habit of shutting down the internet in times of crisis so those platforms could become inaccessible.
Similarly, in Africa, where data is hugely expensive or connectivity unreliable, or where internet shutdowns are frequent, live radio remains the most popular and trusted medium. Again, the BBC’s Africa services are able to ask questions that local stations cannot. Its staff say that moving services to a digital-first model in Nairobi or Lagos will hinder their ability to cover sensitive stories.
The view that a truthful approach to news is a core British value is due in no small part to these news services, delivered over decades through political turmoil, revolution and natural disasters. The World Service’s historic role as a truthful broadcaster has helped to promote democracy around the globe. Eliminating broadcasts in some of the world’s most spoken languages will be deeply damaging to the World Service’s reach and influence, and thereby to the UK’s global standing.
If we want to maintain our global soft power and serve democracy worldwide, weakening our international voice as one response to the BBC’s funding shortfall seems a very high price to pay. Earlier this year this House recommended that the Government commit to safeguarding and enhancing the work of the BBC World Service. The Government’s response then was not at all reassuring, so I ask the Minister again if he will make that commitment today.
My Lords, my interests in the register as a BBC pensioner and a former head of public affairs for the BBC are well known. I thank my great friend, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his persistence in driving us towards decent thinking and perpetual challenge.
I love the World Service. I increasingly listen to it on the digital radio in my car rather than domestic news services, largely because we are confronted day in and day out by international events that we need to understand better. I enjoy the dialogue on the World Service and the perception of its news content far more than I do Radio 4 or Radio 5 Live, but that may just be me getting wiser at the same time as I get older.
Not only do I love the World Service now, I loved it as a child born and brought up in the north-west of England. I was also brought up in the Caribbean—in Montego Bay, Jamaica, so your Lordships know where I am from in case that question is asked. My parents would listen every single day to the World Service. The radio would come on multiple times, with my mother in particular always tuning it to ensure that we heard what London had to say.
I had the joy in 2004 of going to the north of Nigeria, to the incredible sand city of Kano, where I listened to the Hausa service at 1.30 pm and at 6.30 pm, when literally hundreds of thousands of people would gather around short-wave radios to hear what London had to say, in Hausa, about the reality of events in Nigeria. To take the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, made so well, that is exactly why digital services simply will not serve so many communities that rely on real radio. They need real radio for their ears, as well as for their knowledge, understanding and lives. We have said so much in this debate about countries which, yes, profoundly matter—Iran, China, Russia, Ukraine and Taiwan—but I have mentioned Nigeria, where elections are coming up in February. That country will have the third-largest population in the world within another 20 years. It is essential to maintain language services to countries that we may often disregard as less significant but which are vital to our economic prospects as well as to global stability.
The issue of the £28.5 million cut to the BBC’s services is a dumb disaster made in Downing Street. It is a dumb disaster because the decision to cut funds—I realise some of it is historical—but also to restrain funding reflects on what is a complete contradiction between what Downing Street says is its desire for global Britain to have influence, presence and significance, and its willingness to observe restraints on those very institutions that give the most effective presence of global Britain.
While we are on the matter of context, the Minister is from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. His own department wasted £120 million on Unboxed, a ridiculous festival in 170 towns and cities around the country, promising that 66 million people would attend in its crazy pursuit of an effective Brexit. Well, no effective Brexit has happened and no effective attendance at the festival happened. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of another place said that the 283,000 people who benefited from that £120 million was a shameful abuse of public resources.
As the Minister comes to respond later, could he look around government, especially his own department, at what other trashy projects are being put in place in planning for the next election in the next two years to showcase Brexit as having been a good deal for Britain, when everybody knows that it has been a tragedy of catastrophic mismanagement and foolishness? What we need to do is to extract money from wasted parts of government and ensure that the BBC World Service is well sustained and maintained, and that its languages are protected.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that my wife, Caroline Thomson, was deputy director of the World Service in the 1990s.
This has been a very good debate, and what is impressive about it is the very strong support from all sides of the House for the World Service. I particularly pay tribute to the speeches of the noble Baronesses, Lady Browning and Lady Helic, and the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, because it is important that this cross-party support is sustained. I also put on record what I know to be the case: despite his involvement in the coalition the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was a stalwart defender of the BBC at every opportunity that he had.
I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, on his maiden speech. His arrival in the House does not quite convince me of the virtues of the hereditary principle but at least he will speak from a real-world experience of education. That will be of enormous value to the House.
I have some brief remarks to add to the excellent speeches we have heard. I support the World Service because I am a patriot and believe in Britain. I believe that the World Service is one of the things that makes Great Britain really great. It has phenomenal global reach: two-thirds of the 489 million people the BBC reaches are, incidentally, reached through foreign language-speaking services, a point to which we return. It is a sphere in which we are genuinely world leading, in that phrase overused by previous Prime Ministers. This is world-leading Britain and we must not sacrifice it. It is a tremendous tribute to the quality of the journalism offered there, often by people such as the Iranians based in London, whose families have a terrible time back home because of their commitment to honesty and truth.
It is essential that services modernise with the times. This is why the BBC, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary, has been a tremendous success: it has modernised. I remember that, in the 1990s, there was a great controversy about the proposal of John Birt, now the noble Lord, Lord Birt, to merge the World Service newsroom with the domestic one to create a single newsroom. A lot of people thought that this was dreadful, but in fact it has been a great success and it means that, domestically, we benefit from the network of World Service journalists around the world.
The BBC now justifies what it is doing on the basis of the need for it to become digital—it is part of a digital strategy. I am obviously sympathetic to that; it is certainly the right thing for the domestic audience. But I talked to someone who worked for the World Service for years and he was extremely cautious about the abandonment of language services happening as a result of this shift to a digital strategy, particularly given the capacity of authoritarian regimes to block online delivery when it is most needed. I should like to hear the Minister’s views on this very real point and why the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is not making special efforts to ensure that foreign language services in countries such as Iran continue.
I do not know whether the Minister will be proud to make his speech today. It seems to me that the extra money could easily be found to pay for the continuance of these language services. If I wanted to be nasty and partisan, I would say that it is a tiny fraction of the money that the noble Baroness, Lady Mone, allegedly banked as a result of her VIP contract with the Government. Therefore, the Minister has to argue strongly for why he believes that this is all in the interests of the World Service and why we should not be doing more to protect it.
My Lords, the British Broadcasting Corporation is the best broadcasting corporation in the world. It is a world leader, reaching almost 500 million people every week, more than any other international broadcaster. Time and again in this excellent debate, noble Lords have said that it is the world’s most trusted broadcaster, with CNN, or whichever one comes next, way behind. It has 43 languages and 75 news bureaux around the world; it is amazing. BBC programmes and global news services are more important than ever, and we are more connected than ever in the world, but at the same time we have a greater spread of disinformation and false news, so the need for trusted broadcasting is greater than ever. It is so important that the BBC World Service enhances the UK’s standing and reputation around the world.
In 2021, the BBC commissioned research and found that it is the best-known British cultural export, providing soft power, as many noble Lords have said; it is the most trusted news brand among both mass and influential audiences; and business leaders are likelier to invest in the UK, use British goods and suppliers and visit the UK as a result of the BBC.
The Soft Power 30 2019 rankings cited the BBC World Service as one of the two British institutions that are key to Britain’s soft power. The knock-on benefits are phenomenal, including doing business with the UK. As a former international student, president of UKCISA and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Students, I know that it inspired me, and it inspires international students to come and study here. By the way, any talk by the Government of reducing the number of international students is nonsense. We need to increase the number of international students from 600,000 to 1 million.
Of course, the BBC is also important in promoting what Britain has always been famous for historically: its sense of fairness, integrity and impartiality. It is one of the three elements of soft power that are above all others, the other two being Premier League football and the Royal Family—much thanks to Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and, now, King Charles III.
The World Service also highlighted in its review that its reach has grown significantly, by 42%. In business, if something is growing, I put more money behind it; I do not cut money from it. If audiences are growing, that shows a need for it; it shows that the Government’s investment has paid off. Of course, and as other noble Lords have mentioned, it has also shown that, in this time of crisis around the world and with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we need the BBC; the Russians need the BBC; the Ukrainians need the BBC. The BBC has been adaptable—it has launched a new TikTok channel; it is reaching the people who need it desperately.
We know that the BBC is funded chiefly by the licence fee, and it is committed to providing £254 million of funding to the World Service. In the bigger picture, that is a tiny amount of money. It is then topped up by grants in aid from the FCDO. The BBC has seen its income reduced by 30% in real terms in the past decade, but it is still managing to do all this. It has a freeze for the next two years. What sort of business thinking is this? What sort of cost savings are these? This is not at all cost-saving; it is being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Some 73% of the world does not have a free press or has only a partially free press. Then there are all the financial challenges and, on top of that, job losses—382 job losses, for an institution that is trusted, impartial and needed more than ever.
In October, Andrew Mitchell, a Minister in the FCDO, said:
“The FCDO strongly supports the BBC’s role in bringing high-quality, impartial news to audiences around the world.”
In India, services have expanded to four new languages: Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi and Telugu. India is now the largest country in audience terms, with almost 60 million people reached by the BBC.
Cost-benefit? Value for money? This is nonsense. From the £5 billion income that the BBC receives, we are now talking about cutting £25 million. I look back to my childhood in India when I watched my grandfather listening to the BBC every morning. It is imprinted in me. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned trust. The BBC is trusted. It is the best broadcasting corporation in the world by far.
My Lords, I welcome this important debate on the importance of the BBC World Service. I share everyone’s concerns about the impact of cuts on the services, so I thank my friend the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing the debate. I also pay tribute to our new Member, the noble Lord, Lord Hampton. It is rather wonderful to have a teacher who is at the coalface here in the House to remind us of the importance of education and keeping that well funded too.
I put on record my interest as the director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. As a human rights lawyer who is in contact with human rights activists and lawyers around the world in straitened circumstances, I go to places where they talk about how important it is to be able to hear what is happening in other parts of the world and to know what good government can look like. An example is the women who have learned so much about women’s rights and that they do not have to live imperilled lives—lives subjected to violence—because of what they hear on the World Service.
I will tell a similar story to that of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. I recently evacuated women judges and lawyers from Afghanistan, and, having spent time with them since, I have remarked on how good their English is. They got their English up to speed by listening to the World Service in Pashto, Dari and the other languages in which we have been transmitting in Afghanistan. This is now being closed down by the Taliban. However, in the years after the last removal of the Taliban, these women were learning law, and the World Service provided them with an understanding of both English and the importance of women’s rights.
We know why media freedom matters so much. In the last year up until now, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 63 journalists have been killed across the world and 300 have been detained. We know that media is being crushed in so many countries; the statistics were read out by one of the previous speakers. We know that to report freely on matters of public interest is a crucial indicator of democracy. I am sorry that the Minister has left the Chamber, but I hope he will be told that I think the Government should take some pride in having created a media freedom project when Jeremy Hunt was Foreign Secretary. He did that alongside his equivalent in Canada. The two countries came together to create the Media Freedom Coalition because of their concerns about attacks on media freedom worldwide. The creation of that coalition has really developed—I can tell noble Lords this from my own experience, because the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute runs the secretariat for a high-level legal panel, and we have been doing an incredible amount of work on this. There are now 51 countries in the coalition, and we should remember that this initiative was started by Britain and its Foreign Office.
So why is there this contradiction that, in the very area in which we are supposed to be trying to play a major part in the world on media freedom, we are not protecting one of the major influencers that we have, which is the BBC World Service? The Foreign Office should try to get this right. Like others, I too would like to see a return to the grant in aid that used to be made for the World Service, as it is the only way you can really protect it, given what is currently happening with the funding of the BBC.
One of the things that came out of the Media Freedom Coalition—and for which we had argued—was the creation of emergency visas for journalists at risk. I regret to say that this country has not quite embraced that yet, but many other countries have, including Canada. Recently, we have seen the Czech Republic giving 600 emergency visas to young journalists from Russia who have had to flee because Russia has passed a law which says that, if anybody suggests that there is war taking place with Ukraine, they are subject to imprisonment. We have already seen journalists being imprisoned.
There will be a contradiction if we do not fund the World Service properly. I remind noble Lords that, sometimes, you can know the cost of everything and the value of nothing—that is precisely what we are seeing here.
My Lords, I also warmly welcome this debate on the importance of the BBC World Service and congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on his characteristically superb introduction. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Hampton on his inspiring maiden speech, which was clearly from a very experienced teacher.
In my short time, I will focus on relevant issues in North Korea, Burma/Myanmar, Nigeria and Armenia. I travelled to North Korea with my noble friend Lord Alton on three occasions and strongly supported his campaign to persuade a reluctant Foreign Office and BBC of the importance of opening a BBC Korean service. Ten years after our first visit to Pyongyang, the UN established a commission of inquiry, chaired by the distinguished Australian judge, Justice Michael Kirby. In 2014, it published a damning report, concluding that the human rights violations perpetrated by the regime amount to “crimes against humanity” and detailed
“an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought” and of
“the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.”
Seven years ago, the BBC began broadcasts to the Korean peninsula. Justice Michael Kirby had said BBC broadcasts would be a great encouragement to its beleaguered people. Indeed, breaking the information blockade in places such as North Korea is a lifeline to people living in repressive isolation. It also underlines our commitment to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to ensure unimpeded free access to information and news. It is surely something which we should continue, even in the most challenging financial times.
I turn to another very dark country, Burma—or Myanmar. I use the name Burma, because our friends there prefer it. For half a century, Burma was ruled by a succession of military dictatorships which kept the country closed, the people repressed and democracy in chains. Many times in the past 20 years, I have travelled across borders to support our partners with the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, in the Shan, Chin and Kachin states, with aid and advocacy. Last year, there were genuine democratic elections, but that period of reform was shattered when the military again illegally seized power in a coup on
Many people in Burma, including pro-democracy activists, ethnic peoples hiding in the jungle, and civilians living in fear, repeatedly emphasise how much they rely on the BBC’s broadcasts as a source of reliable and accurate information, encouragement and hope that the outside world has not forgotten them. The BBC’s Burmese service has a long tradition of which it can be proud, and which it should be given the resources to continue. We are living at a time when cuts have been made in many areas of public spending; we all understand that. But that should not mean cutting lifelines on which so many people in different parts of the world living under dictatorship and fighting for freedom rely—nor should it mean cutting the United Kingdom’s reputation as a major deployer of soft power in the struggle between open societies and autocracies. I look forward to the Minister’s response to this debate, and in particular any assurances he may be able to provide as to the future of the BBC Korea and Burmese services, which provide such a vital service to two of the most closed countries in the world.
I turn briefly to Nigeria. With temerity, I have to express a concern. I have made numerous visits to Nigeria—twice this year included—and the atrocities clearly meet the legal definitions of crimes against humanity, and even genocide. None the less, they continue to receive very little attention from the international community and from media, including the BBC World Service. Media reporting is crucial to shine light on the atrocities and ultimately to engage the international community on the issue. Absence of such reporting enables misinformation and disinformation—including the Nigerian and UK Governments’ failure to recognise, at least in public, the horrific seriousness of the situation—to be broadcast unchallenged by the truth. Many thousands of civilians have been massacred in recent years. InterSociety reports that 4,020 Christians have been killed between January and October this year, and 3,800 abducted in 2021. Many Muslims have also been killed. The killings and abductions continue, but there has been virtually no reporting by the BBC.
Briefly, on Armenia, I and others are deeply concerned about apparent bias reflected in the failure adequately to report continuing conflict perpetrated by Azerbaijan upon Armenians in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. This includes the refusal to report Azerbaijan’s war crimes and crimes against humanity, with violations of the ceasefire agreement reflected in the continuing detention of Armenian prisoners, the killings and atrocities performed by Azeri soldiers, and the destruction of sacred sites. The inadequacy of the BBC World Service in reporting the sustained and very serious perpetration of atrocities by Azerbaijan encourages continuation with impunity.
I hope that it is clear that I have a profound respect, indeed admiration, for the professionalism of the BBC World Service, and I strongly support continuation of funding for its work. I hope that it will highlight some of those areas which I and other noble Lords have mentioned need coverage.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate. It is not the first that he has secured on the subject of the World Service and I am sure it will not be the last. I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, and congratulate him on his maiden speech. He said that education is his passion; education is also my passion, and I look forward to hearing his contributions to debates on that subject going forward.
The World Service is an institution that I have supported and worked with for many years; it is one for which I have the greatest respect and admiration as the world’s most trusted and best-known international news broadcaster. It has had to adapt to the effects of cuts—politically motivated cuts—in funding over a period of more than a decade but has adapted to the challenges that that has presented with a determination to maintain the high standards and long reach for which it is renowned worldwide.
When its grant in aid from the then FCO ended, it was widely predicted that the move to licence-fee funding would see a reduction in services and quality of programmes; yet, while to a limited extent the first happened, the second did not, which has been due to the hugely talented and dedicated staff who work for the World Service. Today, its output can be said to be in a good place, with a total reach, as other noble Lords have said, of 365 million each week—a remarkable increase of 50% since 2016.
However, the World Service has achieved that despite, not because of, government. A succession of Tory Administrations have undermined the BBC as an institution, regarding it as insufficiently supportive of government policies. The contempt in which the corporation was held by the Johnson Administration reached its zenith with what I can only describe as the caricature appointment of Nadine Dorries—a long-time outspoken opponent of the BBC—as Culture Secretary. She regularly accused it of lacking impartiality in its programming, so it is somewhat ironic—in fact, it is much more serious than that—that, since her departure, the BBC has appointed a former GB News editorial director as its director of news programmes. Research commissioned by the BBC last year found that the organisation is associated around the world with distinctive British values of fairness, integrity and impartiality. What price those values now?
The World Service always keeps parliamentarians up to date with events in the world’s most troubled areas with its detailed briefings, both online and in person. Two days ago, I was privileged to attend an event organised jointly by the British Group of the IPU and the World Service to show a BBC Eye documentary entitled “Occupied”. That was a stunning secretly filmed record of life under occupation in Kherson that shed light on how the war in Ukraine impacts civilians and day-to-day life. It was very moving and was backed up by World Service journalists giving us their own experiences, as well as a visiting Ukrainian MP giving a first-hand account of life in her country.
Despite providing a small amount of additional funding following the Russian invasion, the Government have again made a political decision to cut the BBC’s funding, with no increases over the next three years. Following a strategic review of the World Service, the BBC’s reaction to that has been to cut its budget by £28.5 million a year from next year, resulting in almost 20% of all staff being made redundant. Whatever else they may be, those staff are not redundant; they are very much needed by many people living in conditions that we can only imagine.
Let us be absolutely clear where the blame lies: it lies fairly and squarely at the Government’s door. It can be argued, as indeed the National Union of Journalists does convincingly in a comprehensive briefing sent to noble Lords for today’s debate, that the cuts might have been more carefully targeted. One example mentioned by other noble Lords is the cutting of the Persian radio service for 17 hours a day. That will certainly be welcomed by the Iranian regime and will leave a void that may well be filled by a Saudi-funded channel. The BBC has been forced to make those cuts as a result of a Government who—no matter what the Minister may say in his reply—clearly do not value the BBC. In the words of the National Union of Journalists,
“These cuts were forced upon it by Conservative ministers who dislike the national broadcaster more than they value the national interest.”
Many in the Chamber today—and, I dare say, much further afield—will endorse that statement.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, the essential work of the World Service must be funded directly by the FCDO, as was the case prior to 2011. If I can nudge my noble friend on our Front Bench, I hope that that is a policy that the next Labour Government will feel able to take forward. It should be a given that our Government fully appreciate the huge asset that the World Service is, both to the BBC and to the UK. It should, but it will require a change of Government to bring that about.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He has been persistent in support of the BBC World Service and I congratulate him on securing this debate today. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, on his excellent maiden speech. I think we are going to hear a lot more from him, despite his school duties. It is a good job that we spend a lot of time here in the evening, so we can look forward to that.
The UK has had a pivotal role in promoting the rule of law and democratic values globally, through multilateral institutions such as the United Nation. We played a leading role in establishing the UN’s sustainable development goals, which established a reputation for the United Kingdom as a trusted partner across the world. Our influence is not restricted to relationships with Governments: our renowned institutions, such as the BBC World Service and our universities, as well as the export of music and other cultural assets, have given us huge soft power that we should not underestimate.
Many noble Lords have heard me say repeatedly that the ingredients of a thriving democracy are not limited to parliaments and parliamentarians. Civil society organisations, such as women’s groups, charities, faith groups, trade unions and other organised communities, have all demonstrated their role in defending democracy and human rights. When nations fail in their most important task of providing safety, security and freedom for their people, it is always civil society that leaps first to their defence. A vital part of strengthening our ties with civil society is the support we give through the provision of free, independent information.
As we have heard in the debate, the BBC is associated around the world with distinctive British values of fairness, integrity and impartiality. As noble Lords have said in the debate, 73% of the world does not have a free press, or has only a partially free press, and the BBC is essential in fighting the growth of disinformation and fake news. The World Service’s role in providing essential, trusted and accurate information has been highlighted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When that invasion took place, audiences of the Russian website more than tripled and audiences of the Ukrainian website more than doubled. In the face of Russian attempts to block international news content, the BBC stepped up its efforts to reach audiences, as we have heard, including by launching new TikTok channels.
It is really important that we underline our soft power activity, particularly the BBC, which, as the right reverend Prelate highlighted, is an integral part of the integrated review, the strategy, bringing these things together. How are we going to support civil society, which the integrated review stressed, if we do not have that soft power, if we do not have the World Service? Let me just say that
“the BBC World Service provides just that: a world service and a world-class service. It is something that we are, and can continue to be, very proud of, particularly in these dark circumstances of today … Global audience measure data for last year demonstrates that it is the top-rated international broadcaster for trustworthiness, reliability and depth of coverage.”
Those words may sound familiar to the Minister. He said them in a debate on
“the importance and respect with which we hold that organisation.”—[
As my noble friend Lord Stevenson said, 75% of the funding for the World Service comes out of the licence fee, which is a regressive taxation issue. There is pressure on that, but in the last spending review the Government agreed that investment in the World Service would be maintained at £94.4 million per annum for the next three years. In addition, as the Minister will undoubtedly say, the Government announced £4.1 million of emergency funding in March to support World Service journalism in Russia and Ukraine.
As we have heard, much of the funding the World Service receives from the FCDO is classed as ODA—we know what has been happening to that, with the cap of 0.5% and its implications for our policies to support the SDGs in countries in Africa and elsewhere. It is really important that we reflect on these impacts through the integrated review.
As my noble friend Lord Stevenson reminded us, the licence fee settlement resulted in a freeze in the first two years, which means that the BBC has to absorb inflation—necessitating, as it put it, tough choices. It must reduce licence fee spending on international news services, including the World Service, by £28.5 million by April 2023. This is at a time when the spread of disinformation is increasing and the need for trusted news and information has never been greater.
The BBC says that it is engaging constructively with the FCDO on future funding to minimise more damaging cost-saving decisions in the pipeline for next year. Earlier this month, BBC Director-General Tim Davie said that the level of future investment in the World Service was a strategic decision for the UK Government and the FCDO. Does the Minister agree with that? Will he commit that the planned update to the integrated review will consider the impact that cuts to the World Service will have on the UK’s influence?
We have heard that the World Service will become more digital. Digital first will result in some broadcast services ending—we have heard about the Arabic and Persian radio. This is particularly galling given the Iranian situation, where we have seen protesters experiencing brutal repression.
A strategy being developed to reflect the changing needs of people sounds fine, but I want to know what assessment the FCDO has made with the BBC of the pattern of changing needs—not only how people have changed how they access media but how totalitarian Governments may limit access so that they can stop people listening to such things as the BBC World Service and trace whether they are doing so through the internet. These are fundamental questions that need to be answered. As my noble friend Lord Liddle said, we have heard across all parties in this debate how we respect and value the BBC and its World Service.
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Alton for tabling this important debate. I thank other noble Lords for their insightful contributions, and I will try to respond to all the points raised. Before I do, I echo the remarks of other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, on a beautifully delivered and very impressive maiden speech. Like others, I look forward to his contributions in the weeks, months and years to come.
In his Motion, the noble Lord touches on the important theme of soft power and how we project UK values overseas. It sounds innocuous, but with democracy under attack—as a number of noble Lords have pointed out and provided examples of—and disinformation all around us, we cannot underestimate the impact of our soft power, nor take it for granted. It is fundamental to our international identity as an open, trustworthy nation. The UK has powerful tools to deploy in this regard. We have a vast and, I believe, brilliant diplomatic network, an education system geared to attract the very best minds, an arts sector offering a global reach and partners of huge international standing who can showcase our talents and values to the world. Of course, the BBC is a critical example of such international reach and one of the UK’s great national institutions. It should be a source of pride to us all.
Over the past 100 years, the BBC has touched the lives of almost everyone in the UK and made a unique contribution to our cultural heritage and identity. The BBC World Service in particular has made it one of the UK’s best-known international brands and, as others have said, one of the great UK exports. This year, as we have heard, the World Service celebrates its 90th anniversary, having grown over the decades to become the world’s largest and most trusted international broadcaster. It is top rated for reliability and depth of coverage, providing accurate and impartial news, analysis and discussion in some 42 languages to 365 million people every week, in every corner of the world. Last year, in our integrated review—as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out—the UK Government stated that the BBC’s foreign language services are part of what makes the UK a “soft power superpower”. As he also said, no other country has anything like it.
Incidentally, the noble Lord remarked on my use of my mobile phone. Your Lordships can see these brilliant people in the Box; like all Ministers I rely on an often-invisible team of officials who provide reliable and accurate information. I would love to pretend that my mind is encyclopaedic, but I rely on these wonderful people to ensure that I do not make any mistakes, and I was checking a fact on my mobile phone. I was listening with real care to the points that the noble Lord made, and I agree very much with almost everything he said. I share his views on the value of the organisation we are debating today—
That is another reason why I agreed strongly with the noble Lord—he was quoting me.
The UK is a fierce champion of media freedom and a proud member of the Media Freedom Coalition, which the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, rightly cited, and these values are reflected globally in the World Service’s broadcasts. That coalition now has some 50 members, and the UK has been among the most active of them. We co-chaired the coalition in 2019, and we have and continue to fund aspects of it, not least the secretariat. Like the noble Baroness, we recognise the value in that coalition.
Whether debunking disinformation or countering harmful state narratives, the World Service reports on topics that other media outlets simply will not touch. For example, its reporting continues to play a crucial role in challenging the Kremlin’s corrupted narrative, a point that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, made in his brilliant opening remarks. I can tell him that one of the facts provided by my team in the Box is that 4.7 million Russian viewers per week dipped into these services in 2021-22. So, it is a valuable resource—more than that, it is a critical resource of accurate information. Its unique, impartial lens allows it to speak to vulnerable and underrepresented audiences around the globe. The World Service promotes a free media, free expression and journalistic excellence. It undermines biased reporting and embodies our democratic values. That is real power. As the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, said, it is the jewel in the crown in so many respects.
The World Service was funded by grant in aid from the Government until 2016, when it moved under the mantle of the licence fee. I believe that decision was made in 2010. I will come on to the FCDO role in all of this. The noble Lord, Lord Hastings, suggested that the FCDO has engaged in spending on trashy Brexit propaganda—I may have got the wording wrong, but those were the sentiments. I do not think the FCDO has funded any such propaganda, certainly not trashy propaganda. I do not believe that is something my department engages in, but if he has any examples, I would be interested to hear them.
Since the decision was made to move to the licence fee, the FCDO has provided the World Service with nearly £470 million in funding through the World 2020 programme. Since that programme launched, as we heard from many noble Lords, 365 million people have tuned in weekly. That is a 40% increase since 2016, which was the start of the FCDO-funded World 2020 programme. The two are linked. It is hard to know exactly how strong that link is, but it is hard to believe that there is no such link.
This has allowed for expansion, including 12 new languages, mainly across Africa and Asia, and enhancements to existing language services including English, Russian, Arabic and Thai. The funding has helped with digital transformation and supported countering disinformation. In response to comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, the FCDO has committed to maintain the same level of flat cash funding of £283 million over the spending review period of 2022 to 2025, which equates to £94.4 million a year, of which £76.9 million is ODA and £17.5 million is non-ODA. None of that is licence fee funding; it all comes from the FCDO.
As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out, we also provided an additional £1.44 million in ODA funding this year, alongside £2.65 million from the DCMS, for Ukrainian and Russian-language services and to support the wider World Service in countering Russian disinformation. These arrangements remain in place, with the licence fee funding the majority of the World Service from a commitment of £254 million per annum.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, made some very powerful points. She particularly referenced Nigeria. Another batch of information I was able to harvest from my colleagues in the Box tells me that the FCDO specifically funds services in Igbo, Pidgin and Yoruba in Nigeria through the World 2020 programme. That is a commitment that we take seriously and will continue.
However, as noble Lords have recognised, we have to recognise the challenging fiscal environment in which the world finds itself. The BBC, just like households and businesses across the UK, is having to make tough financial decisions and identify savings across all its priorities. As part of that process, it has announced its intention to become a more “digital first” organisation. That has meant changes in the way some services are delivered, which I recognise has raised questions about what this means for global audiences in practical terms.
First, to clarify, the recent announcements confirm that under these proposals, there will be no language closures across the World Service. Audiences will retain access to all 42 language services, but increasingly through digital platforms, which are in any case becoming the most popular mode of engagement. I will come back to that in a second. Yes, the BBC has taken the decision to close 10 radio services by March 2023, including BBC Persian and BBC Arabic—points made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. However, in this digital age, radio audiences are shrinking, with no indication at all that the trend will reverse. In an example cited throughout this debate, in Iran, only 1% of the BBC’s total weekly audience of 13.8 million get BBC news solely via radio. The other 99% use BBC Persian on TV and online, both of which will continue, as with BBC Arabic.
Therefore it is unrealistic to suggest, as some have, that the Iranian Government are celebrating this development. The BBC continues to provide not far off 100% of the content that it has been providing, certainly to nearly 100% of the people who have enjoyed and consumed BBC News. For this reason, the BBC has committed to increase investment in digital services, reflecting how audiences engage with their services.
Specifically on Iran, a number of noble Lords asked what we are doing in response to recent threats to Iranian journalists. On
The BBC has set up new units in London, Delhi and Lagos to counter disinformation, producing award-winning investigative documentaries and impactful stories on modern slavery, the rights of women and girls, and local elections. In response to comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, a new China global unit will produce content focused on exposing the challenges and realities currently facing China and its fight for global influence, so we are not backing away from attempting to use this extraordinary tool that we are discussing today to try to influence proceedings and affairs in China.
A dynamic Africa content hub will commission and deliver more digital content for all 12 African language services and will provide coverage of the continent for the rest of the BBC. The BBC has said that these decisions will mean less reliance on local syndication partnerships, more ownership of content and greater freedom to broadcast on its own channels. It has also provided assurances that the World Service will continue to serve audiences in need, ensuring continued access to vital news.
We recognise, as did the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, that some decisions relating to the BBC’s operations will have impacts on jobs; we have already received and responded to questions from the public and both Houses on this subject. It is important to note that the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from the Government, which I think we all value and appreciate. That said, the funding that is currently enjoyed by the BBC is protected until 2025 as per the spending review settlements. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State of the DCMS has made it clear to the BBC that it should continue to make a substantive investment from the licence fee into the World Service to ensure that it continues to effectively reflect the UK, its culture and values in English and through its language services.
The FCDO is working with the DCMS on a regular basis to figure out how we can protect the BBC World Service interests in this transition that is happening. There is a very clear recognition—I reiterate it here—that we understand the value of the BBC World Service. Nothing that anyone has said in this debate so far about its value on so many different levels in any way parts from the position of the UK Government or me as a Minister, and that will be reflected in whatever arrangements are made going forward.
I accept all the noble Lord is saying about how the Government value the World Service, but does he think that the withdrawal of the radio service in Persian is the right thing to do at the present time?
As I said earlier, only 1% of the audience in Iran get their information via the radio, while 99% get it via TV, digital and so on. It is exaggerated and, in the context of the BBC overall having to find ways to live within its means and take preparatory steps for the years to come, it is not fundamentally a disastrous decision but is pretty peripheral. Obviously, you must see these things in the round, but the overwhelming impulse of all of us, including the Government, must be to protect the value of the BBC World Service. That does not mean delivering the same content in the same way going forward. The world is changing.
We trust that the BBC World Service is evolving just as its audience is evolving, and that it continues to provide information and inspiration to a vast and growing global audience, as a powerful expression of the UK’s soft power influence in the world. For as long as I am a Minister in this Government—and I do not believe that my position differs from that of colleagues—there will be a continued recognition of and support for this wonderfully British and successful tool that we are very lucky to enjoy in this country.
My Lords, it is clear from the Minister’s speech that he passionately believes in the BBC World Service. I hope that he will take our rich debate today to his ministerial colleagues as they reflect on the gap between resources and the ability of the BBC World Service to fulfil its mandate, not least to the 40% of the world without digital access. It may well be true but, compared with the number who listen from digital platforms, which can so easily be closed by regimes such as that in Iran, there are still 1.6 million people who listen by radio to the BBC Persian service.
I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Hampton on his maiden speech. I knew his late father; we became firm friends when he was a spokesman on Northern Irish issues and I was a spokesman on Northern Irish issues in another place. At the age of 18, his son invited me to speak at his school about the importance of getting involved in politics. I am very glad that I did not entirely put him off. It was wonderful to hear him today.
The noble Baroness, Lady Browning, said that we must look at this with fresh eyes, particularly the funding model. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said that the World Service is our greatest gift from Britain to the world. It should be a gift that goes on giving. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that “London calling” still means so much around the world. My noble friend Lady Coussins emphasised the importance of the BBC World Service in moments of jeopardy. It should not be a binary choice between radio and digital. “A voice for the voiceless,” said the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, said that once it is closed, it cannot easily be restored. The Minister referred to my noble friend Lady D’Souza saying that it is the jewel in our crown.
The noble Lord, Lord McInnes, said that our new Prime Minister should engage with the future of the World Service. Given the noble Lord’s previous role in Downing Street, I hope that he will draw Downing Street’s attention to our debate today. My noble friend Lord Hannay said that it is time for doubling down, not for cutting back. The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, said that it is crucial to our soft power, and for bettering understanding around the world. My noble friend Lord Hastings said that 40% of the world does not have access to digital services. He particularly talked about his own experiences in Nigeria.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, talked about the crucial importance of foreign language services, while my noble friend Lord Bilimoria said that “BBC” actually stands for “best broadcasting corporation”. He is right that it is a world leader and trusted, and that we should not be penny wise and pound foolish. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, said that the BBC World Service has a crucial role in promoting human rights and media freedom, and that we should not evaluate everything only by its cost but also by its value. My noble friend Lady Cox, with whom I travelled on three occasions to North Korea, and who has herself travelled regularly to places such as Burma and Nigeria, said that we must ensure that we do not block information to places and societies that are closed in such ways. She appealed for more, not less, reporting in places such as Nigeria and Armenia.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, was right: he took part in the last debate that the Cross Benches initiated on this and said that it would not be the last. He underlined the need to return to a traditional funding model. That was emphasised again and again throughout the debate, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, from the Opposition Front Bench. He said that we must be proud of the BBC World Service and that we should revisit this question, looking at updating the integrated review and reassessing the pattern of changing needs.
Just before this debate, we heard how a BBC journalist in China, Edward Lawrence, had been assaulted and arrested. On being freed, he has bravely returned to his work. For me, his story represents what today’s debate is all about. It underlines the importance of what the BBC World Service does, and your Lordships’ House must go on, as it has today from across the political divide, emphasising its importance and fighting for its future over the next 100 years.