HL Deb 26 March 1963 vol 248 cc69-79

2.37 p.m.

VISCOUNT MASSEREENE AND FERRARD rose to call attention to the Overseas Information Services; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, four and a half years ago I had the honour of initiating a debate in your Lordships' House on the Overseas Information Services. Many of the things I said then are equally relevant to-day. At the commencement of my speech then I said that, with the advent of nuclear weapons, and consequent global suicide in the event of their use, the future battle of the world must be a battle for men's minds allied to supplying their economic needs. Those words are just as true to-day as they were four and a half years ago.

Certainly some progress has been made in the Overseas Information Services since those days, but those mysterious figures who control the purse-strings of the nation have, I fear, failed to grasp the vast importance of the war of words, spoken and written, which engulfs the modern world. Every year throughout Asia, and now Africa, the number of literates rises by millions. They are all avid for knowledge and thirsting for material to read, but too poor to buy anything but the cheapest literature.

It is a surprising fact, but there are vast areas of the world to-day in which the per capita income is still under £30 a head. The Communist Powers, especially Russia and China, realise this only too well and are flooding the low-standard living areas of the world with an abundance of cheap reading matter. Of course, the countries which supply this reading matter to Asia and Africa are very liable to gain control of the trade of those areas. The Ministry of Culture of the Chinese People's Republic has called for a big leap in publishing work to oppose the enemy at home and abroad, for the extermination of Capitalism, and to secure a leap forward in thought so as to cope with a demand for unceasing revolution. At a conservative estimate, the Soviet Government spends every year on literature sent overseas for propaganda purposes £500 million. When we compare this to the current expenditure on our Overseas Information Services of about £23½ million, which includes expenditure on broadcasting and television, it does not make a very happy picture.

With our external broadcasting the position is much the same. At the end of the last war we had the biggest external broadcasting services in the whole world. We also had a great reputation. which we still have, for truth and independence in our information services, and especially in our broadcasting services. In 1950 the then Director-General of the B.B.C. said that the B.B.C. produced the most massive of all international broadcasting efforts, but he added ominously, "The future of the B.B.C.'s foreign service depends on the will of the British Government". Unfortunately, this will was not forthcoming, and to-day we are the only nation which broadcasts for fewer hours than ten years ago. We have, I am afraid, sunk to fourth place in the external broadcasting race. We broadcast an average of 600 hours per week. If you count the Soviet satellites as an entirety we have, in fact, sunk to fifth place, and catching us up are Egypt and Germany.

It was Lenin who was the first to grasp the great power of broadcasting. He called it an international newspaper which could cross frontiers and gain access to men's minds. As often happens in this country, it took us the Second World War to grasp this truth. Now that the bombs and shells have ceased we have tended to forget this truth. I pointed out in this House in 1958 that perhaps owing to our history in the 19th century, when we had the greatest Empire in the world, it was in our nature not to broadcast ourselves and not to try to tell people about ourselves because we had this instinctive idea that as we were so powerful everybody knew about us anyway. In 1963 I am afraid that does not go down, and I am pleased to see that certainly among all the staffs of the Overseas Information Services there is a great keenness and great endeavour to present to the world our image, what we stand for. The information services, if you compare them to those of other nations, have on the whole fairly limited resources at their disposal. We have to face an absolute torrent of words and every form of propaganda aimed at destroying our way of life and the way of life of all freedom loving peoples throughout the world.

Perhaps I ought to refresh your Lordships' memory very briefly on how the Overseas Information Services are organised. We have the information services of the overseas Government Departments—that is to say, the Foreign Office, the Commonwealth Relations Office, the Colonial Office and the Central Africa Office—while the Board of Trade holds a watching brief to protect United Kingdom commercial interests.

These overseas Departments work in close consultation with the Central Office of Information, which is responsible for the promotion of publicity material and services needed by the overseas Departments.

We have also the British Council, responsible for promoting a knowledge of the English language and literature and for the promotion of cultural relations, and, I think most important of all, responsible for the welfare of students from overseas and the fostering of contacts between high executives, doctors and other people of the same calling from overseas. Last but by no means least, we have the external services of the B.B.C. To co-ordinate all these services we have a Minister, Mr. Vosper, the Minister for Technical Cooperation. It is his job to try to co-ordinate all the various organisations. But it is a matter of surprise to me that the Overseas Information Services do not have a Minister in the Cabinet. We have in the Cabinet the Minister for home information services, but I personally should have thought that the Overseas Information Services were far more important. Apparently Her Majesty's Government do not.

Of course, the B.B.C. have a unique place in our Overseas Information Services, in that by this medium millions of illiterate and semi-literate people can be contacted. You can call it, if you like, a form of mass diplomacy. I have already said, as is true, that millions are becoming literate every year; but still over half the world's population are illiterate, and the only means of contacting them is through broadcasting and television. In the past, the influence of radio was curtailed by the number of sets, but to-day there are, at a rough estimate, 400 million sets in the world, of which half receive short-wave transmissions. Thus, there is one set for every eight people on the globe, and you can be sure that more than one person listens to every wireless set.

The increase in the number of wireless sets has been greatest in the areas of illiteracy. For instance, in some parts of Africa the number of sets is doubling every year. A survey made by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion last year found that a higher proportion of illiterate than educated listeners tuned in to foreign stations. But the question is: are we putting sufficient resources at the disposal of the B.B.C. to cope with this vast global increase in radio sets? Your Lordships will be familiar with the relationship between the external services of the B.B.C. and the oversea Government Departments. You have this laid down in the licensing agreement of the B.B.C. Briefly, the languages and hours of broadcasting are chosen by the Government Departments, but the B.B.C. enjoy independence in regard to programme content, having obtained from Her Majesty's Government the policies towards the various countries to be broadcast to.

In the Financial Estimates for the year ending March 31, 1964, the external services have been granted £9,934,000, £4½ million of which is to improve and extend our relay stations overseas. This is an improvement on the £5½ million of 1958; but, of course, if we take into account increased costs the improvement is, on the 'whole, not so great. We have one great improvement here—namely, in our Arabic service. In the debate in 1958, I pleaded for a greatly increased Arabic service and, thanks to Her Majesty's Government, I am glad to say that we have got it. The B.B.C. are now broadcasting in this service for ten to twelve hours a day, and they have established a really first-class service. I am told that the B.B.C. receive from 30,000 to 40,000 letters annually from Arab listeners to this service. This is a great feather in their cap. In the same debate I mentioned also the trouble that we might expect from our friends the Somalis. I am sorry to say that that trouble has arisen. It is an absolute tragedy that we have had to close down our transmitter in that part of Africa. Of all the areas of the world, we do need transmitters in Africa.

As I said earlier, the B.B.C. broadcast for 600 hours weekly in these external services. Moscow and her satellites broadcast for 2,000 hours; the "Voice of America", over 800; and China, about 750. I believe that Egypt and Germany broadcast for about 450 hours weekly. We have also, I am afraid, acquired the rather nasty habit of "robbing Peter to ray Paul" in the external broadcasting services. We are inclined to cat down the hours of broadcasting to any country which appears to be Anglophile. friendly to us, and to con- centrate on another country which is perhaps not so friendly. On the face of it, this sounds logical enough, but if you once stop radio contact with people it is extremely hard to re-establish it. I feel it is a great mistake to break continuity. Owing to this break in continuity, I am afraid we have lost our dominant position in all languages except Arabic and, of course, English. Even in certain areas of the Commonwealth they are tending to have their best coverage from Peking. It will be a great tragedy if English becomes a form of Pekingese in various parts of Asia.

How can we rectify this? As in almost all these things, the answer is money, but it needs comparatively little money. The cost of leadership in this field is so low that almost any country can achieve it—otherwise how else could Egypt aspire to pass us? In the United Kingdom it is surprising to discover that the cost of our external services is only 0.1 per cent. of the national income. We could lead in external broadcasting and television for under 1 per cent. of our national income. It is quite fantastic that people do not realise this. It could not harm the economy. When I mention television I think of the Old Testament and the walls of Jericho crumbling before the trumpet blasts of the priests; because television is an explosion that has struck the world, and the blast will strike down the walls which still surround half the population of the world.

When Gutenberg invented printing in the fifteen century the walls of Europe containing men's minds commenced to crumble. The Dark Ages went, the Reformation came in, followed by the revolutions and reforms from which has emerged our present political and economic system. The walls in Europe crumbled slowly because men had to learn to read and write, but with television what took Europe generations will happen in the under-developed areas of the world in our lifetime. It will cause angry, blind nationalism with consequent confusion and turmoil, but it is our duty to see to it that Communism does not use this all-powerful medium further to confuse the emerging nations with lies and false theories.

To date, so far as I can see, Her Majesty's Government have done hardly anything to help television overseas. It is true they have granted £100,000, spread over five years, to an organisation called CETO which has boon founded by the Nuffield Foundation for the teaching of English by television. The B.B.C. themselves have done a great deal by selling programmes overseas; last year they sold 3,000 TV programmes overseas. But, of course, these programmes are chiefly for entertainment and have to be sold on their merits. We do make sales of these programmes to under-developed countries and to the Commonwealth through the Central Office of Information and the British Council, who subsidise this activity. Furthermore, the B.B.C. receive £50,000 a year for the teaching of English which they are enabled to put into television.

But, my Lords, this is all puny stuff. I am quite certain that our ancestors, especially the Victorians, would have reached for the skies and seen the limitless horizons in the opportunities of television. It was not a nineteenth century invention which is perhaps rather a pity. After all, they had steam—and see what they did with that ! Democracy appears somehow to have limited our vision. The trouble is that anything that does not give immediate benefit to the voter is dispensed with. But every nation to-day, big or small, wants its television station: it is the status symbol of the 'sixties. The United States of America has been quick to see this, and is financing the erection of TV stations throughout the world; and the country which puts up a TV station will, of course, automatically supply the majority of programmes and thereby gain immense influence commercially and otherwise.

I am told that to set up a TV station costs, on average, £1 million. We are ahead of the world electronically in regard to television, and I would ask Her Majesty's Government to set up a fund of £10 million—after all, that is only a quarter of the cost of an aircraft carrier—to enable us to equip the emergent nations with these stations.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for a moment? I worked for many years for the Overseas Information Services and we used to reckon ten or twelve years ago that the cost of the Overseas Information Services was less than that of a cruiser. Now, of course, cruisers have become much more expensive. I would say now that the cost was about that of a modernised destroyer.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for supporting me in that argument, because what my noble friend says is, of course, quite true. If we had this fund, it would benefit the whole of British television. It would help our export trade in the sale of our television equipment overseas, and it would also put great heart into all the brilliant research scientists, engineers, technicians and others who are behind our television enterprises in this country. And there is no doubt that it would return to this country a hundredfold in good will and trade. But if this country is to refuse to throw in our influence at this stage of history, when the horizons are going back to the final limits, we shall be betraying our ancestors who brought civilisation and tolerance to vast areas of the world. I am afraid I have spoken rather too long on the external services of the B.B.C. because I am 100 per cent. convinced of their vast importance and I am quite sure that the average person does not realise it.

My Lords, I must say a few words, very shortly, about the Central Office of Information, which is of course responsible for the daily flow of material in all media required by the information services overseas. This material includes, of course, Press, radio, tape-recorded, cinema and TV. The Central Office of Information also arranges exhibitions, other than cultural ones, and, of course, it organises a supply of literature, including industrial prestige material, for the reading rooms of overseas information officers. One of its most important works is the provision of cheap textbooks for overseas. I was shown one textbook, the publishing price of which I think was £4, which is provided to countries overseas for, I believe, about 15s. Clearly, it is a great help to the trade of this country that the poorer countries, the poorer students and the poor people overseas can have access to all our best technical works.

The estimated net expenditure of the Overseas Department of the C.O.I. was £2,839,000, but of course one cannot really estimate it, as it is an allied service. For instance, I understand that all the printing is done by Her Majesty's Stationery Office. My Lords, there are one or two excellent publications which stand out, but they are held up by lack of funds to increase their circulation. Nevertheless, 4¾ million copies of British Government-produced magazines are distributed annually in 17 different languages. A small charge is usually made for these publications, because it has been found that if anything is handed out free a great number of people are liable to think that it is of no value.

In some ways I have perhaps been rather unfair about the effort made in sending our literature overseas, in that I compared the expenditure of £23 million-odd on all of our Overseas Information Services, with the expenditure on publications of £500 million by the Soviet Government. But we have to remember that for a long time Great Britain has been, and is still, the greatest exporter of books in the world. We have all the private publishing houses sending out vast quantities of magazines, periodicals and books. These do not necessarily promote the Government's views, but almost all of them have one thing in common: they are alien to the Communist doctrine.

My Lords, I was anxious to say one thing more on this matter, but I see that time is running out before the Foreign Secretary's Statement. However, I think I ought to mention that in Russia we have one Russian publication from the English, called Anglia, which we have been supplying since February, 1962. This comes out quarterly and has a circulation of about 50,000. It is only to be hoped that this trade in literature between the Soviet and us can grow. So far as I am aware, we in England have no ban on Soviet literature coming in here. Of course, Shakespeare is a best seller in Russia, as also is Dickens—but perhaps that is not so applicable to England of the twentieth century. But, of course, it is towards Africa and Asia that the great propaganda effort of the Soviet bloc is directed. It is even influencing women's organisations in Africa now; and, of course, the Pan-African conferences, the Afro-Asian conferences and all those friendship societies are all happy hunting grounds for the Soviet bloc. But I am quite sure that our information officers out there on the spot are capable of coping with this situation if they have the support and the resources from the home country.

We also have the British Council about which I shall have to say a few words. All your Lordships know of the great work of the British Council in spreading English and English literature abroad. In the last debate we had I rather criticised the arrangements for the teachers, saying that it would be extremely hard to get teachers for the overseas services if they did not have security and the same rates of pay abroad. I am glad to say that the former position has now been rectified; but, as I said earlier, I think the most important work of the Council is in looking after the thousands of overseas students who come here annually. I think the total number of students who came here last year was 60,000. The British Council meets them at their point of disembarkation and finds them lodgings, and it generally initiates them into English customs. I was very impressed by the efficient filing system of this department regarding landladies. They have a sort of Debrett of landladies, which has notes on the eccentricities of this formidable breed.

I am quite sure that, without the work of the British Council, the student problem would lead to great abuses and colour problems. The Council also, of course, look after visiting professors and other people anxious to meet their opposite numbers here in this country. The majority of these visitors come here at their own expense, which some people do not realise.

I cannot end without saying one word about an independent organisation which does not strictly come under the Overseas Information Department, and that is the British Travel and Holidays Association. This Association promotes tremendous good will for us abroad. In foreign currency alone it earned, indirectly, £320 million last year. The organisation is also the largest dollar-earner in the country. There is another point I should like just to mention. I am not so happy about some of our compatriots who travel abroad for their holidays. I have seen some of our countrymen behaving in a most atrocious manner. It was quite unknown before the wars; and, of course, every Englishman abroad ought to be an ambassador for his country. What the answer is to our countrymen behaving badly abroad I do not know, but perhaps it is possible, although I suppose it is quite impracticable, for the Foreign Office to issue, with passports, a booklet setting out the various customs in different countries and how not to offend while in them.

I end just in time, I am glad to see, for the statement, and I am sorry to have kept your Lordships so long. I should like to end with a plea to Her Majesty's Government to realise the immense importance of the Overseas Information Services. We have a revolution taking place overseas, but it is a revolution in men's minds, and if the tolerance of this country is not heard throughout the world we shall have great chaos and, I am afraid, untold misery. The English language is, it is true enough, spread throughout the world, as are our great traditions of law and justice, but if we do not keep our image, our presence, in the minds of ordinary people, the memory of Britain is bound to fade. The empire of the future is an empire of men's minds, and I beg Her Majesty's Government really to do everything to aspire to that situation. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, I do not intend to inflict a long speech upon your Lordships, but in this matter good intentions are not enough. I should be extremely grateful if the Government Whip would warn me at any moment when it is appropriate that the statement should be made. I will then at once sit down, and, perhaps, if I have not finished my speech, I can resume it later.

I think we should be very grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, for raising this subject, because it is something which has not been discussed in either House of Parliament for, I believe, five years—and it certainly is a very important subject. Indeed, the noble Viscount was the last person who raised it and, thank! goodness! he, at least, is keeping an eye on what is a very important and fundamental little piece of Government machinery. Information is the most powerful, long-term instrument of foreign policy.

I gather it is now the wish that I should break off here so that the statement may be made.