HL Deb 06 February 1957 vol 201 cc537-61

2.45 p.m.

LORD STRANGrose to draw attention to the inadequacy of the provision made for the external broadcasting services of the B.B.C.; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: When, a short time ago, a Motion was put down by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, about the sound and television services of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Independent Television Authority, with special reference to the domestic services, it seemed to one or two noble Lords and to myself that it might be useful if the external broadcasting services of the B.B.C. could also be brought up for discussion. The time seems to be ripe for this, because it is now over two years since the question of the overseas information services as a whole, including, of course, the external services of the B.B.C., were the subject of a Motion introduced by the noble Lord. Lord Birdwood. That is the excuse for the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper to-day.

I should perhaps explain that though, together with forty-four other persons, drawn from many walks of life, I am a member of the General Advisory Council of the B.B.C., I am speaking to-day on my own behalf, and not in any sense on behalf either of the General Advisory Council or of the Corporation. The General Advisory Council, as your Lordships will know, is appointed by the Corporation under their Charter to advise them on the business and affairs of the Corporation. The Council can advise, question, criticise or commend the Corporation, but it has no responsibility for their acts.

Anyone who wishes to speak with knowledge about the external services of the B.B.C, is in some difficulty. These programmes are broadcast from London in over forty foreign languages, as well as in English, and they are transmitted for a total of about eighty hours each day. There is therefore no easy way to test the quality of all these broadcasts, or to assess their impact upon the minds of listeners overseas. All too often, we are apt to rely upon the isolated report, generally adverse, by some chance listener to some individual programme, and from this we are all too ready to judge the output of these broadcast services as a whole. But, fortunately, in addition to the copious information published by the B.B.C. themselves, there is one source of information and one independent judgment on the value of these services on which the greatest reliance can be placed: I refer to the Report of the Independent Committee of Inquiry into the Overseas Information Services, most ably presided over by the noble Earl, Lord Drogheda, who, I am glad to say, is to intervene in this debate after me. That Report was presented to the Government in July, 1953, and a summary of it was published in April, 1954. The Report of the Committee of Inquiry covers the departmental information services and the British Council, as well as the B.B.C. external services, though it is only about the last—that is to say, the B.B.C. external services—that I am venturing to address your Lordships to-day.

The members of the Committee of Inquiry approached their task in a healthily sceptical state of mind, and they treated the claims of the broadcasting services in a cool and discriminating spirit. This hard-headed approach on their part adds weight to the favourable judgment which the Committee pass on these broadcasts and to the recommendations for their extension to which they commit themselves in their conclusions.

There is one matter on which some preliminary remarks may be permitted, and that is the system—I think it is a unique system—under which the B.B.C. external services are conducted. The essential point to notice here is that broadcasts from London addressed to foreign countries, to Commonwealth countries and to British overseas territories, whether in the General Overseas Service, in English, or in the various special services, in foreign languages, are not prepared or passed by the Government. The Government find the money for them by way of annual grant-in-aid, which runs at the moment at somewhat over £5 million a year. The Government also lay down from time to time the languages in which the external broadcasts are to be made, and the number of hours which are to be devoted to broadcasts in each language. But that is as far as precise Government direction goes. The actual content of the broadcasts remains the entire responsibility of the B.B.C.

This independent rôle of the B.B.C. has been emphasised by the Government themselves. In the White Paper onBroadcasting Policy, issued in 1946, it is stated: The Government intend that the Corporation should remain independent in the preparation of programmes for overseas audiences. The White Paper then goes on to add a balancing reference to the national interest: The Corporation should obtain from the Government Departments concerned such information about conditions in these countries and the policies of His Majesty's Government towards them as will permit it to plan the programmes in the national interest. But the B.B.C. has not only to be independent; it has also to be objective. The White Paper of 1946 is emphatic on this point. It says: Great care should be taken to ensure the complete objectivity of the news bulletins.…The Corporation's reputation for telling the truth must be maintained, and the treatment of an item in an overseas bulletin must not differ in any material respect from its treatment in current news bulletins for domestic listeners. But there is more than this. In addition to observing complete objectivity in the broadcasting of news, the B.B.C., with the formally stated approval of the Government, uses complete impartiality in the treatment of controversial issues—that is to say, objectivity in the broadcasting of news, and impartiality in the treatment of controversial issues.

The B.B.C. have been under heavy fire from some quarters for the handling of their news during the Suez crisis. The profound division in domestic opinion at that time faced the B.B.C. with a problem the like of which they had never had to meet before in their overseas programmes, and the like of which we hope they will never have to meet again. It has been suggested that they should have concentrated on the Government's case, and should have played down all contrary views and suppressed inconvenient facts. But the duty of objectivity which is expressly laid upon the B.B.C. by the Government, and the policy of impartiality which the B.B.C. have adopted for themselves, do, it seems to me, carry with them the consequence that, if public opinion is deeply divided on any issue of foreign policy, this fact must needs be reflected in the overseas broadcasts. In point of fact, it would have been fruitless to try to conceal it. But it can, I think, fairly be required of the B.B.C. that, in the national interest, the Government's case should, as a matter of priority, always be put as vigorously, as cogently and as persuasively as possible, and that opposing views should be reported on their merits with a due sense of responsibility.

I have just been reading what is certainly a voluminous, and what I believe to be a widely representative, selection of the news bulletins, news reviews and news commentaries put out from London to a variety of countries by the B.B.C.'s external services at the height of the Suez crisis. Having read them, I am glad to be able to record my opinion, to the best of my own judgment, that, with one possible exception, the temper and content of all these broadcasts were in complete accord with the principles laid down in the White Paper of 1946. I go further. I would say that, as I read, I could have wished that the Government could always have made as good a case for themselves as the B.B.C. commentators sometimes made for them. Your Lordships may have noticed the tribute paid to these broadcasts by Sir Richard Boyer, Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, in a letter to The Times of January 25. Sir Richard said that he was in the East at the time, and that the honesty of these programmes made an immense impression on Arab-Asian opinion. Even hostile critics were moved to admit that in the long term there could be little fundamentally wrong with the heart of a nation which could show such practical liberalism at such a time. Those were the opinions expressed and the views reported by the Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

There is also a striking reference in the Drogheda Report to this duty of objectivity. The Drogheda Committee say that they believe the B.B.C.'s high reputation for objective and honest news reporting to be "a priceless asset"—that is the phrase they use. And they add that this high reputation "must be maintained at all costs", and that they "would deplore any attempt to use the B.B.C. for anything in the way of direct propaganda of the more obvious kind." These seem to me to be wise and weighty words, and I would ask the noble Earl who is to reply whether Her Majesty's Government still adhere to the views about independence and objectivity expressed by their predecessors in the White Paper of 1946. That is my first main question.

What are the main objects of these broadcasts? They have two separate purposes. One is to provide links with the Commonwealth and with British communities abroad by direct contact with the individual listener. This is done chiefly through the General Overseas Service in English, which is a kind of world-wide 21-hours a day Home Service. The second purpose is to present British views and policies to individual foreign listeners, both in English and in their own languages. This is done as a part of the great struggle for men's minds in which the free world is now engaged. It also serves as a support to our diplomacy in the promotion of our own political and economic interests throughout the world.

If it is a mistake, as I think it is, to underestimate what these broadcasting services can do, it is no less a mistake, it seems to me, to overestimate their capabilities. There are some things that the B.B.C. external services cannot do. For one thing, they cannot in normal times attract great nation-wide audiences like our own more popular Home Services. You can put out programmes but you cannot compel people to listen. You must attract and hold your listeners. In fact, quite a good number of people do listen, and listen regularly. For example, in certain cities in Pakistan, about 30 per cent. of licence holders listen to the B.B.C. English programmes, and about 20 per cent. listen to the B.B.C. programmes in Urdu. In France, there is an audience of about 3½ million, or about 11 per cent. of the adult population; and of these abort 300,000 listen daily. There are not many national French newspapers with a circulation greater than that.

There is another thing which the B.B.C. services cannot do. They cannot, it seems to me, meet untruth with untruth, and hate with hate. Lies can be more exciting and more interesting than the truth. Hatred can be more exhilarating than cool reason. Men, alas !, seem to like having their evil passions roused, and there are broadcasting services, whether from Moscow or from Cairo, which play on these passions. It is hopeless to expect the B.B.C. to sway the mob in Cairo, in Damascus or in Amman, as is done by the "Voice of the Arabs", but even behind the Iron Curtain, even in mob-ridden Middle Eastern capitals, they can reach a minority, the minority who are anxious to know what is going on outside the Iron Curtain, the minority who still think soberly and critically about world affairs.

If examples are required, I would quote the Moscow taxi-driers who told their clients the story of Warsaw, as heard over the radio from London, or the Moscow University students who posted up transcripts of the B.B.C. Russian news bulletins about Hungary. I would also recall the moving message of appreciation received by the B.B.C. on November 3 from the Free Hungarian Radio in Budapest during its very brief existence. And I would not omit the remark by the Sheikh in the Aden Protectorate: I listen to the 'Voice of the Arabs' and I like these broadcasts because they come from an Arab country and I am an Arab, but afterwards I tune in to the B.B.C. in order to find out if what they say is true. So the B.B.C. believe, and the Drogheda Committee confirm, that these broadcasts will make their best impact if they are good, if they are regular and if they are honest. There is hardly a part of the world where it may not quite suddenly become important that the British view should be driven home to the man in the street. That is why it is essential that the B.B.C. should be able to maintain a stable world-wide service which can maintain a steady body of listeners at all times and which can attract a wider audience when times of crisis create a wider interest.

External broadcasting is a long-term operation. Programmes cannot be turned on like water out of a tap. That is a truth which other Governments have learnt. Whereas in 1947 the B.B.C.'s external services from London ran at about 700 hours a week, they have since 1952 been running at no more than 560 hours a week. This means that the B.B.C.'s services have been overtaken and surpassed, not only by the United States, with 930 hours, and the Soviet Union with 668 hours, but also by the Eastern European Communist countries, with 730 hours. The Drogheda Committee, for all the scepticism of their original approach, confessed that they could not in the end avoid the conclusion that a modern Government has to concern itself with public opinion abroad and be properly equipped to deal with it. But they also said that it would be better not to do the work at all than to skimp it.

In the light of all the facts, my Lords, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is just what the Government have done. They have skimped the external broadcasting services. On grounds of economy, year after year for the past eight years, cuts have been made in these services. Your Lordships will note that I have said "cuts in the services" and not "cuts in the grants-in-aid". The figures of the grants have, indeed, usually been slightly increased from year to year, but costs have risen faster than the grant. Costs have risen by about 60 per cent., while grants have been increased by only about 30 per cent.—only half the figure required to maintain the programmes at a level.

The net result of all this is that the grant-in-aid for 1955–56 represents a net loss of £1 million worth of broadcast services, as compared with the position in 1947: that is to say, a loss of £1 million worth of services on a budget of a little over £5 million. By delving into the B.B.C.'s Annual Reports, as I have done, it is possible to gather details of what these progressive cuts have meant in practice. I do not propose to weary your Lordships with a catalogue. The main figures are to be found—and they are very depressing figures indeed—in a Written Reply given in another place on February 1. I would only say that the effect of the cuts has been world-wide, but that they have fallen with special severity on the Latin American and Western European services. They have not merely reduced hours of broadcasting from London: they have also caused very heavy reductions in local re-broadcasts and transcription services; and they have seriously adversely affected the quality of the programmes.

Let us not overlook that this whittling down of this great and indispensable service has taken place during the years when the beat of Communist propaganda throughout the world has grown more pervasive, when the opportunities to exploit the widening chinks in the Communist armour have become more promising, and when Cairo Radio has attacked our positions throughout the length and breadth of the Middle East, and in Africa. This process has been described, unkindly, as "death by a thousand cuts"; but, so far as I know, there has been no intention to kill the B.B.C. external services. I sincerely hope not. But they have certainly been effectively hobbled. The art of hobbling on organisation without entirely crippling it is one which, as I know to my cost, is well understood and is practised in Whitehall. But, the external broadcast services having been effectively hobbled, Government Departments, with each new crisis that arises in the world, call upon the B.B.C. at short notice and expect them to make a sudden sprint or spurt in one direction or another.

The Government cannot say that they have not been warned. The Drogheda Committee said that these broadcasts were virtually the only form of propaganda capable of penetrating the Iron Curtain. They accepted the view that they were the main information weapon in the Middle East. They expressed the opinion that the Far Eastern and Latin American services were inadequate for their respective purposes. They made three main recommendations. First, they made proposals for the expansion of certain of the services, involving additional annual revenue expenditure of £620,000, set off by projected savings in Western Europe of £135.000—that is, a net increase of £485,000. Secondly, they estimated the requirements of capital development at about half a million pounds a year over a period of from five to ten years. Thirdly, they recommended that all overseas information work, including, of course, the B.B.C. external services, should be based on a long-term plan, not subject to short-term financial fluctuation. There was the position in 1953—inadequate programmes for many important parts of the world; and a growing inadequacy and obsolescence of transmitting equipment, particularly for relay purposes in South East Asia and the Middle East. This had left the B.B.C. a long way behind the United States and the Soviet Union; so much so that the Drogheda Committee said that the first priority for broadcasting must be a large scale programme of capital development designed to put the external services on a proper technical footing. And finally, a continual annual pruning of the services instead of an element of financial stability.

Is the position any better to-day than it was when the Drogheda Committee reported? My Lords, it is not; it is even worse. Year after year, rising costs have eaten into programmes and technical equipment. Though the Government of the day stated that they accepted the broad principles of the Drogheda Report, practically nothing has been done to carry out its recommendations so far as the B.B.C. broadcast services are concerned. Except in one particular, the Committee's recommendations have remained a dead letter. A slight extension was, indeed, made in the B.B.C.'s Arabic service, giving four and a half hours a day instead of four hours as before. But this was made possible only by making reductions in B.B.C. services elsewhere. The principle of robbing Peter to pay Paul was the only way the B.B.C. could meet the new demands made on them. And what is more, the B.B.C. were still unable to supply themselves with the relay equipment necessary to allow their Arabic programmes to compete technically with the "Voice of the Arabs" put out from Cairo.

This is what the B.B.C. said about that in their Annual Report for 1955–56: An important need in the Middle East is the provision of a medium-wave transmitter in the Eastern Mediterranean to relay the B.B.C.'s Arabic service and other related services for the Middle East. The case for the necessary capital expenditure was put to Her Majesty's Government sixteen years ago and has been pressed upon them on many occasions since then, but no funds have yet been made available for this purpose. I hope the noble Earl who is to reply will be able to tell your Lordships that this situation is to be improved. Of course, I am aware that Her Majesty's Government have recently requisitioned the facilities of the Near East Arab Broadcasting Station in Cyprus, and that they themselves are putting out programmes from that station. I hope the noble Earl will be able to tell your Lordships what the intentions of Her Majesty's Government are as regards the future use of the facilities of that station.

To sum up this part of the argument, apart from partial reconstruction out of revenue of a transmitting station at Tebrau, in Johore, in 1949, for relays to the Far East and Australia, no appreciable capital funds have been made available at any stage for the modernisation of the B.B.C.'s transmission equipment since 1943—thirteen years ago. In the light of all this, I beg to ask the noble Earl whether he can state the present position of the Government on the three main points raised by the Drogheda Report—namely, first, the expansion of inadequate services; secondly, the provision of long-needed equipment; and thirdly, the need for financial stability. That is my second main question.

Among the recommendations of the Drogheda Report was a recommendation that the French, Italian, Danish, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish services should be terminated. That recommendation, I am glad to say, has not been carried out either. I do not know whether the Drogheda Committee would have reached the same conclusion if they had been sitting to-day. However that may be, I wish to put in a strong plea for the retention of these Western European services. The Suez crisis showed that Western European opinion is not so firmly on our side or so well informed through other channels that we need not cultivate it. In fact, even in the friendliest countries, the internal broadcasting systems were so biased that the British case almost went by default. For example, I believe it to be the case—I do not know whether the noble Earl can confirm this—that in Norway the content of the Prime Minister's broadcast of November 3 would not have come to the knowledge of the Norwegian public at all had it not been carried in the B.B.C.'s Norwegian service. One Norwegian listener wrote: Even if we did not all agree with Eden's action, through the sober presentation of the facts behind it in the B.B.C's programme, one has come to realise that it was the right thing to do.

But there is another point. If N.A.T.O. means anything, if Western European Union and the Council of Europe mean anything, if the European Free Trade Area is to mean anything, surely we must neglect no means of building up the community and developing the intimacy of our relationship with our European partners. The B.B.C. services can contribute to this. So long as they continue, they stand as a symbol of our desire for a closer relationship. To discontinue them would cast a chill over that relationship. It would also leave the field more open to the constant and increasing attacks upon the cohesion of the Western European Community put out from Moscow. There are trends of opinion in all Western European countries to which these Moscow broadcasts can make an appeal. There is good evidence to show that in Norway, for example, the reduction of the B.B.C.'s service some years ago was followed by a considerable increase in the number of listeners to Moscow broadcasts. In my view, it would be a grave mistake to shut down the Western European service.

My general plea, therefore, is, that Her Majesty's Government should look upon this external broadcasting question in a large way. The external services are, as Sir Richard Boyer said in his letter to The Times from which I have already quoted: one of the strongest arms of British diplomacy. I would add that, as such, they are also one of the arms of our defence, and one of the means of promoting our vital economic interests overseas. In the world as it is to-day, we need these supplementary arms more than ever before. In our present position in the world, we need them more perhaps than does any other Power. We have been told in the plainest terms and on the best authority that the services are inadequate and that the equipment is deficient.

It is not as though vast sums of money were required. Our expenditure on the external services is at present running at about one-third of 1 per cent. of our defence budget. I am not competent to say what additional annual sum would be needed to put these services on a sound and secure basis; but I gather that if the grant-in-aid could be raised by about £1 million a year (that is, to about £6¼ million a year), with adequate provision for any further rise in costs, the work could be done more nearly in the way it ought to be done. Of the increase, £500,000 would be for the modernisation of equipment and £500,000 for the restoration and development of services; and that, in fact, is not far off what the Drogheda Committee themselves proposed nearly four years ago.

Are we really to say that we cannot afford £6 million or so for these essential services? We have been told that they are a "priceless asset." Let us treat them as such and get the most we can out of them. No vast programme of expansion is called for. There is no need to try to shout down our rivals in the field. What is required is that the British voice should be heard everywhere in the world to be speaking day by day. There will always be listeners. In the less critical times, their number may not everywhere be large, but in times of crisis they will multiply overnight. The continuous maintenance of services throughout the world is the only means of ensuring a hearing for the British case wherever it may be urgently needed. I beg Her Majesty's Government, in their own interests and in the interests of all of us, to make this possible. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.22 p.m.


My Lords I should like first of all to thank the noble Lord, Lord Strang, for the kind things he has said about our Report, and I am, of course, very grateful to him for having taken it out of its pigeon-hole and given it another dusting. I should like also to say how much we owe the admirable secretary whose services were lent to us by the Foreign Office. I could wish that the noble Lord's Motion had referred to all the information services, because, although the British Broadcasting Corporation services are probably the most important of the information services, that is not true in all countries or in all circumstances. Anyone who has had the stamina to read through the summary of our Report will know that there are many other services—the information offices which are maintained abroad by the Foreign Office, by the Commonwealth Relations Office and by the Colonial Office; the much-criticised British Council, whose main work is. I think, largely misunderstood and underrated; the Central Office of Information, which provides written and other material to be used abroad; the News Department of the Foreign Office, to which foreign journalists go for information, and the many other agencies that are maintained in this country by Government Departments. So I hope your Lordships will bear with me if I say a word on the picture as a whole, and not only on the B.B.C.

The noble Lord, Lord Strang, is quite right in saying that we approached our inquiry in a spirit of some scepticism. I believe that most, or at any rate many, people in this country have a kind of mistrust and dislike of propaganda. It is a fairly expensive form of activity and one which can never be proved to have any practical result. I believe that, to a certain extent, we shared in the bias which many of us have felt towards an activity which is somewhat alien to the British character. But we had not proceeded very far in our inquiry when we were driven to the conclusion that our services really were vital to this country; and the further one got away from this country during the inquiry, the more strongly did the need for the information services present itself. I believe that one is more likely to think rightly on these subjects when one is Thousands of miles away than when one has returned home, when the sense of urgency has been dulled.

Having decided that the services as a whole were vitally essential, we then had to look at the means that were available to carry them out. We found that, although the need for the services had been increasing since the war, the means for carrying them out had been steadily diminishing. Taking into account rising costs, on the one hand, and the reduction in the money available, on the other, we found that between 1947 and 1953 the effective effort deployed had been approximately halved; and I imagine that costs have risen a great deal since 1953. So we recommended that Her Majesty's Government had no option, but to choose between a considerable strengthening and expansion of our services or a considerable curtailment of some of the activities, in order that what remained might at least be effective.

We did not advise considerable curtailment. What is necessary, above all, is that there should be a long-term plan, with proper pay and security for the men employed in these services, and that there should be an end of the recurrent and haphazard cuts that have gone on every year. It seemed to us that what had happened was that somewhere towards Budget time each year the services were told: "There has got to be a reduction. Only this amount will be available, and you can tight it out between yourselves who is to have what." I can think of nothing more discouraging or inefficient than such a system and I hope that one day it may be done away with. I can well understand that the Treasury, faced as it has been with one financial crisis after another, must look with a jealous eye on all expenditure, and perhaps particularly on expenditure on such an imponderable as the information services. But we must consider not only what we can afford, but also what we cannot afford to be without; and I feel that the information services are something that we must have and must keep efficient.

There is this to be said for the information services: they constitute, in this seemingly never-ending cold war, the only weapon that does not become obsolete or obsolescent the moment it is forged, and almost as soon as it is off the drawing board. In broadcasting, at the end of the war we were the most efficient nation, with the largest programme of hours. But that is not so now. Not only has there been, on the one side, financial stringency in this country, but, on the other side, there has been a vast increase in external broadcasting by other countries—I think that by 1953 it was ten times what it had been at the end of the war. The powerful and efficient B.B.C. transmitters could no longer be relied upon to be heard all over the world. The "Voice of America" and Moscow Radio have met their problems by setting up stations near the "target areas." I think I remember that, even by 1953, the strongest signals heard in Delhi came from a Russian station at Tashkent. By and large, that is probably the sort of thing which obtains all over the world. We have not been able to afford to do that, and it makes it very difficult for us. But, at any rate, I think we ought to see that what we have got is as efficient as it can be made.

The noble Lord, Lord Strang, has referred to what our Committee said about the unique reputation for honest reporting that the B.B.C. acquired during the war. I certainly think that we should still feel that this is a precious asset which must be kept, whatever happens. We did make a few suggestions of economy, but they were not, of course, very well received by anyone—except possibly the Treasury. I am not sure now that we should have suggested cuts in the Western European services to which the noble Lord has referred. I do not think that we should have done so at the time, had it not been one of those times of financial crisis which are now endemic. We thought that the greatest need was to strengthen the Far Eastern services and also, for commercial and other reasons, the Southern America Services. We felt that there was then less need for the European services, because the countries of Western Europe are pressed much more together and they have other means of keeping in contact with British public opinion.

I wish to end by saying once more how vital it is to have a long-term plan, and to stick to it. What I am about to say is probably most Utopian, but I could wish that the scale of our information services could be decided by an all-Party body, so that continuity could be assured over a long term of years.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, I rise strongly to support the Motion standing in the name of Lord Strang—


Are we going to keep to the order of the list of speakers?


I have already arranged that, if I may be allowed to say so. I asked subsequent speakers if they would mind my intervening for a few minutes now, as I have an important engagement at four o'clock. With the greatest readiness and courtesy they both agreed.

Now, if I may begin again, after that personal explanation, I rise strongly to support the Motion standing in the name of Lord Strang. My justification for doing so is very simple, and it will not take long for me to put it to the House. I served for twelve and a half years in the Far East, for twelve and a half years in the Middle East, and for two years in South-East Asia; and I can only say, as someone who has been at the receiving end, that I do not think we can exaggerate the importance of the external broadcasting services of the B.B.C. To cut them down I should deplore. I am absolutely convinced that it would not be in the best public interest. I think that Lord Strang made an admirable case—and I feel sure that the House will think so also—for increasing the efficiency of the services. The noble Earl, Lord Drogheda (if I may express another personal opinion), made an irrefutable case for the maintenance of the other information services.

My Lords, I have risen specifically to support the Motion standing in the name of Lord Strang. I have done so because of personal experience at the receiving end over a period of twenty-five years, as I thought that that might perhaps interest your Lordships and appeal to you as testimony of some value.

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all delighted that Lord Strang, from whom we have become accustomed to hearing classical expositions of foreign policy, has added another item to his Parliamentary repertoire—the subject of overseas broadcasting. Of course, the two subjects are closely connected, and no one is better qualified than Lord Strang to show the importance of overseas broadcasting for foreign policy. I am also sure that your Lordships were extremely pleased that the noble Earl, Lord Drogheda, spoke to us from a different quarter of the House. I do not imagine that there is any Member of either House who has greater knowledge of our overseas information services than the noble Earl, who was, of course, chairman of the Committee of Inquiry. He conducted a peripatetic party to explore these services in different parts of the world over a long period of time. I think we all realise that, while we gain from having the noble Earl as Chairman of Committees, we lose because he cannot speak more often as an independent Member of the House.

I think we ought to start, as Lord Strang did, from the general position, and I feel that we all agree about the vital importance of external broadcasting to the position of this country in the outside world. I myself believe (I do not know whether Lord Strang shares my belief; I hope he does; I am sure he will tell me later on whether he does or not) that the security of our country will depend at least as much on the good will we can earn from familiarising people in the outside world with our policies and with our way of life at home as it will on the military strength and the defensive arrangements we can make with other countries. That is the justification for our plea for the strengthening of all overseas broadcasting, because overseas broadcasting is an essential adjunct to national policy, foreign policy, defence policy, and the maintenance of peace in the world.

That is the approach which I think all of us who are making this plea to the Government have in common. We regret, as the noble Lord, Lord Strang, has regretted, that the B.B.C. external services have been allowed by successive Governments to decline—I do not allocate more blame to one Government than to another—over a long period of time. The main reason for this decline has been a false assessment of economy, an assessment resulting from a failure to appreciate the essential value of external broadcasting, overseas broadcasting, front the point of view of national policy. No Government have been willing to spend enough in the shape of their annual grants to the B.B.C. for services to the Commonwealth and foreign countries to cover the steady rise in the cost to the Corporation of these services. And the B.B.C., like any business organisation in the country, have had to face this steady rise in the cost of the services they have established over a long period of time.

The result has been that, in spite of small increases in the amount of annual grants, the B.B.C. have had to prune away their external services every year for the past eight years. That fundamental fact was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Strang, but I feel that it is so important that it can bear repetition. Two years ago, the noble Marquess, Lord Reading, speaking on behalf of the Government, in reply to the debate we had on the Drogheda Committee Report, said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 190, col. 305] that it was the policy of the Government, … to maintain approximately the existing level of broadcasting. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Strang, said, this level has not been maintained, and the position is worse now than it was. There were further cuts in 1955 and 1956. The amount of grant for 1957–58 has not yet been settled, but it will soon be decided, and I very much hope that the views that have been expressed, and will be expressed, by noble Lords this afternoon may have some influence with the Government in making their decision.

This gradual erosion of overseas broadcasting is very striking when we compare the amount of broadcasting to foreign and Commonwealth countries six years ago, in 1950, with the amount done last year. I do not want to weary your Lordships with a catalogue of figures, any more than did the noble Lord, Lord Strang, but I think that a few figures are essential if we are to have a basis on which to form a judgment of the change in the quantity of our overseas broadcasting. Looking at the broadcasting to foreign countries, we find that the weekly hours of broadcasting to Latin America in the Spanish language have been roughly halved; they are now 21, instead of 40¼, in 1950. Broadcasts in Portuguese have been reduced to one-third; 8¾ hours, instead of 24½. In 1947, B.B.C. programmes were relayed in South America from 183 stations, as compared with only 11 in 1956. So the "Voice of Britain" is really almost inaudible now in South America. This is a lamentable state of affairs. It has happened at a time when trade with South America has never been more important for British exports which we need to balance our payments.

The hours of broadcasting to our neighbours in Western Europe have also been reduced, and this again—I will not go into details—at a time when we ought to strengthen our economic and political ties with all these countries, as the noble Lord, Lord Strang, has said. Even the broadcasting to the Commonwealth has been heavily cut. Personally, I regret that more than anything else. The general overseas service in English has fallen from 168 hours to 147 hours a week and the Commonwealth services from 12 hours to 10¾ hours. Taking our general service to the Commonwealth, we find that the South African service in Afrikaans has been reduced proportionately more than the service in English to other parts of the Commonwealth by falling from 4½ hours to 1¾ hours a week. I mention this because it seems to me that this is an absolutely vital Commonwealth service. Our relations with the Union of South Africa are particularly—what shall I say?—touchy, difficult—




I am grateful to my noble friend behind me—delicate, I think, is the right word for a diplomat to use. There is no country in the Commonwealth with which our relations are more delicate than they are with the Union of South Africa, and it is clearly to Afrikaans-speaking people in the Union that our case should be addressed. We should say to them: "You ought to understand our point of view and know what is going on in this country." So I hope that reconsideration will be given to the service to South Africa in Afrikaans.

When all these cuts are added up, it is not surprising to hear that the B.B.C. have already lost something like 400 of the expert staff they employed in 1949. These reductions in hours and staff give some idea of the absolute decline of overseas broadcasting in relation to the 1950 level, but the collapse of British broadcasting in relation to that of other great Powers is no less striking. The noble Lord, Lord Strang, gave us some figures. He quoted the Soviet Union as giving 668 hours a week last year, as compared with our 564, and even the satellite countries are doing more hours per week than we are. Surely, from the point of view of policy, this is vitally important. We know that the Soviet Union's policy of peaceful co-existence is based on economic penetration and propaganda instead of the use of force, and this is the new method of undermining the capitalist countries. Well, we have to answer in the same medium. We certainly do not want to answer with any form of unjustifiable force, but we do want to answer, I am sure, with the impact we can make on people's minds.

Even if the "Voice of America" does much more than the Soviet Union, we cannot leave the "Voice of America" to take the place of the "Voice of Britain." I believe that our standard of broadcasting, certainly in my experience not only of America but also of many other countries, is higher than that of any other part of the world. I do not believe that there is any other broadcasting system that can take its place. I am not saying that, with our limited resources, we can rival either the Soviet Union or the United States of America—of course we cannot—but I do think that we could compare more favourably with these Powers than we do at the present time. What we should like to know from the Government at the end of this debate is whether they are going to allow this decline to continue, or whether they have already in mind ways and means of stopping this gradual falling off in staff and equipment before the damage has become irreparable.

I should like to allude to one or two hopeful steps which the Government appear to be taking. The first of these is the appointment of a Cabinet Minister without a Department to co-ordinate Government information especially en the overseas side. There was a parallel for that in the 1945 Government when the Lord President of the Council was responsible for information policy, and it is in line, I think the noble Earl, Lord Drogheda, would agree, with the recommendation of this Committee, to put … a senior Minister without portfolio in charge of information. Of course, we cannot tell whether this step is right or not until we know the duties and functions the Chancellor of the Duchy will discharge and how these duties will be carried cut. Perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Gosford, will be able to give us a little more information on the duties and functions of the Chancellor of the Duchy.

We shall all agree that he should co-ordinate the different channels of Government publicity, but a certain amount of anxiety has been expressed already lest he might interfere in some measure with the independence of the B.B.C. and the British Council and use them rather more as organs of Government publicity. That is a danger which we should all wish to avoid. I think that nobody in your Lordships' House would want a Minister of Information in peace time. Perhaps we may have an assurance from the noble Earl. Though I do not think that these doubts have crossed the minds of noble Lords, they certainly have crossed the minds of people outside, and this matter of authority and interference is no part at all of the assignment of the Chancellor of the Duchy.

We have also heard officially that Dr. Hill will examine the Overseas Information Services, presumably—although this is implied—only to report to the Government on how they can be improved. This, in itself, is a welcome step. Perhaps we might have more information of exactly what the Government have in mind. How long is this investigation likely to take? It is clear that we should like it to be as short as possible. The Drogheda Committee made a long inquiry into the same subject, and their views are, I suppose, the last word on the matter. So I do not imagine it ought to be necessary to spend a long time on making an inquiry and producing recommendations on which the Government can act and which would be the basis for a new information policy.

I should like to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, when the new Cabinet Minister in charge of information has disharged this task of examining the Overseas Information Services and recommending improvements that can be made, they will be willing to publish a White Paper, which will give the views of the Chancellor of the Duchy, and tell us what action they can take on those views. After all, this is a matter of great interest to Parliament and the public. Therefore, I hope the Government will be willing to publish a White Paper. It is, I suppose, the first occasion on which a Cabinet Minister has been given the sole duty of dealing with information. If I recollect rightly, the Ministers of Information during the war were not members of the Cabinet. When a Cabinet Minister has been given this responsibility, he has also had, as a rule, a Department. When the Lord President of the Council of the 1945 Government, with whom I worked closely (because I was at the Post Office at the time, and there is always. by virtue of the Charter of the B.B.C., a special relationship between the Postmaster General and the B.B.C.), was in charge of information he was also Leader of the House of Commons. So that this is a unique departure, and one which gives a Cabinet Minister the opportunity of thinking more about information policy than any of his predecessors. For that reason, there is all the more reason to hope that the result will be fruitful.

I should like to ask the noble Earl, Lord Gosford, also, whether he can say something about the administrative set-up that has been provided for the Chancellor of the Duchy in his capacity as Minister for Information. I noticed in the Press this morning that Mr. Evans is to be the new Public Relations Officer to the Prime Minister and that he will also advise Dr. Hill. Mr. William Clark, who was Mr. Evans' predecessor, found his work at "No. 10" a whole-time job. How much time will Mr. Evans be able to give to Dr. Hill? I think that either job would be a whole-time job for any average person like myself, and even for a more than average civil servant. Perhaps the noble Earl can say whether Dr. Hill will have any staff of his own or whether he will be given a substantial slice of the time of Mr. Evans. I apologise to the noble Earl for not giving him notice of this question. The only thing I can suggest (I imagine that he has thought of it already) is that he might be able to consult his advisers in the Box before the end of the debate. However, I shall quite understand if he cannot reply to these questions now.

I hope that the reference in the Government's account of the duties assigned to Dr. Hill, to the examination of ways in which the balance of effort might be adjusted in different areas of the world is not a hint that Ministers are now considering the termination of British broadcasting to seven friendly countries in Western Europe. This is the one recommendation of the Drogheda Committee with which most of us disagree, and it was interesting to hear the explanation of the noble Earl, Lord Drogheda: that the reason for this recommendation was not that his Committee thought this service was not a useful one, but because at the time there was need for economy in public expenditure. I am not going to say anything more about the service to Western Europe, except that the Suez crisis has shown that there are still moments when the British case needs to be put most urgently, even to our best friends. We cannot ignore our friends just because they are our friends. If it had not been for the B.B.C., the Government's policy in these countries would have gone largely by default. Another reason, I think, for maintaining the service to Western Europe is that we are entering into a new form of economic relationship with Western Europe—we all hope that we shall join the Free Trade Area—and it is more than ever essential that our point of view and our special position in relation to the Commonwealth should be appreciated in those countries.

I am not going to weary your Lordships by dealing with the content of B.B.C. broadcasting, but I hope that noble Lords who take part in the debate will support the vital principle referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Strang: that at all costs the B.B.C. must maintain their objectivity and their absolute truthfulness, because it is on this that their reputation in the outside world has been based. We are all, I think—including the Government, because this is a matter of fact and not one of opinion—agreed that the external broadcasting services of the B.B.C. have been running down steadily for a number of years. Those of us who have spoken in the debate so far would like this process not only stopped but reversed. We hope that the Government will now begin to improve and expand these services.

We should like particularly to see improvement in broadcasting to three areas of the globe, and in this order. First of all, the British Commonwealth and its dependencies. Round-the-clock broadcasts in English should be regarded as one of the essential and indispensable ties between the members of our Commonwealth family. The cut of three hours in the General Overseas Service should be restored at the earliest possible opportunity. The service to the Far East and Southern Asia, to which the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, bore such eloquent testimony, should be strengthened by making full use of our own broadcasting station in Malaya. The importance of preventing the uncommitted quarter of mankind from being turned against us by hostile propaganda cannot be exaggerated. The third part of the world in which I think our services must be improved is South America, because our trade and good relations with them will suffer even more if we do not make a substantial improvement in the Latin-American service.

As the noble Lord, Lord Strang, has said, however, there can be no improvement or expansion of these broadcasting services until the Government are prepared to spend more money. The crux of the whole problem is finance. The Drogheda Committee recommended an increase which, clearly, would not be appropriate now. I should not like to hazard a guess, but the figure needed to-day to obtain the same result would no doubt have to be larger. Two things are clearly necessary. First, the annual amount for external broadcasting should be increased; and secondly, it should be divided into two parts, a capital grant covering a period of years, and a grant for recurrent expenditure, which is the way that any reputable local authority runs its affairs. It is only in this way, instead of including all these items, as is done at the moment, in a lump sum, that the B.B.C. can possibly plan their external broadcasting over a period of time. This is a matter of urgent national importance. If this opportunity is lost, it may mean that the services of the B.B.C. will run down, in depletion of staff and obsolescence of equipment, to the point at which recovery is impossible. So I beg the Government to act in this matter, as soon as they have the information and the considered thoughts of the Chancellor of the Duchy, in an effective way, and to produce what is really required, a new, revised policy for our overseas information services.