HC Deb 14 May 2002 vol 385 cc629-32
3. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

What assessment he has made of the recent impact of the work of the BBC World Service in Afghanistan. [54370]

7. Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

What assessment he has made of the value of the BBC World Service's Arabic radio and online services. [54374]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Denis MacShane)

First, I pay tribute to the former managing director of the World Service of the BBC, Mr. Austen Kark, who died in the Potters Bar tragedy. He was an outstanding servant of that outstanding and uniquely British institution.

The BBC World Service has played a key role in the middle east and Afghanistan since 11 September, especially through its radio and online services in local languages. The new relay station in Oman, which will come into operation later this year, will improve reception for some 50 million people in the region.

Ross Cranston

I congratulate those on the Front Bench on the additional funding that they have made available for the World Service since the events of 11 September. However, the online service that my hon. Friend mentioned and others towards which the World Service is moving—FM, for example—are costly. Will my hon. Friend add my name, as an unreserved supporter of that great public institution, to the list that he can exhibit to the Chancellor in the current discussions on the next spending round?

Mr. MacShane

My hon. Friend's name will follow mine, together with the names of all 659 Members of the House, I expect.

Mr. Moore

The Minister is right to praise the World Service. Since 11 September, its Arabic service has moved to 24-hours-a-day operation and the number of online users of its Arabic service has increased by a million. The American Government have recognised the importance of broadcasting in the region, with the announcement of an extra $30 million for the Voice of America service. Given the fraught situation in the middle east and the need for a fair and impartial broadcaster for the region, will the Minister add my name to the list and make sure that the Foreign Secretary and the entire Foreign and Commonwealth Office support the bid for the modest increase that the BBC World Service needs in the next comprehensive spending review?

Mr. MacShane

I am glad to say that this Government have provided an immodest increase for the World Service—an extra £100 million between 1999 and 2004, and an extra £64 million in the present spending period. It is not just in the Arab regions that the World Service counts; listenership has doubled in the United States. On visits to Washington, I am always surprised at the fact that leaders of the State Department and other US Government Departments turn to the BBC World Service, the Financial Times and The Economist to get their news and views. The special relationship exists through the media, at least.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

It is right to pay a well-deserved tribute to the World Service in general, and to point out, for example, that it won the top honours at the recent Sony radio awards, and that Mr. Baqer Moin, the head of the Persian and Pashto service, won the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association award. I hope that my hon. Friend will not only add his name to the list, but ensure that the Chancellor's signature is added.

Mr. MacShane

My right hon. Friend has, I suspect, far more influence with our Chancellor of the Exchequer than I am likely to have.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

Let the record speak for itself.

Does the Minister agree that it is essential in present circumstances to recognise the value of the World Service, and in particular its broadcasts in Arabic and other languages throughout the whole of the middle east? Is not the World Service uniquely able to give an objective and impartial analysis of current events in the middle east—for example, the decision at the weekend of the Likud party to reject the idea of a Palestinian state, which many feel would unduly complicate the prospects of achieving a peaceful settlement in the middle east?

Mr. MacShane

The Arabic radio service of the BBC has about 10 million listeners and BBC Arabic Online receives almost 9 million page impressions a month. There is FM rebroadcasting in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan and Sudan. I am sure that most key leaders in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem also either listen to or log on to the BBC World Service, which gives a view of what is happening around the world that is not only unique, but above all impartial and not propagandistic in any way.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I add my congratulations to Bager Moin, head of the Persian and Pashto services? If money is available for the proposed bombing of Iraq, could one tenth of 1 per cent. of that amount be found for the World Service?

Mr. MacShane

My hon. Friend knows more than I do, but to my knowledge there is no plan to bomb Baghdad or Iraq. As I said, the Government have put more money into the World Service than it has ever received from any Government in the 60-odd years of its wonderful existence.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)

May I associate myself with the tribute paid by the Minister to Mr. Austen Kark, who lost his life last Friday at Potters Bar?

Given the vital role of the World Service's Arabic radio service in promoting wider understanding of our international objectives—as we have just heard, that is especially important in the context of the coalition against terrorism and the regional threat posed by the development of weapons of mass destruction—does not the Minister agree that the message conveyed by the World Service should be consistent? In relation to potential future action against Iraq, which he just mentioned, will he tell us what the message is? Is it the Prime Minister's reported assertion last week that Britain will not back United States military action against Iraq unless such action is also backed by the Security Council of the United Nations, or the earlier assertion by the Secretary of State for Defence that we would be perfectly entitled to use force without the support of a UN Security Council resolution"? Which is the true position of the Government and the one that they would like the World Service to convey?

Mr. MacShane

I worked briefly at the World Service in a previous incarnation, and I must say that the Government never told it what to report. When the Government's position is clear, no doubt the World Service will report it accurately. As the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, the Prime Minister and other Ministers have made it clear that actions with regard to Iraq or anywhere else will take place within the context of international law. That is well known and understood, and it will be reported by the World Service.

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