HC Deb 26 July 1979 vol 971 cc1048-61

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

From a beautiful North Devon we move to the problems of the BBC overseas service. Having often had a Consolidated Fund debate late at night or early in the morning, I think that there should be a succinct presentation. In the interests of succinctness—I am lucky enough to have drawn an early place in the ballot—I shall not dwell on the value of the BBC overseas service. Let us take that for granted. Most of us have travelled abroad and know at first hand the value of the service. If I do not parade all the good things about the service, that is in the interest of saving time.

The problem is that the BBC external services may be losing £4 million from its annual budget and that that will be taken as a continuing cut year by year. That is about 10 per cent. of the annual sum that provides both the cost of running the external services and the capital investment in new transmitters and relay stations. The loss of the 10 per cent. would mean cuts of between 17 per cent. and 25 per cent. in broadcast output. It is for the Government to decide which of the vernacular language services should be abolished as the Government and not the BBC decide that issue.

Technical factors would make it necessary to abolish groups of services broadcasting to the same areas of the world to obtain the full economy of closing down ancillary services and the appropriate transmitter station.

The BBC—I thank Bob Gregson for this—has given three possible packages that may be used as illustrative examples. The first example is all the vernacular services to Western Europe, Southern Europe and Latin America—that is, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Turkish and Finnish—and the closure of the relay station in the Caribbean which the BBC built with the Federal German external service, Deutsche Welle, a few years ago and now operates with it. The total saving would be £3.9 million.

I was lucky enough to lead the parliamentary delegation to Brazil in 1975, and I think it would be an absolute tragedy if, for example, the BBC overseas service operating in the Sao Paulo and Rio areas were to close down. Apart from anything else, British trade is very much affected.

The second example is all the vernacular services to the Indian sub-continent, Iran and Burma, £1 million, all those to the Far East and South-East Asia, £1.3 million, and all those to black Africa, £0.6 million, together with the closure of the Far East relay station, which was opened only two months ago. It has been modernised and rebuilt in Singapore at a capital cost of £6 million. The languages lost would be Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, Malay, Hindi, Persian, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Nepali, Hausa, Somali and Swahili. It would also be necessary to curtail part of the BBC's monitoring service to make up the package. The total saving would be £4 million. To those of us who care about Asia, it would be a sheer tragedy if that were to happen.

The third example is all the vernacular services to Western and Southern Europe, plus the Arabic service, and a part of the monitoring service, at a total cost of £4 million. To close down the BBC's overseas service to the Arabic world would seem to be madness beyond anything.

These are only examples, and are certainly not BBC proposals. The consequences of such cuts would be far reaching for the trade and strategic interests of Britain and of her allies and friends. The effect on the BBC's external services would be to concentrate, in a disastrous way, into one year the damage that the proposals of the CPRS Think Tank report sought to spread over several years. Those proposals were not accepted by the Government. The effects would not only be that language services would be abolished. There would also be effects on those services that remained, and upon the worldwide English service. They would be impaired in content, without the expertise of the destroyed services, and impaired in audibility as a result of the loss of transmitters. That is the technical view that I have to put forward.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), the Shadow Foreign Secretary, has written to Lord Carrington and has asked me to bring to the attention of the House a paragraph of his letter. It reads: Transistor radios—now estimated to be a billion in number—have become the major source of communication with hundreds of millions of people all over the world. Over the last twenty years there has been an increase of 300 per cent. in international broadcasting. If the BBC overseas service surrenders its international wavelengths, there will, indeed, be many alternative and not necessarily friendly 'takers'. We understand that, if these cuts were implemented, the BBC's overseas service would fall below that provided by Albania and by North Korea—a pathetic, insulting and disgraceful situation to achieve for such a petty cut in expenditure. Is it really very wise that Bush House and the overseas service should be mixed up inextricably with the departmental budget of the Minister of State, who is kindly waiting to reply? Some of us rather doubt whether this should go on to the Foreign Office budget at all. because there may have to be all-round cuts, and the considerations that would possibly justify some cutback in other Foreign Office activities might not apply to the overseas service of the BBC.

I state it as a belief—perhaps the Minister will contradict me if he has better information—that the BBC is not crying "Wolf" on this and that such cuts, if they were to come about, would be cuts where pruning would kill the plant. The services are down to bedrock already, and it would be extremely damaging if any of the proposals that we have heard about were to go ahead.

This is the use of the Consolidated Fund, if I may say so, in the nature of a pre-emptive strike. I hope that it will be taken in that spirit. If the Minister says that there is nothing in any of the fears I have put forward, I shall be delighted.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). I hope that the House will allow me to add just a little more meat to the tenor and direction of his argument, because we share the desire to try to get the Government to rethink the reported intent of cutting back the BBC's external service.

It is obvious that the BBC and the foreign service cannot be exempt from the cuts in Government expenditure. But the House may not be aware that the cuts in the external service which the Government are reputed to be seeking now fall after five years of solid cutting of its expenditure on services and its expenditure on capital, which is necessary underpinning for those services. I remind the House that in 1974–75 the BBC had to put in hand cuts of £390,000. This was the fleecing of all of the fat of the external services. It was the fleecing of printing and publishing programmes, publicity, overheads and extra staff. It was also the start of cuts in its broadcasting activity, in that it was in that year that the BBC had to cut back on its Caribbean service. At the same time it started, by direction, on a cutback in capital expenditure of £1,760,000. That capital expenditure cut had to be spread over the subsequent four years.

By some miracle, in 1975–76 the BBC was asked to make no additional cuts. In 1976–77 it was asked to cut its budget by £288,000—trimming the French, German, Romanian, Arabic, Chinese and Bulgarian overseas broadcasts, and dropping entirely the broadcasting service for Sri Lanka. The dropping of the broadcasting service in Sinhala to Sri Lanka was brought most dramatically back to the head of the external services of the BBC, who just the other day received as a guest in his office a young lady whom he had trained and who now worked for the Chinese. It was on the basis of the work that she had learnt to do for the BBC in broadcasting to Sri Lanka that she was now working for the Chinese broadcasting activities in that same direction.

In 1977–78 the BBC was asked to absorb £541,000 cuts, which cut sadly into its transcription activities, and postponed even further capital investment than the £1,760,000 cuts to which I have referred. In 1978–79—the current year just past—it was asked to absorb cuts of £732,000, which required a cut of 3 per cent. in manpower, and reduced the quality and put under strain for the first time its capacity to provide first-class programming over air.

It is against that background of five years of cuts that the Foreign Office is now asking the BBC to absorb a further cut of £4 million. During the past five years, the BBC has had to postpone vital investment and has felt able to do so in anticipation of better budgets in the future. In order to do that, it has preserved the airwaves time, the quality of the programming and the quality of the people within the external broadcasting services. That is reflected in the fact that over recent years it has built up an audience of more than 75 million throughout the world.

You, Mr. Speaker, and I could give up eating for a day, or perhaps even two days, but only in anticipation of eating again on one of these days. In contrast, the Foreign Office is asking the BBC to go into a period of starvation for another indeterminate length of time.

So much for the background. I should like to comment on the dramatic instances that the hon. Member for West Lothian gave of what these cuts might be. The hon. Gentleman mentioned in one of the packages that the BBC has given as an instance the fact that it would have to cut back on its Chinese service. Is it not peculiar that at this time, when this country is trying to build bridges to China rather than cut off contact with it, the external service should be asked possibly to excise its broadcasting in that direction?

Even more pertinent to today, there is the fact that the service might have to curtail, if not completely cut, the broadcasting in Vietnamese. Is it too peculiar a thought to put to the Government Front Bench that the BBC external broadcasting to Vietnam at this time may be the single strongest world deterrent to that country's Government acting in an even more awful way than it is now, in hoofing people out in the atrocious way that we have debated at other times?

As the hon. Gentleman asked, is it not extraordinary to consider at this time a cut which could excise at a stroke all the English broadcasting that was started from a relay station in the Far East only two months ago, covering all the English-speaking population of Singapore, the Pacific, Australia, New Zealand and all of Asia? I find it almost incredible.

The sad truth is that wherever the cuts came, whatever languages were included in the packages of cuts which would inevitable have to be made if £4 million were excised from the budget, there would be a knock-on effect on English-language broadcasting, the content and probably the reach of English language broadcasting almost anywhere in the world.

I should like to make four comments. First, the cuts are being debated on the eve of the bargaining that must take place at the World Administrative Radio Conference which is about to be called. Our delegates, our civil servants, going to that conference will go in a state of absolute nudity because of the threat of the £4 million cuts hanging over their heads. That is in sorry contrast with the co-ordinated way in which the Communist world will approach that conference.

Not only shall we be letting down ourselves, but in this instance we shall be letting down the developing world, with which Britain, in this area of activity, shares identical interests, not only in terms of the type of broadcasting, but a technical interest in the mutual desire for broader broadcasting bands. Our delegates will be left without political initiative, and there will be no British case to be put.

The hon. Gentleman has already touched on my second comment—the fact that if the cuts go through it will mean asking the BBC to absorb in one year the cuts that would have been spread over four years if that absurd suggestion from the Think Tank's review of the foreign service had been carried through. It is a good illustration of the absurdity of these cuts to cast one's mind back to the Think Tank's suggestion for its cuts to reduce the broadcasting on the basis of one-third of each day's broadcasting, which would have turned the whole BBC external broadcasting activity into a shambles.

My third comment concerns the Foreign Office as a whole. It is appalling the way in which the cuts in the Foreign Office activity have fallen not only on this aspect of its services—the BBC external service—but on its information services as a whole.

I believe it is now true to say that there is not a Foreign Office information officer between Delhi and Tokyo. How do we today try to project this country's interests to the other countries of the world in which we maintain representation if we do not have information officers of a quality, a stature and a reality in the same way as the other countries represented in these areas?

Things are worse than that. Not only have we excised these information officers we are excising their spirit, their ghost, their backdrop, by threatening the external services of the BBC. It is open to question whether some of the embassies in these areas would not—if they searched their hearts, as some may have done—admit that it would be better to close down ambassadorial representation if in place of it it would be possible to continue the BBC's external coverage of those areas.

That leads me to the fourth area of comment, somewhat closer to home. That, peculiar as it may seem to some hon. Members, touches on defence. What fundamental sense does it make if we have the correct intent of increasing our military defence expenditure by 3 per cent. when, at the same moment, the Government ask for a 10 per cent. decrease in winning people's minds? Is it too much to suggest that the total cost we envisage in this debate is covered by one of those tragic losses of aircraft in the seas around this country? That may put the debate into the proper context.

What we are discussing is a cut of between 17 per cent. and 25 per cent. of the total programme output of the BBC external service. As the hon. Member for West Lothian pointed out, we rank fifth at this moment in world broadcasting terms—behind the Soviet Union, the United States, the Warsaw Pact countries, Communist China and West Germany. If we carry through the cuts envisaged by the Government, we shall sink below North Korea, Albania and Egypt. What a strange position that would be for us.

These cuts threaten the name of the BBC. They undercut its reputation as the source of a balanced, independent, worldwide news service. Let us not threaten to return to the 1930s. When Lord Reith set up what was then the Empire service, he was condemned by the then Government and threatened with the possibility that he would have to raise the money for that service through the BBC licence. Mussolini and Hitler proved Lord Reith to be right and the then Government wrong. Do we have to face a position when some foreign Power will prove our Government wrong?

11.38 p.m.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe)

I believe that we should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for raising this subject tonight, not least because as politicians we ought to know that although communication is not always a matter of language, it is fundamentally important to be able to put one's ideas into a language which is easily understandable by both friends and foes.

There is one important point that we ought to make tonight which I do not think has quite been appreciated by the Government. The BBC world service is probably one service—perhaps even the only one—in the transmission of information which is widely trusted. It is known not to be an instrument of Government propaganda. Such a responsibility and reputation should not lightly be abandoned.

I got my early training in a world service of another European radio station, not the BBC. That nation, small though it was, believed it to be vital to spend a certain amount on conveying to other nations the views that it thought to be important.

Wherever I have travelled in the world, I have found that the BBC has been listened to and taken note of. It has not always been agreed with, but at least it has been trusted to the extent that people were prepared to follow its bulletins and to believe a great deal of their content.

I am not sure that the Minister understands that broadcasting is not an ordinary service. We are not talking about taking off the odd bus and putting it back into service when the money is available. If we cut our radio service, we lose not only a degree of expertise but our frequencies. As has been said, there are many people waiting to take those frequencies, and such people are not always as independent as the BBC world service. They will be concerned not with the international division of radio time but with selling their viewpoint to millions of people throughout the world.

If we lose our expertise, we shall lose the people who understand world broad- casting and have the ability to get across to their audiences. In our overloaded electronic households we tend to regard the radio as a secondary function. In many other countries radio has a primary function. People listen to it.

Mr. Dalyell

That is right.

Mrs. Dunwoody

They take in what comes through to them on their radio sets. In many instances it is the one certain form of the media which is with them constantly. It is not by accident that in many developing countries there has been an explosion in the ownership of radios. Radio programmes give people not only information but a means of broadening their cultural and factual backgrounds. Many Third World nations have readily grasped at this opportunity.

When I was in Kenya at the beginning of the year, I had a personal but real demonstration of the value of the world service. Two American priests had come out of Uganda for the short period of the anniversary of Idi Amin's takeover. Those Catholic priests, who were able to maintain their positions somewhat precariously inside Uganda, knew that they were at risk. Therefore, it was their habit to come out of Uganda during that period.

One point that they made to me more strongly than any other was that I should convey to the BBC world service "You represent our only lifeline. We rely on you, even when things are happening inside Uganda, to know exactly what our future is. Were it not for the world service, we should be totally cut off and deprived of reliable information. If that service were to be cut back, we should be at risk."

That is only one example of what is happening day by day. My local radio station—Radio Stoke—is presently transmitting a series of language lessons called "Let us speak English". There are some Vietnamese refugees in the area to the south of my constituency. Those lessons are compiled by the BBC at Bush House. Were that kind of facility not to be available, because it was not being used in the world service, the BBC would not be able to do the marvellous job that it is now doing in helping to absorb that small group of boat people into an English community by teaching them English and getting them to understand how we operate.

I hope that the Minister will not say, as Ministers are often compelled to say, "We cannot exclude one particular aspect of Government policy. We cannot make special exceptions. We cannot insulate the BBC world service against cuts. All areas must bear the brunt of cuts." If that is the attitude of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it will destroy something that it may not be able to put together again. The cost to this country in its overseas relations and perhaps even the cost in political stability in the areas where we have to cut back our broadcasting, whether the Middle East, Africa or South America, will be so great that the House will have the right to condemn the Government and condemn them strongly.

I hope that every hon. Member will join me in saying to the Minister that this is not a party matter but a matter of British interest. I hope that the Government will bear in mind that it is in the British interest that we speak.

11.45 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Blaker)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for raising this important matter and to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) for his contribution. I also listened with close attention to the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody).

I think that all hon. Members endorse the view that the BBC external services play an important role for this country. En the course of their time in the House, all hon. Members travel abroad and find, almost universally, that the BBC external services are highly regarded for their accuracy, integrity and reliability. As the hon. Member for Crewe said, the services are widely trusted across the world. Their standards are emulated by the services of other contries. I was speaking recently to the officers of a similar service in a friendly country and they said with pride that they thought that they did as well as the BBC. That was an implicit tribute to the standing of the BBC external services in the world.

The hon. Member for Crewe mentioned some of her recollections of tributes to the importance of the external services. All hon. Members who have travelled abroad will have similar recollections. I remember that the first time that I became aware of the role of the external services was on a visit to Egypt as a newly elected hon. Member. In a small village I suddenly heard the familiar six pips of the BBC and saw an Egyptian peasant sitting outside his modest house waiting for the BBC service.

More recently, I travelled to another country in Africa and I asked one of the leading members of the community in a small town whether the people ever listened to the BBC overseas services. He replied "Every afternoon at about five o'clock the whole town comes to a halt and we all gather round and, over cups of coffee, listen to the BBC." I also spoke recently to a dissident who came here from the Soviet Union. One of the first things that he wanted to do was to visit the BBC external services to advise them about what he regarded as improvements that they could make in their Russian service. That was a tribute to the importance of the Russian service. He thought it important that he should go immediately and tell the BBC how it could improve its service.

I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the dedication of the staff of the external services. They often work long hours and they sometimes face certain hazards—as we saw in the case of Georgi Markov. The condition of their premises in Bush House is perhaps not up to the standard that one hopes to see in 1979.

The House will know that the Government are engaged in reviewing all aspects of future plans for public expenditure. As my right hon. Friends have said, the conclusions reached will, we hope, be published as usual in the autumn. The review is not yet complete. I must disappoint the hon. Member for Crewe. I have to say that the BBC's external services cannot be excluded from this review. They are financed by a grant-in-aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and thus their expenditure is comparable with the expenditure made by other Government Departments.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the hon. Gentleman answer a specific question—namely, whether it is desirable that Bush House should be geared to the Foreign Office Vote?

Mr. Blaker

That is a very much wider question. I have taken note of the point that the hon. Gentleman made in his speech, but I do not think that this is the point with which we are particularly concerned tonight.

The review that we are conducting is a review of the projected expenditure plans for next year, the plans drawn up by the former Government. This is a perfectly normal procedure. It is normal that this should happen at this time of year and that a White Paper should be produced in October or November giving the Government's conclusions about future spending. In recent years the timetable has slipped a bit. The White Paper has tended to appear in the early part of the following year, but we have reverted to the previous practice.

The fact is that if we were to leave the spending plans of the previous Government untouched—I am speaking generally now—we would be faced with the prospect of making substantial increases in taxation, direct and indirect, in order to meet large increases in spending. That is why we are conducting a rigorous review.

However, I must remind the hon. Lady that it is not only the Conservative Government who have been conducting a review which covers the BBC external services. She will remember that in the previous Government's White Paper, Cmnd. 7308 of August 1978, it was pointed out that the previous Government were conducting a review of the vernacular services. If she looks at paragraph 62 of that White Paper, she will find the following passage: Cuts can however be made in some of the vernacular services. The pattern of vernacular services should not be regarded as immutable. A review of all the vernacular services is being carried out in order to examine ways of concentrating resources where they can be put to the best use.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I hope that the Minister will acquit me of any double standards if I say that I would not have accepted that from my own Government. What I want to know from him is where the Foreign Office will take the responsibility of actually cutting specific services. It is all very well saying that one is prepared to look at what is happening to see whether it is possible to change the vernacular services. What will be twice as difficult is for any member of the Foreign Office to come to the House and say which of those services is to be wiped out. That is the alternative that the Government are facing.

Mr. Blaker

I was simply making the point that the previous Government were also conducting a review of the vernacular services and that what we are now doing is to review the BBC external services as part of a comprehensive review of Government spending, which is a normal feature of the Government calendar.

I have been asked to comment on the implications of a cut of £4 million—a figure which has been widely canvassed. I cannot now comment on the implications of any cut, if a cut were to be made, because, as I say, the review has not yet been concluded. If I were to make any comments on the possible scenarios to which the hon. Member for West Lothian referred, I would be discussing something which is entirely hypothetical.

Mr. Dalyell

If it is so hypothetical, why did the chairman of the board of governors of the BBC, Sir Michael Swann, find it necessary to go and beard the Foreign Secretary last night?

Mr. Blaker

The purpose of the chairman in visiting the Foreign Secretary was, I understand, to express his anxiety about the possibility of cuts. The Foreign Secretary told him that the BBC external services must be included in the current review of Government spending, as I have told the House.

Mr. Dalyell

I ask the hon. Gentleman not to kid us. We are not as stupid as all that. The fact is that the chairman of the board of governors of the BBC does not go to see the Foreign Secretary if there is nothing to talk about.

Mr. Blaker

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not listen to me. Of course there was something to talk about, and I have just described the purpose of the chairman's visit and the answer given by the Foreign Secretary. If the Government decide in the end that cuts are necessary in the external services of the BBC, there will be consultations with the BBC about the ways in which any damage to the BBC can be minimised.

I have noted the points made, and I agree with hon. Members about the merits and importance of the BBC external services. If cuts have to be made, it will not be because of failings on the part of the BBC but for much wider reasons.

Mrs. Dunwoody

With respect, it is not good enough to say that of course the Goverment will consult the BBC before any cuts are made. Although the BBC controls the content of the programmes, the Foreign Office will have to decide which services will be cut. The hon. Gentleman's soothing words, kind though they are, do not convey any information that we did not previously have. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he will not come to the House and make clear to hon. Members which services are to be cut, and consult the House before taking an axe to the BBC external services? If that is so, he is failing in his duty. It is not acceptable to say that the Government will talk to the board of governors when that point is reached. Before he leaves the House tonight, will the hon. Gentleman give us an undertaking that whatever decisions are taken, whatever cuts he thinks are necessary, he will come to the House to justify them and give us the opportunity to tell him what we think of the decisions?

Mr. Blaker

As I have said several times, the review is not yet complete. When decisions are taken, they will be announced in the usual way.