§ 6.21 p.m.
§ Lord BUXTON of ALSA rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will ensure that in the national interest there will be no curtailment of the BBC's overseas broadcasting services, despite the need for general economies, because of the long-term importance of maintaining both the British viewpoint and uniquely impartial sources of information to peoples throughout the world. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is I believe an extremely critical issue that we are about to debate. I am therefore greatly encouraged that so many of your Lordships are following me. I am also reassured by the formidable authority of those who are going to speak. In my view, we are at a crossroads. We have suddenly discovered ourselves at a crossroads affecting our standing in the world, and if we take the wrong turning now we can start an adverse slide that we may be unable to arrest.267
§ The majority of countries in the world do not have a free Press or independent broadcasting. The majority do not have either. Authoritarian regimes thrive on the principle that they can achieve their objectives and, they believe, perhaps miracles, provided people are kept in the dark and do not know about their failures and shortcomings. They in fact welcome and approve ignorance. Are we in Britain now going to give encouragement to this conception?
§ I have no vested interest, but I should perhaps mention that I am a director of an ITV company, Anglia, in the East of England. But if I do have an interest it is one which I believe is shared by millions of people at home and by countless millions around the globe; that is to sustain and, if possible, expand the reception of the British viewpoint in the world and of our uniquely impartial news services and information. I hope that the sequence of events which has led to this impasse or threat will be chronicled by the Government when they reply.
§ As I understand it, the Foreign Office, required earlier this year to make cuts like every other department, required part of their cuts to be made by the BBC External Services. Rather than find the additional sum internally, or somewhere else, it was considered that our most valuable export, the best export we have left, could be mauled and amputated. This has caused very great concern in many countries, and not only in the countries where the BBC is listened to, but especially in the United States where there has been a great deal of agitation and coverage in their Press.
§ I feel that the Foreign Secretary and the Government must be blameless up to now because of the timing. Frankly, it looks to me like a standard and probably quite excusable departmental banana skin. But sadly this misjudgment has some of the characteristics of much of our foreign posture over the last two decades: an apparent disposition to opt out, disengage, and to off-load responsibilities. Seen by the ordinary citizen there appears to be a yearning to have as few obligations in the world as possible. So now it has been proposed that even the British voice, the only voice for millions of freedom and truth, should be sacrificed along with what 268 remains of our prestige and influence—just to save the cost of about one military aircraft.
§ Could it also be that the power of broadcasting, the power of the BBC over-seas broadcasts, are a worry to somebody? Are they a worry to the Government? I do not know. But if so we should be en-lightened, and that would form an important and interesting subject for debate. I understand that the cuts to be imposed will have a much greater impact than is generally understood. In fact, according to the Economist it may reduce us as overseas broadcasters to the level of North Korea or Albania. Now just consider that when Britain, through the BBC, has been the pioneer and the premier voice on radio around the world for over half a century. I feel that one can hardly hold this Government responsible for the history of declining influence, but they are now responsible at the eleventh hour for saving this nation from an ignominious withdrawal from the radio shortwaves—thus making way for less truthful Governments where freedom may not exist, to fill the vacuum.
§ Perhaps it is not properly understood that we cannot expect to reopen on these frequencies if, in the future, we change our minds. Let us be quite clear about this: once out we shall almost certainly be out for ever. There are three reasons why once out we may not get in again. They are, first, that the expert team of foreign journalists which has been thoughtfully built up and welded over the years by the BBC External Services will have been disbanded and will not be available. You cannot just pick things up like that over-night. Secondly, the listeners will not be there because they will have been switched off and lost to other countries and other services. But, primarily—and thirdly—the frequencies will not be there because they will have been surrendered and will not be recoverable. You do not own the frequency. You are entitled to use it by international agreement. But if you opt out and fail to exercise the right you have registered, other nations will fill it. It is standard practice to fill any holes which exist.
May I quote the recent words of an Asian Ambassador which were reported last month in the New York Times.
To the degree that British foreign policy has any influence outside Rhodesia, it's only because of the impact of the BBC. Mrs. Thatcher doesn't seem to know it, but shortwave is this country's most important export.
That was an Asian Ambassador. I am quite sure that the Prime Minister does know it and, when the full implications of this critical prospect are made known to her, that she will not hesitate to respond.
§ Apart from the possibility that perhaps the Foreign Office might be apprehensive about the power of the BBC broadcasts in parts of the world—I have no idea whether that is so—it is not relevant to this debate if some BBC external broadcasts occasionally sound as if they come from the East and not from the West. The same could be said of course on odd occasions about BBC internal services, and of television, including ITV. But that is not relevant to the subject of cutting the volume of overseas broadcasts, because the question of bias and impartiality should be dealt with quite separately.
§ Those matters have to be dealt with by the authorities concerned who have the statutory power to act, and maybe they are sometimes guilty of pussy-footing and possibly well-meaning tolerance, which usually finishes up by being interpreted as plain funk. We all have these problems in the media. But this question of bias is a red herring when it comes to the critical subject of curtailing our national broadcasts to the rest of the world. It cannot conceivably be dealt with by cutting the budget. That is like amputating your foot because you have stubbed your toe.
§ The second aspect which should be ignored in the context of this debate is the question of the BBC's finances, and whether its home services are efficiently and economically run or not. This is not relevant to the subject of the external services. The licence fee and the domestic revenue are for the home services, radio and television. These funds should not be appropriated for overseas radio. I suggest that the public, when paying for a licence to receive television programmes at home, would have something impolite to say if part of this payment was to be used for External Services. Whether for better—or one hopes not for worse—the External Services are the responsibility of the 270 Foreign Office. Therefore, there is no place in the context of my Question for points about the general economy of the BBC. Only details about the economy of the External Services would be relevant.
§ May I start by expressing my own clear feeling or conviction. I believe that no Government, neither this nor any other Government, have the moral right to cut off millions of human beings anywhere in the world from the voice of Britain, from the sound of truth, from the message of freedom. The Government may have the statutory power, but they do not have the moral right any more than they have the right to snip the lifeline of a North Sea diver; any more than they have the moral right to cut the hawser of a cable car when there are miners underground; any more than they have the right to pull the bung out on a boatload of boat people. The Government do not have the moral right, after only six months in office, to throttle any part of the service on which human beings of so many nations have been relying for so long.
§ If the Government do exercise their statutory power in this way and plunge millions of the West's friends and potential allies into silence and loneliness, that will be shameful for this country and it will be a grievous blow to our prestige and self-esteem in the eyes of the world just at the moment when the Prime Minister is doing so much, so successfully, to revive both.
§ It has been reported that rather than cut broadcasts to the Middle East, Africa and perhaps South America, we should discontinue the vernacular broadcasts to Europe and to developed countries. Apparently somebody considers it reason-able—if the voice of freedom has reluctantly to be discontinued for the benefit of listeners in Asia, Africa and so on—and a useful solution to cease broadcasts to most of Europe as a sort of compromise, to cease conveying the British viewpoint to the landmass from Turkey right round to France. Evidently somebody is not aware that the battle for men's minds, the struggle between the Soviets and the freedom of the West, is primarily being fought out in Europe and among the developed nations. How can the oldest, longest-surviving champion of freedom and democracy— how can Britain, to whom all the world looks for hope and example, how can the country to which refugees 271 from the workers' paradise consistently flee, how can Britain of all countries seriously contemplate stopping communications in their own language with individual human beings in Europe, East and West?
§ Everybody hopes there will never be strife again in Europe involving this country, but only a dreamer would consider it impossible. In war as in peace communications with individuals abroad is absolutely vital. Suppose there was another war and the survival of this country and the West was at stake. Would anyone want to be the Foreign Secretary of the day and have to admit that the country, when hostility started, had no way to talk to the people of Europe and the developed countries, that there was no way to convey the voice of democracy and hope to individuals in their homes? Are this Government to go down in history as the one who surrendered our broadcasting facilities to Russia or Albania or any other political puppet? Is this in years to come to be the Government's skeleton in the cupboard?
§ Take the other situation. Suppose that mercifully there is no war and that things conceivably start to move in favour of freedom and democracy and that the light of the West starts to burn more brightly. Communications with all parts of the world then become imperative to give leadership and inspiration, especially in Europe, but again the Foreign Secretary would then have to say to the country, "I am sorry, but the Conservative Government stopped all that in 1980 because that was the only way they could find a few million quid".
§ Can we seriously contemplate such a prospect? This Government are thank-fully seeking to strengthen our security, and none too soon, both at home and abroad, with the support and approval of the vast majority of the British people. They are endeavouring to redress the dangerously weak state of our defences and restore our position in NATO. A vital component of our contribution to NATO, in addition to our Forces and equipment, is our long-established foreign broadcasting services, more experienced and more independent than any other in the world. The radio services in numerous foreign languages to which people in all 272 the countries in Europe cling must be an integral part of our strategy; they were and are a key component of the West's position over the years.
§ In cutting news, information and the British viewpoint to foreign countries, the Foreign Office would blatantly be marching in the opposite direction to the Prime Minister who has recently expressed Britain's determination to strengthen our position in Europe. You cannot improve defence and the scale of our contribution while at the same time cutting the vital component, information. That is irrational, to put it politely. Again, I do not believe this or any Government have a moral right to sever these vital human links and relationships in Europe for the sake of financial savings. If they exercise their statutory power in this respect, that is one thing, but it would earn scorn for our country across the world, and to do that we do not have the moral right without even the consent and approval of NATO.
Even the Central Policy Review Staff in the Berrill Report, which recommended savage cuts in overseas broadcasting along with a diminishing of our presence in the world, conceded that external broad-casting
is the most effective instrument the U.K. has for keeping alive knowledge of the values and ideas of a free society. It can justifiably be claimed to be one of the U.K.'s success stories".
The cuts in external broadcasting recommended in the Berrill Report were then considered with great thoroughness and care by the Expenditure Committee of the House of Commons in its report last year, and they were rejected. The conclusion of the Expenditure Committee was:
We believe that the BBC External Services form a vital part of Britain's overseas representation. The BBC has a unique reputation for objectivity and reliability, built up in a time of war as well as peace, and based in no small measure on the fact that it operates a genuine World Service free from an incubus of political motivation. It would therefore be madness, in our view, to impose swingeing cuts on the present service precisely at a time when, as the CPRS acknowledge, other countries are stepping up their efforts…We therefore strongly urge the Government to find the extra finance for much needed improvements to audibility in key parts of the world. The money at present devoted to the external services represents, in our judgement, one of the most cost-effective items of expenditure within the Government's programme and one which would richly repay a further modest investment".
That was last year. Impulsively to curtail the BBC's foreign broadcasting therefore
would be acting in defiance of the considered view of the all-party group of Members of Parliament who expressed that view only 12 months ago. There would be no ally or support for the cuts that are proposed, except from the authors of the Berrill Report, which Conservative spokesmen then in opposition roundly and fiercely condemned.
§ If the Foreign Office has got itself into a corner where it has no room for manoeuvre and can apparently contrive no other way of saving the prescribed sum, then with the greatest respect the Government must intervene in some way or another because people in different parts of the world must not lose these precious sources of information. We are talking about human beings—actual live listeners—not colours on the map.
§ It is a meaningless exercise in seeking to justify some cuts to ask, "Where will discontinuing the British voice matter least?" Does that mean which country or area has the least number of people, or where are the BBC broadcasts are least popular, or which is the country most friendly, or most unfriendly, or what? Such criteria are frankly unreal, whichever one adopts, because what is at stake is human beings, individual listeners. Surely an individual in some wilderness is just as entitled to hear British sources of information as somebody in the heart of a European city, and vice-versa.
§ A hurried last minute search for groups of the human race who can be denied the British voice, the voice of freedom, is fruitless, cynical and, frankly, shameful. The Administration of this country and its financial accounting cannot be so inept that a sum of £4 million, or £1 million or £2 million or £3 million cannot be saved somewhere. I can think of several ways myself, but I do not want to raise new or contentious issues today.
§ Finally, I urge the Government that such external matters, those affecting Britain's place in the world, should be regarded separately from the management of the domestic economy. One is simply not comparing like with like. The fear that by maintaining the cost of the BBC's External Services there might follow a wave of demands in connection with domestic issues from other departments for similar immunity is, in my view, unreason- 274 able and unacceptable. It is a question of Britain's future in the world that we are talking about. We do not want any fudged solutions to this critical problem which is causing so much concern at home and abroad. We do not want financial tinkering to wriggle through the impasse which may seem to have been created.
We need a clear response that the BBC's External Services will not be curtailed and will in fact be strengthened, as recommended by the House of Commons Committee last year. We need this assurance. My solution is simple. The budget for the External Services should, in my view, be marginally increased and not cut at all, as the Expenditure Committee implied. This would place foreign broadcasting in a different and separate category from home problems, thus silencing inter-departmental argument as it occurs. Apart from the recommendation of the Expenditure Committee, there is one further voice in support which I should like to quote. I refer to a statement made by a present Minister of State at the Foreign Office, who said in a Conservative political pamphlet published in 1977:
We should strengthen the external services of the BBC".
I agree with that, my Lords.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Lord GLADWYN
My Lords, I am extremely happy to be the first to be able to associate myself with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, has so eloquently said. We are told—and I only hope that this may be denied by the Minister who is to reply—that it is the intention of the Government to cut the budget of the BBC's Overseas Service by 10 per cent.; that is to say, by £4 million. Such cuts, if made, would, we understand, for reasons given in the speech by Lord Buxton, result in the services concerned being permanently suppressed. We are also told that it is likely that the Government will in the circumstances recommend the maintenance of our admirable World Service and retain also those directed towards Communist countries in Eastern Europe and perhaps also those to the Arab world, thereby in effect accepting the proposals which were put forward by the "Think Tank" two years ago. That would of course mean leaving £4 million to be recovered on the remaining services; 275 namely, those (in the local languages) to Asia, Africa, Latin America and Western and Southern Europe.
If all this is so, it would seem that, given the necessity in any case of maintaining various powerful transmitters which are essential for the audibility of the World Service, together with other overheads, the cuts in various individual services would perforce be very severe; no less, we understand, than 12 to 16 out of 38 services having to be closed down altogether—that is, permanently—and the total broadcasting time reduced by any-thing from 17 to 25 per cent. In other words—and I do not think that this can be, or will be, disputed by the Government—the effect of a 10 per cent. financial cut would be not only disproportionate, but also highly disruptive of a service that has been carefully built up over many years.
More particularly, it has been calculated— and here again the Government will be able to confirm or deny—that if the World Service and services to the Arab world are to be maintained in their entirety, a cut of £4 million would result in a suppression of services of the order of magnitude—and I say "of the order of magnitude"—of all those, in the local languages, to Western and Southern Europe and Latin America, or alter-natively all those (again in the local languages) to the Indian sub-continent, the Far East, and Africa. In other words, about 40 million people, mostly in countries where Communism is making great or considerable headway, would cease to hear the voice of the BBC at all and thus be deprived for the most part of their only reliable sources of information. As I believe the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, said, one can imagine their feelings.
My Lords, these same proposals were of course debated by your Lordships two years ago and were indignantly rejected by a very large majority in the House; and they were also rejected in another place. Seeing that their party is now in office, I venture to give one or two quotations from the sentiments then expressed by very prominent Conservative leaders. The first is that of the voice of the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, who has told me that unfortunately due to another engagement she has had 276 to scratch her name from the list of speakers. With her consent I can quote her and report she sticks a hundred per cent. to what she then said. It was, as reported at columns 925 and 926 of the Official Report of 23rd November 1977:our Overseas Service of the BBC is the best broadcasting on radio … of any country in the world … To suggest that that is something on which we should cut down seems utterly and absolutely wrong".Then there was the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, who is not present this evening. He said, as reported at columns 939 and 940:To cut as drastically as is suggested … would be to throw away valuable and irreplaceable assets … Should we willingly discard these means of direct communication, greatly envied by other countries? Surely the answer must be, No.Then there was the noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel. Do I see him here this evening? Yes, I do. With his permission I should like to quote what he said. He said, as reported at column 887:The Overseas Service of the BBC is accepted far and wide as the most objective presentation of world events … It is a British asset which should not be put at risk by paring and pinching. Indeed, an increase in its budget would he a good investment".That sentiment was repeated in the House of Commons a little later, on 14th December 1977, when Mr. Farr, apparently speaking for the Tory Party, after roundly condemning the CPRS proposals, made much the same point when he said that he would have thought that one of the options that should have been considered was the possibility of an increase in BBC External Services.
So it is clear that only two years ago Conservative leaders were unanimous in repudiating any proposal to cut the budget of the BBC's Overseas Service by a penny. They even thought that the budget should be increased rather than pruned or cut. So how comes it that a Tory Government may now be proposing to cut these same services by anything from 17 to 25 per cent.? The only possible answer seems to be that, since it has been decided as a matter of policy to cut Government expenditure by 10 per cent., expenditure in every branch of govern-mental activity must be reduced by exactly the same percentage. Well, if this is really so—which I can hardly believe—it is logical lunacy. Even admitting that 277 expenditure must be reduced overall, it does not follow that all Departments and all branches of Departments must be cut by precisely the same extent. Of course not! All cuts are unpleasant, but obviously some are less unpleasant than others, and some in the simple interests of national survival should not be made at all.
Of course, all Ministers confronted with the necessity of cuts will say, "Not me". But it should then be for the Prime Minister to say which of them, if any, should be exempted. As I understand it, she has already exempted the Service Departments, and if she is to stick to her undertaking to increase defence expenditure to the extent of 3 per cent. per annum, that is an exemption which of course must be made. But having done that, then she should presumably have considered whether for political or social reasons, or whatever, other Departments might be asked to cut rather more than the general average and others perhaps rather less. These priorities having been determined, it surely should then have been left to the Departments themselves to decide which among their own sub-departments should have, as it were, priority. For instance, in the case of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office it might well have been considered that the additional £4 million of cuts in its budget, necessary if the Overseas Services were exempted altogether, should be made in other parts of the diplomatic and consular vote in addition to those already announced, I understand, in the Press.
Surely, for instance, a cut or a further cut in the frais (as they call it) of members of the foreign service everywhere would be preferable to the closing down of the voice of Britain in many of the countries concerned. For example, it might be unpleasant for a First Secretary in Jakarta to have to reduce the number of his guests by 15 per cent. rather than 10 per cent., but most people in this country, I believe, would think that that would be a lesser blow to British interests than the suppression of the BBC broadcasts to Indonesia. Additionally, or alternatively, what about closing down yet more diplomatic establishments (more especially those which have only a minor role in pushing British exports) and perhaps asking one of our European Community 278 colleagues with a major stake in the area concerned to look after our interests? That suggestion has been made before but has not been followed up.
My Lords, it may be said that such suggestions do not come well from an ex-member of the service, and, naturally, I should not welcome further cuts in the frais as such; of course not. But, really, if—and I only say "if"—it is a straight choice between that and crippling the BBC, I believe that many members of the present Foreign Service would shoulder the burden cheerfully. I may be wrong in this, but I believe that, in addition to the suppression of certain posts, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office may be asked to make economies of scale that might result in some of its staff becoming redundant. But I submit that that is something which was bound to happen in any case. There are probably many too many people in all Government Departments engaged in writing letters to each other in strict accordance with Parkinson's Law; and, though painful, I do not see how, given our present parlous economic position, this kind of cut can be criticised or resisted. It would certainly not be self-defeating, as would be an attempt to curtail the Overseas Services of the BBC.
Or, my Lords, take aid. Are we really satisfied that the relatively tiny sum of £4 million might not with advantage be deducted from the total aid budget (I do not know whether that comes under the Foreign Office or not), some of which, at least, is suspected of getting into the wrong hands or of being otherwise misdirected? For instance, is it true that this year we are contributing £11 million of aid to Nigeria, by all accounts now a rich oil country, which, in any case, has just been nationalising BP without, as I understand it, very much compensation? How would our interests be served by paying out such sums at the virtual expense of one of our greatest assets? My Lords, it does not make any sense to me, and I do not think it will make any sense to your Lordships.
Finally, there is yet another good reason for not cutting any of the overseas programmes of the BBC. They are the only means we have of disseminating news about what we are now doing in Brussels and in Strasbourg to carry out our obligations under the Lomé Convention 279 and in accordance with the various association agreements of the European Economic Community—to the great benefit, of course, of a large number of developing nations. It would clearly not be right for such news to be conveyed, if it is conveyed at all, to these peoples by French or by other non-British media. I would ask the Government to consider this argument very carefully.
Anyhow, my Lords, for all these reasons, we can only hope that, when and if a proposal to cut the Overseas Services of the BBC comes before the other place, a sufficient number of Members will be found who will vote in accordance with their beliefs, and not just troop into the Lobbies to silence, or at least partially to throttle, the chief voice of freedom in a dangerous and increasingly totalitarian world. Even if they do not, and even if the Government (as is quite likely, I think) evade the issue in some way which is open to them, it is surely possible that the crippling of the Overseas Services will not find, to say the least, very much support here in your Lordships' House. We are, after all, my Lords, no longer under imminent sentence of death if we occasionally vote in accordance with our convictions, and the Government really should not think that they can get away with anything here, however demonstrably counter-productive.
Even if for technical reasons we could not actually prevent the cuts being made by the Government—that is, if the Government finally insisted on them—we could at least organise a pretty formidable protest which might even, I suggest, influence votes in a good many of the constituencies of this country, and that is something of which the Government might well take note. It will be seen that I look forward with interest, if with little immediate hope, to what the Minister responsible is going to say this evening in answer to Lord Buxton's Question.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of GUILDFORD
My Lords, I am assuming that tonight the pressing of this Question is not set in the context of economies made in general throughout our country. I would feel I needed to reserve my position in that. I assume that what we are talking 280 about is the much more narrow question of pressing upon the Foreign Office that they should reconsider the relative work of the BBC Overseas Service in comparison with the total cost of presenting British interests overseas. I am not going to speak about the details of the problems which have been presented to the BBC by the cuts proposed, although the papers which I have read and the people I have consulted have left me in no doubt that the cuts proposed would seriously cripple the Overseas Service. Nor am I speaking about religious programmes in particular, though perhaps I could say that I regard them very highly and, in particular, the efforts made recently to take notice of religions and world views besides our own.
What I want to do is to draw attention to two general points which I hope the Government will take into consideration when seeking to answer the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton. The first is that I hope the Government will recognise the effectiveness of broadcasting in reaching a much wider range of people than the Diplomatic Service can, however energetic or hardworking the staff of embassies and cultural centres may be. I spent a good deal of my working life in Africa and the Middle East, much of it in a very isolated part, and I recall only one visit by a member of the ambassador's staff in the country concerned during the seven years that I was working in that part of the country. But the radio was a constant accompaniment of everyday life. In fact, for one period I began every morning at six o'clock by doing the five-minute physical exercises in tune with what was being broadcast by the World Service. More seriously, in the crises which affected our lives we turned to the BBC Overseas Service to gain a real understanding of the position and to draw some sense of security by recognising that what was going on around us was known to people elsewhere in the world and had been assessed by them.
A trivial incident which took place soon after I moved to Guildford made this point very clear to me. We had in the diocese a priest who was then head of religious broadcasting in the Overseas Service. I wanted to meet him, but I was unable to do so until I had been in 281 Guildford for perhaps a year. Then, at the cathedral one night, by chance, I made his acquaintance. I made my apology to him, that I had not met him before, and explained that I had 160 parishes to look after and it was difficult for me to get to know all the clergy in the diocese very quickly. He replied to me, "Bishop, I do understand. I number my parish in millions". I was very envious of him. I realised that, through his work on the Overseas Service, he had the privilege of intimate conversation, through the radio, through the loudspeaker, with millions of people in the homes in which they lived, and that those people were people with whom our embassies and other institutions abroad would probably make little contact.
In these days, when radios are available in such quantity and so cheaply, the broadcasts of the Overseas Service are listened to in villages and small towns, in the fields and in people's cars, by all manner of ordinary people who would have no other way of contact with the British point of view or with British interests.
I believe that it is of the utmost importance that we speak to these people in the way in which the Overseas Service has done. This is why the specialised language broadcasts which are threatened by the proposed cuts are of particular importance. Of course, we want to represent British interests to the top people in countries where our embassies, trade missions and British Council institutions are; but the circle of people that they can touch is very limited and the radio is a most effective and yet at the same time very cheap way of presenting British people to the ordinary people in the countries across the world. I hope that the Government will bear this aspect in mind in assessing the relative worth of our Overseas Service in comparison with the whole cost of representing our interests abroad.
Finally, my Lords, the second point is a much more general point. I believe that the major question facing us today, as noble Lords are well aware, is that of achieving a harmonious world community in which every different nation, every different race, has a part to play and a share in the prosperity of the whole. It is the communications explosion which 282 has played a very large part in making our world one neighbourhood. I believe that it is of tremendous importance in that one neighbourhood of the world that the particular contribution made by the BBC Overseas Service should be maintained at as high a strength as possible. Its responsible news broadcasts, its dissemination of worthwhile information and, above all, its presentation of democracy at work day in and day out in all the ups and downs of political life is a most valuable, and, as it were, clear presentation of a way of life that we ought to offer to people not only behind the Iron Curtain but in the turbulent Africa of our day which is going to have such great importance in decades yet to come. So, my Lords, I would simply ask the Government whether they have considered how worth-while an investment it is to make the broadcasts that the Overseas Service gives in the world community of our time.
§ 7.3 p.m.
§ Lord WEIDENFELD
My Lords, the received wisdom of political life that doctrinaires in Opposition frequently turn pragmatists in office seems to have been strikingly enriched by a new twist; for here, under our eyes, we see a party which, taking pride in its empirical and commonsense approach while on the road to power, once there begets a government tempted by doctrine—the doctrine of indiscriminate curtailment of public expenditure. How else can we explain the wisdom of cutting, and, as, I think, crippling, the External Services of the BBC? For this is bound to be the effect of the intended Budget cuts which, for a saving of 10 per cent., would reduce broadcasting time by between 20 and 25 per cent. and endanger the whole overhead structure, quality, in some cases audibility and continued availability of wavelengths and ultimately the efficacy of what will remain.
Moreover, these cuts fly in the face of the Government's avowed, and I think seriously meant, pledges and claims, to aid the economic recovery and export potential of this country and to stiffen and strengthen its defence posture within the Western Alliance. There is no doubt that the BBC's External Services are an important and powerful sales aid to British industry. Approximately 60 hours each week of BBC transmissions going
283 abroad are concerned with promoting exports directly or indirectly. This is just under 10 per cent. of all external broadcasting in a total of 39 languages. Twenty-five of these 60 hours consist of direct promotion of British products and over 30 hours deal with invisibles; that is, research, the facilities of the City of London, consultancies, and tourism.
In projecting the British and Western way of life to the disenfranchised listeners of the Communist world or to citizens of repressive régimes elsewhere, the BBC has always been a powerful arm of democratic defence. Its role for instance, in the Portuguese revolution was of outstanding importance. Its reports on the tumoil in Africa, Lebanon and Central America have been landmarks of responsible and courageous news gathering and commentary.
It is, or course, true that the Government directive through the Foreign Office to the BBC asked for the retention of the World English Service and of the programmes to the Arab and Communist worlds; but their retention within a drastically cut budget will cause such havoc in the structure of the service as a whole that the end result may well be grossly damaging to the whole service. In fact, the three optional "packages" which the Corporation has put forward by way of illustrating how the residual services would work, are all Pandora boxes, each creating invidious problems of their own.
Take Package One, for instance, which would involve the closing down of all vernacular services to Western and Southern Europe and Latin America: German to the DDR as well as to the Federal Republic, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Turkish and Finnish. Thus, our friends and neighbours in Europe would be entirely cut out. This is absurd as well as dangerous. In normal times, political, economic, and cultural programmes serve clearly-defined and useful purposes by ensuring continuity of contact. In times of crisis, the voice of Britain is even more relevant.
Package Number Two would, with one magisterial sweep, eliminate our broadcasting to the Indian subcontinent, Iran, Burma, the whole of Southeast Asia and the Far East as well as Black Africa. The third 284 package would involve the whole of Western and Southern Europe plus the Arabic Service. And none of these, faulty as they may be, would achieve the total saving required; so that more, fresh, savings would have to be found elsewhere.
One of the paradoxes is that if we were to remove all broadcasting to Europe west of the Communist world we would only pinpoint the political warfare character of the remaining services to Eastern Europe. Both the man in the street and the authorities in those countries would feel themselves targetted, singled out for special attention, while today they can hear for themselves that BBC news and comment is universal and neither angled nor targetted in a narrow, propagandist way.
In fact, these cuts are the sort of recommendations proposed by the ill-fated Berrill Report which was so overwhelmingly rejected by opinion formers and the public alike some 12 or 18 months ago, and it is not without irony that the party that helped to bury Berrill now wishes to exhume him.
My Lords, previous speakers in this debate, and, I feel quite sure, those who follow me, are nearly unanimous on the great achievements, past and present of the External Services, It is no secret that representations on the highest level have been made in the United States and Western Europe to Her Majesty's Government to desist from these short-sighted cuts. Many noble Lords may have seen editorials in the Herald Tribune emanating both from the Washington Post and the New York Times, explicitly appealing to the British Government to keep the BBC's external programmes intact. I think that a Conservative Government should be especially mindful of tradition and continuity in recalling the record of the BBC's External Services. There is no need to dwell nostalgically on the past only; no need to go back either to the Bronze Age of British Broadcasting under John Reith and Stephen Tallents or to the Heroic Age of William Haley and Noel Newsome. The immediate past and the present are just as creditable.
I would urge the Government to desist from carrying out these cuts and to let the Corporation carry on. It is for the Government to explore where the money can be found. Perhaps it can be found in 285 Whitehall, and the departments concerned with overseas trade and tourism could surely dig into their pouches. Defence expenditure, which the Prime Minister has pledged to maintain and expand, should include contributions to the spreading of the democratic message in the Communist sphere. Already the Defence Department pays, if I understand rightly, one-fifth of the expenditure of the BBC's monitoring service, an invaluable source of reliable reference which should on no account be diminished in scale. To the argument that money is wanted everywhere else at the same time in Whitehall I submit that sometimes, given a sense of perspective and priority, it is quite justifiable to rob Peter in order to pay Paul.
My Lords, in sum, external broadcasting is an essential public and national service, and only as a last and desperate result should it be considered, if all else fails, to explore how the private sector, industry and trade might possibly share part of the burden. There are plenty of examples: Some of our cultural institutions, for instance, are kept afloat by a judicious mixture of grants from the Exchequer and private contributions. Our great industrialists and traders have every reason to help keep the BBC's External Services healthily alive. The Economist has recently even dared to say a cautious word in favour of institutional advertising (although this may perhaps be anathema to the hierarchs of Portland Place).
But I believe that, all in all, the best, indeed the only just solution, would be for the Government to pause, reflect and withdraw their request for cuts, and to allow the BBC to continue to project an image of Britain and her people, their quality of life, their achievements and grave challenges, in a manner which is essentially truthful and, on balance, truly admirable.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ Lord CHALFONT
My Lords, I am reluctant to believe that it is a reflection of our priorities that a House that was so full and attentive during a debate on laboratory animals should become so relatively empty for the Unstarred Question of the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa. I personally am extremely grateful to him for raising this Question this even 286 ing and doing so in such an impressive and moving way.
I understand from certain news reports this morning that we may be pushing at an open door. I have been unable to confirm these reports. In the absence of any reliable newspaper of record—a situation which I hope will be remedied on 13th November—I can only conclude that possibly we still have a problem with which to confront Her Majesty's Government. The basic arguments in this case have already been eloquently deployed: the political arguments by the noble Lords, Lord Buxton of Alsa and Lord Gladwyn; the more technical ones from the depth of his experience by the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld; and the moral arguments by the right reverend Prelate. We have heard—and heard it put cogently—about the need for a British viewpoint to be expressed around the world in a way in which the BBC Overseas Service so eloquently does it at the moment. We have heard about the need for the continuation of impartial sources of news and information. We have heard also about the irreversible nature of these cuts. If they are made in the way in which it is at present proposed, they cannot be reversed. There are many powerful reasons why this is an irreversible trend.
Having accepted all those arguments and expressed my total endorsement of them, I want to bring up one rather special point in this debate. It goes back to something that the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, said about the information battle that goes on in the world. It seems to me ironic and tragic that, at a time when we in this country are proposing to cut the volume and quality of our overseas information service, Radio Moscow should be developing one of the best and most effective world broadcasting services on the air at the moment in English and in the vernacular language.
In my own experience—and I travel a good deal around the world and carry with me a specially equipped radio set—it is already easier in most places in the world to listen to Radio Moscow doing its World Service broadcasting in English on what they call a five by five transmission service—in other words, a perfectly clear atmospherics-free transmission service—than it is to receive the BBC. 287 Radio Moscow's World Service is now broadcasting a virtually 24-hour service around the world in English. Some 19 hours a day come from Radio Moscow World Service—RMWS. Part of that is provided by a station called Radio Peace and Progress which, coincidentally, uses the Radio Moscow transmitters.
That leaves a gap of five hours in the day from 11 o'clock at night until 4 o'clock in the morning. That gap is now being filled by Radio Moscow broadcasts, also in English, to the North African subcontinent. As I say, this means that Radio Moscow is now broadcasting 24 hours a day in English—I am speaking only about their English service broadcasts at the moment. On the 27th July, in a broadcast on the Radio Moscow World Service, the presenter of the programme conceded that the whole of this new Radio Moscow World Service was patterned upon the BBC World Service. He said they now had a happy balance—those were his words—between news, comment and features. He went on to say in that light, ironic way that Russian announcers have: "Perhaps listeners might find some outward resemblance to the BBC World Service". It is not an outward resemblance, it is practically a carbon copy of the BBC World Service. There is a news bulletin every hour; not on the hour because that is when the BBC puts out its service, but at ten minutes past every hour, after the BBC has put out its news service. This is followed by features: "Twenty-four Hours", "The World Today". The names are even the same as those of the BBC World Service. Then there is half an hour of music designed to keep the listeners' attention until the next cycle begins. It is exactly upon the pattern of the extremely successful service that the BBC has been putting out for so many years.
There is now a listeners' letters programme that goes from Radio Moscow in English beamed directly on Great Britain and Ireland. It has a staff—this is information from Radio Moscow, not from me—of several thousand people and it receives 300,000 letters a year from the area to which it is beamed. The conclusion to all this is that we are now being confronted by the Soviet Union for the first time in a systematic and organised way in the information field. It seems to 288 me that it will be disastrous at this stage to impose any cuts at all upon what is without any doubt the best broadcasting service in the world. I am not speaking now of our domestic services, about which I have certain modest reservations. I am speaking of the World Service of the BBC, which I say without fear of any contradiction is quite simply the best broadcasting service in the world.
These cuts are not marginal. One cannot say: "We will make a 10 per cent. cut" and imagine that is going to be 10 per cent. of every programme, 10 per cent. of every hour or 10 per cent. of every service. It is a radical cut and an irreversible cut, as the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, has said. It is being proposed at a time when the Soviet Union—at least a potential enemy; I do not think that anyone would argue with that characterisation—is beginning to realise the vital importance of influencing world opinion through its broadcasting. Field Marshal Templer, who was my commander-in-chief in Malaya when I was a soldier, coined a phrase—Winning the hearts and minds of the people".That, he said, was the only way in which we would win the battle against the Communists in Malaya. It was the way that we won it. I believe we are now in danger of losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of the Third World, and of the people of the world as a whole.
I recognise, as I think everyone in your Lordships' House will recognise, the need for cuts in public expenditure. Perhaps not everyone would agree with that basic premise, but if we were proceeding from it I believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, said in his moving speech, that it is important not to make cuts across the board and not to extend those cuts, for example, into areas which might affect our national security and survival. I shall not talk this evening about the defence budget because it is not immediately relevant to this debate, but I would say, and say with the utmost seriousness, that part of our defence and our apparatus of survival and part of the way of pushing back the forces of darkness in the world is the spreading of information, impartial information, objective comment and a clear, unequivocal endorsement of our way of life.
289 Are we really, seriously, for the sake of an "across the board" cut in public spending, going to destroy that? If we are, then as Ernie Bevin once said in his inimitable way:Once you open that Pandora's box, you never know what Trojan horse is going to come out".The BBC World Service, my Lords, is the only service in the world capable of discharging this task. "The Voice of America", technically brilliant, cannot do it. They are identified with a certain kind of political prejudice in the minds of people who listen; and that identification does not occur in the case of the BBC.
I want to conclude by coming back to my point about Radio Moscow. The Radio Moscow World Service—and note that even the name is a copy of our own—is now becoming required listening all over the world. I spoke earlier about its efforts in the English language. Perhaps we ought also to remember that it broadcasts in over 80 languages and dialects for a total of more than 2,000 hours every week. Of those, about 270 hours are, as I have said, in English. This comprises—and I repeat it because I think it needs repeating—a round-the-clock service in the English language, beamed to this country and to all the other countries in the world where there are English-speaking people. I think we are in danger of being confronted now not only with a predominant and overwhelming military apparatus by the Soviet Union but with a superior information and communication apparatus as well. I believe very seriously that we should not at this stage be cutting what the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, has rightly called "our finest export".
I trust I shall not introduce too abrasive a final note into what has been up to now a reasonably constructive and well-mannered debate, but I trust that Her Majesty's Government will not take this matter lightly. This is a matter at least as important, in my opinion, as those matters with which the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs is dealing perhaps elsewhere at this moment. The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, has said that this is a matter which might even go outside Parliament. It might even be a question of appealing to the common sense and to the deeply-held opinions of the people of this country about the role of this nation in the world.
290 I should like to come back to the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Buxton. He asks Her Majesty's GovernmentWhether they will ensure that …there will be no curtailment of the BBC's overseas broadcasting services…".That is a fairly unequivocal question, and I hope that the noble Lord, when he answers it on behalf of the Government, will be able to say that there will no such curtailment. I would conclude my remarks simply by saying that, if he does not, I hope that Her Majesty's Government will not believe they have heard the end of this matter.
§ 7.26 p.m.
§ Lord HILL of LUTON
My Lords, already in this debate, opened so strongly and so vigorously by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, there has been a severe condemnation of the proposal to make cuts of the order of which we have read. We have no firm indication of what has been planned, but I should be surprised if there had not been a spreading of some "guidance" or some information which gave quite accurately the indications that we have read in the Press. We cannot help remembering that almost exactly two years ago we were discussing the proposals of the Think Tank, and your Lordships will remember that the underlying principle was that the best form of persuasion was economic success and, if you were not being economically successful, then cut down the persuasive effort.
In a debate in this House, that policy was destroyed, as indeed it was elsewhere. It was destroyed, and in that debate a great deal was said on all sides of the House about the immense value of the BBC's overseas services. And now, I am making the assumption that the proposal was to reduce the expenditure on the Overseas Services by 10 per cent., or some £4 million. I hope it will be denied and I hope we shall be told that this is entirely false and there is nothing in it. So I am going to speak on that assumption. Now the proposal is to do in one fell swoop what in fact the Think Tank proposed to do over a number of years. It is a more severe proposal than that which was put forward by the Think Tank. At least they put forward some arguments, even though we destroyed them. As yet we have heard no arguments, 291 apart from the general one of economy in public expenditure, put forward in support.
I wonder whether I might just try to quantify what the proposals for the saving of £4 million might mean. As others have done, I assume that we are well informed and that the World Service in England will remain. I assume there will be other services; for example, those to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Thirdly, I assume with some irony that it would be an odd change of policy if our voice were to be silenced in the oil-rich States of Arabia. On those assumptions, what could this amount to? Staff would have to go—some hundreds of staff would have to go—-and so would the services in which they work. The choice will be Latin America, Iran and, as others have said, the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia, the Far East and Africa—any one or all of them. In these areas the services in their own languages will go, but the World Service in English cannot replace services in the countries to which the broadcasts are directed. After all, if you take the population of India, only 2 per cent. speak English and some of them not very well. Nine out of 10 of the BBC's audience in Northern India listen to the BBC in the vernacular. So let no one pretend that the preservation of the World Service will do much to reduce the impact in many parts of the world. Even where English is the second language, broadcasting in their own language is far more effective.
If the service is cut by 10 per cent., then it is likely on my calculation that services in 12 to 16 languages will have to go. Even half of that cut would mean serious damage. The possibilities are no broadcasting in German to East or West Germany, Austria or Switzerland; no French to French-speaking Africa or Metropolitan France; no Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Turkish, or Finnish; no broadcasts in Portuguese to Brazil or in Spanish to Central or South America. That is the size of it, even though there are choices within that range. Money can be dredged by cutting services to the Commonwealth or the Third World. Losing the only three vernacular languages in which the BBC broadcast, the cuts would extend to 292 broadcasts in Persian, Bengali, Tamil, Malay, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Hindi, Urdu, Japanese, Burmese and Chinese. This is the scope of the reduction which is likely to follow a cut of 10 per cent. in the BBC's grant, or £4 million.
That is what we are talking about, two years after the debate in which we condemned cuts that were to be imposed more slowly and for another reason. It really is astonishing how frequently this comes up. Surely the Government realise the immense value to the country's reputation of these unbiased and objective broadcasts. It is their very existence, as well as their informative and educative effort and the reputation for objectivity, which is part of this country's good name overseas; and it is their professionalism, reliability and comprehensiveness which have ensured this international significance.
I would repeat the point made plain by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton. Broadcasting cannot be turned off like a tap. You cannot turn it off and then turn it on again. If you stop a language service, the audience goes to a less desirable, less amiable service, to put it mildly. The staff disperses, the frequencies are usurped, pinched, borrowed and occupied by other countries. You cannot stop one month and restore the service the next. That is absolutely clear and undeniable. If you cut a service, you no longer have a BBC time, place or wavelength on which to build a larger audience when you want it at a time of crisis. It is finished and over and done with.
I shall say no more, because so many valuable contributions are being made covering the same ground, but I must just say this. Broadcasting is an aspect of a nation's own view of itself. That is what external broadcasting is. Surely the Briton of today, however difficult the time, has not so small a conceit of himself that he prefers silence, abdication and the triumph of untruth—for that is what has been demonstrated by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. I would urge the Government to think again.
I saw a good deal of this service until seven years ago. I have no reason to advocate it, to speak for it, except the recollection of its own magnificence. It really is a tremendously important part of the presentation of Britain overseas. There is a capacity to make democracy 293 work. There is a serenity—it is difficult to find the words—and there are qualities in this country which are admired throughout the world, although we do our best by our own troubles and our own self-criticism to destroy the image. It would be a tragedy if this damage were done to our Overseas Services and to our country—for that is what is involved—in many parts of the world, and to their image of us, for £4 million.
I hope that the Government's spokesman tonight will confirm that what we read in the Daily Telegraph yesterday was a quiet hint of an impending reversal of view, although it could possibly have been one of those comforting little noises which have no more meaning than to gain a day or two. The Government will go up in our estimation if, having looked at this subject and having heard the arguments expressed, they decide that these cuts are not for us to make. We cannot afford to make them.
§ Baroness GAITSKELL
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether it would be not only a tragedy but a disgrace?
§ Lord HILL of LUTON
My Lords, we must each choose our own words. I have been trying to be a good boy tonight and not use unseemly words, but I would not demur at the suggestion that the word "disgrace" would not be inappropriate.
§ 7.38 p.m.
My Lords, I have often thought that the conduct of a nation's foreign affairs—surely, the most subtle of all the governmental arts—might be likened to a highly sophisticated, high fidelity sound reproduction system, in that its performance can only match the quality of its weakest component. It is a waste of time and money to match inferior speakers or a cheap pick-up head to a sophisticated amplifier. The Government of the day can be likened to the owner-operator of the system. They choose, finance, maintain and operate the equipment. The Whitehall apparat can be likened to the amplifier which synthesises the input, attenuates the power and controls the output. It is the information services which can be likened to the speakers, whose quality makes the performance arresting or otherwise.
294 If the owner-operator starts poking about with the equipment, there will result wow and flutter, distortion, loss of audibility or, indeed, no sound at all. The sound will lose its fidelity. The audience will lose faith in what they hear—if they hear anything at all. They will go away and, as other noble Lords have said previously, they will never come back. This is precisely what Her Majesty's Government are threatening to do. We should take no heart from what I am sure the Government spokesman will say, "These proposals are minuscule; they will have very little effect", for, as you have heard from other noble Lords they will have a terrifying effect. The analogy which was used in a letter in the Daily Telegraph only today was the "salami effect" of the cheese-paring and the cutting of costs in previous years. This is the final slice that lops off the nub of the salami.
I beg to remind your Lordships that notwithstanding previous years, the BBC put into effect cuts of £390,000 in 1974–75. At the same time, spread over a period of four years, cuts of £1,760,000 were made. In 1976–77, cuts of £288,000 were made. In 1977–78, cuts of £541,000 were suffered. And in 1978–79 the BBC were asked to absorb cuts of £732,000.
Allow me to give your Lordships a concrete example of just one of the effects of these cuts. In the case of the Latin-American service, every single one of the supporting services has been completely eliminated. The publicity, the promotional services, the travel services and the research back-up just do not exist any more. Only direct broadcasting costs remain. The BBC have not got one office in the whole of Latin-America—not one. They used to, but it has all gone. How the BBC maintain the standard that they do without these back-up services I cannot understand, yet they are being asked to absorb even more cuts. Meanwhile, the Voice of America has overtaken us in the Latin-American theatre, as have Russia, Germany and the Warsaw Pact countries.
I keep asking myself, as many noble Lords must have done, why the Foreign Office have not cried out in pain, "Enough is enough. Leave this most effective instrument of our foreign relations alone". The only answer that I can see lies in the conflict of interest, in that the 295 Foreign Office represents Government speaking to Government, whereas the BBC represents nation speaking to nation, people speaking to people. And, my goodness me! do they not do it better! It appears to me that in full view of the whole world Her Majesty's Government are attempting to throttle themselves and the nation.
With your Lordships' leave, may I quote one short leading article as an example. It is from an Argentinian publication called La Prensa which, believe me, has in the past been in no way friendly towards us. On 10th October they wrote:The Argentine republic has been traditionally friendly to the United Kingdom. Aside from certain matters, the long-standing political and economic bonds remain between the River Plate and Britain. They watched the dawn of our independence with favourable understanding. Over the years, among us and also among others of significance, an Anglo-Saxon culture has taken root and extended to literature and public law. Lastly, the economic relations with the hub of the British Empire"—I like that—have been multiple and productive. That and, above all, the community of fundamental political interest should persuade Mrs. Thatcher's government not to sever a magnificent system of radio-communication that is a bond of union between their country and so many on this continent.Governments may choose not to heed public opinion, if they must, but I beseech Her Majesty's Government to listen with great care to the great men—to one of our most distinguished diplomatists; namely, the noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan, who wrote in 1973:The most effective British activity in the wide realm of information is the Overseas Service of the BBC".And similarly to the noble Lord, Lord St. Brides, who, in a memorable maiden speech in November 1977, said:To my mind, a country which can no longer achieve all its ends by the sheer weight of military and economic power needs to put more, not less, effort into the protection of its interests by other means. Britain's position in the international community has certainly changed since 1945. But the means of maintaining and developing influence in the world have changed, too. They have become less palpable. They require more intellectual and imaginative effort, and less brute force. In the new, much more open, situation which has resulted, we can more than hold our own if we wish, and provided that we continue to manifest a will to excellence and the desire to compete, and if possible to lead, which goes with it".—[Official Report, 23/11/77; col. 885.]296 Above all, however, I beseech the Government to listen to the words, quoted so pertinently by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, of my noble friend Lord Home of the Hirsel in that same debate. Big Ben does not toll only at Westminster. It tolls in the hearts and minds of oppressed and muted millions and, indeed, in what is left of the Free World.
I beg Her Majesty's Government not to muffle our nation's future.
§ 7.47 p.m.
§ Lord HANKEY
My Lords, I want to support a great deal of what has been said in this debate, notably by my noble friends Lord Weidenfeld, Lord Chalfont and Lord Hill of Luton. I shall not repeat the information which they have given but I can certify that it is absolutely valid.
I have much experience of the BBC External Services. For a great many years I travelled as a diplomat, and I have also travelled since my retirement. I, like the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, always carry with me a short wave radio. One can always hear the BBC, literally anywhere in the world, at 8 a.m. local time—generally loud and clear. And there are numerous other broadcasts as well. I can certify that the BBC is very widely listened to abroad, both in English and in local languages, often by distinguished people. For instance, when I was Ambassador in Sweden Mr. Tage Erlander, the very distinguished Prime Minister, listened every morning to the BBC, to my certain knowledge. There are huge audiences in the Middle East and in Africa. I agree entirely with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford said about that.
The second point I want to make is that an audience, especially one of interest and respect such as the BBC has, really cannot be turned on and off like a tap. My noble friend Lord Hill of Luton made this point, and I want to drive it home. At least you can turn your audience off, but you cannot turn it on again. Once it has gone it has gone. I had a tragic experience of this. When I was Ambassador in Stockholm there was one of these periodical economy drives. They are very necessary, as I know only too well. The Foreign Office decided to abolish the information section of the embassy, and the result was absolutely disastrous—as, I must frankly say, I had 297 foretold that it would be. We just could not give the journalists and others all the support that they needed. After a year and a half or so, the Foreign Office changed their mind and sent back a really excellent information secretary. However, it took him a year and a half to get going, and we lost virtually three years of work over this to-ing and fro-ing.
When the Foreign Office sent back the information secretary they decided to suppress the British Council post. The Swedes were immensely upset about this. They took on the running of the British Institute and, frankly, they ran it every hit as well as we did. They supplied English teachers to the whole of the Swedish educational system. It was admirably done, and I think that they still do it that way. In due course, the British Council sent back a very good man, but we had lost an immense number of contacts; and especially we had lost respect and contacts in the universities, the schools and among the intellectuals. So the lesson from that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, so wisely told us, is that we must not go to-ing and fro-ing; we must not chop and change. This is a cardinal British sin. We must have the strength of mind and the character to do things well and jolly well stick to them.
My third point is that any of your Lordships can easily hear for yourselves what the BBC external services are like. You do not need a short wave set. All you have to do on a Saturday morning—and I say Saturday because it is easy; you do not have to go pounding off to the office—is to turn on the medium wave at round about 450 metres and you will hear a truly admirable news service which is much better than the domesticities of Radio 4, giving a balanced account of everything that is happening in the world, followed by a newspaper review, followed by a review of the weekly periodicals which is of fascinating interest. It is a broadcast of real intellectual perspicacity. The BBC are greatly to be commended on the way they do this and if your Lordships listen on Saturday morning I am sure you will share my view.
That brings me to my fourth point. One cannot imagine how valuable and important an objective source of news and balanced common sense and real intellectual perspicacity is overseas in the world we live in. All too often as we travel 298 across the world the local presentation of the news is distorted by ideology or propaganda or plain prejudice. I can give a striking personal example. In May 1968 I went to the Soviet Union with a parliamentary delegation, and incidentally with my short wave radio. Every morning at 8.15 I went down to breakfast and gave the other parliamentarians, British and Soviet, the news of the day as presented by the BBC. It happened to be a rather dramatic period. It was the time when there was a student revolt in France, the barricades were up in the Quartier Latin in Paris; there was a general strike with seven million men on strike in France. General de Gaulle had to cut short an official visit to Rumania and come back to control the situation. There were rumours of Soviet troop movements in the south of Poland, near the Czechoslovak frontier, described by an official Polish communiqué from Warsaw as"preparations for summer manoeuvres". The Soviet Prime Minister had talks in Prague, described in an official communiqué issued by Mr. Dubcek's Government. There was a naval incident in the Arctic with an American aircraft carrier and a Soviet pilot who was buzzing it, who missed his foothold—if that is the right term—fell into the sea and was pulled out by the Americans. Not a word of any of this appeared in the Soviet press.
I think it was either in central Siberia or the Caucasus that our extremely kind, courteous and generous Soviet hosts said to me over the breakfast table"Now look here, Lord Hankey, a joke is a joke is a joke. You have really had us on quite long enough. Do admit that it is all fun". I said "Honestly, it is not. Come and listen to my radio tomorrow morning". As a matter of fact, the Soviet Press carried the news the next day and our dear Soviet hosts were horribly embarrassed and indeed dumbfounded to find the extent to which the wool was pulled over their eyes by their own information services. I should like to say that in Eastern Europe there was at that time a great deal of radio jamming but one could always hear the BBC because the Soviet authorities themselves wanted to know what the BBC was saying, so there was always a window and, with a little ingenuity, one could always find it.
299 In this case I say, "Well done, the BBC". They did a magnificent job and they are still doing it and have been doing it ever since. In varying degrees it happens all over the world where truth is being suppressed or modified. In a world where truth, mercy and justice—those cardinal Christian virtues—are being undermined; in a world where democracy really has its back to the wall in so many places and where the moral and political ideals to which we are firmly attached need constant restatement and emphasis; in this world where our whole liberal civilisation and all our human rights are now at risk ; how vital it is, not only to Britain but to Europe and America and all our friends in every continent, to give the news objectively and to say fearlessly what we think and believe day by day across the wireless waves to the whole world in the excellent world language which is our marvellous heritage and also in the languages locally used. I beg the Government to take my heartfelt plea seriously and so far as possible to keep the BBC External Services going, on at least their present scale, and above all to hold on to our well chosen wavelengths and maintain the power of the transmitters.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Lord FERRIER
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, as it were, he referred to the "Weekly World" on the Overseas Service: Why can we not get it here? We get "News Stand" at five minutes to 10, but that is not half so good. However, that is by the way. Something that my noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa said towards the end of his excellent speech reminded me that I received a letter over the weekend from the "boy" who was in my service for nearly 30 years. I would remind your Lordships that "boy" is a corruption of "Bhai" meaning brother. I think that is not generally appreciated. This dear friend of mine and my family, now, alas! quite blind in his home in Gujarat, where he has a first-class radio set, in his letter dictated to a letter writer, said:I am listening daily to the radio and sometimes I hear of your Scotland".I think that is very nice of him; presumably of course in the vernacular, and as the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, pointed 300 out these vernacular broadcasts are of great importance in this vital service.
However, this is a trivial matter compared with what the noble Lords, Lord Buxton of Alsa, Lord Chalfont, Lord Hankey, and all the "big guns with whom I am mixed up at this moment, have been saying. Nevertheless, the item is a little window on the dangerous world in which we live. The Prime Minister has done the right thing in drawing attention to the menace of Russian superiority in men and weaponry. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has said it better than I could and so I shall not develop the point, but I should have liked him to go further. He said, "No cuts". Of course, but if we cannot match the weaponry, why can we not match the weapons of the sound waves by increasing the advantage which the BBC service—thank goodness!—still holds and has worked at for so long? It is not that we cannot afford to: my Lords, we cannot afford not to.
§ 8 p.m.
§ Lord AUCKLAND
My Lords, this is a most opportune time to discuss the problems facing the BBC's Overseas Services, particularly in the light of the substantial cuts which Her Majesty's Government are being forced to make in many areas and which the vast majority of responsible people regard as being a necessary evil. But, my Lords, there must be some discernment as to where these cuts are to take place. In recent years this country has been the butt of some scurrilous denigration, much of it within our own shores, but some of it, alas!, from overseas, and some of it from sources overseas where one would least expect it. How better to counteract this kind of problem than not to cut but to strengthen our Overseas Broadcasting Services? In times of difficulty the thing that really matters is communication. Communication between countries is the linchpin of the democratic way of life, revealing credit where it is due—and this is revealed all too infrequently now—and debit where it is due, which is sometimes overdone.
I want to refer briefly in the major part of my speech to one country, a country I happen to have been to, and that country is Finland. Finland has been mentioned in the course of this debate, and I believe that Finland has a special qualification to 301 get a particular mention. If one looks back in history a few years, if it had not been for Field Marshal Mannerheim and his insistence on keeping Finnish troops on Finnish soil after the last war the odds are that Finland would have gone the same way as, alas, Czechoslovakia has so tragically gone. I have only visited Finland once, on a Parliamentary delegation some ten years ago, but I keep in very close contact with that country, with people in business, in the diplomatic service, in the arts and in many walks of life, and also with a number of Finnish people in this country.
The voice of Finland is broadcast alone by the BBC. America and Germany do not broadcast in Finnish. Some 225,000 Finns listen regularly to the BBC. What would happen if the Finnish transmissions were cut out? It would mean that Russia and Poland would get a virtual monopoly. One only has to look at a map to see that Finland lives very much in the shadow of the Soviet Union. If you go, as I did, north to Tornio and to Rovaniemi, you are within about 30 miles of the Estonian border. It is absolutely vital that we keep contact with a country which fought the Russians very bravely in 1939, which had much of its northern country, particularly Finnish Lapland, razed by the Germans, which had to pay enormous reparations to Soviet Russia, but which today nevertheless manages, despite inflation, to maintain a relatively strong economy.
A short time ago, the BBC television service put out a series of programmes. I think it was entitled "Under the Russian Bear" or some such title, and one country chosen was Finland. I presume that the gentleman who presented this programme had been to Finland recently. I must admit that I only saw the last few moments of the programme, but I read the extracts very carefully in that admirable journal, The Listener. The programme, which seemed to depict Finland as a country which no tourist could visit without being followed and other such sinister manifestations, bore absolutely no relation to what I saw and to what a number of people who I know have been to Finland have seen in recent years. One can move about quite freely. English is the second language in the schools. There is a considerable exchange of tourists, although not enough British people go to 302 Finland, largely because it is expensive. There is every opportunity for very much more communication between these two countries, but only if the broadcasting of the Finnish service is maintained, and I think I have said enough in this connection to justify that.
I should like to quote very briefly from a letter written by a Finn only a very short time ago:I visited some friends in Estonia last summer. I asked them how often they listened to the BBC and they said many times a week. This seems to be a common practice, at least in Tallin".which is the capital of Estonia—I asked them why they did so, and they said that the Russian news were complete rubbish and the Finnish TV news were very much 'softened' … So, they said, the only source for interesting news were the Finnish news on the BBC. Sometimes these, too, have been jammed. My friends asked in particular to thank you for your news bulletins and for the information you give about the communist countries (defectors, etc.). They also praised your news for their 'freshness'.My Lords, this country has a trade deficit with Finland. We need to export more to that country, and in what better way could this be at least helped than by ensuring that the Finnish service is not only maintained but strengthened? I submit to the taxpayer that that could be done at relatively little cost. I read the article in the Daily Telegragh this morning. One must wait and see whether it is true. If it is not true then the situation is indeed gloomy.
I turn away from Finland to that, at the moment, very unhappy, very lovely country, Czechoslovakia, which I also visited not very long ago. Many Czech people love this country and have fought for this country, and the BBC could do and is doing much to alleviate the sufferings in Czechoslovakia.
Mention has been made of the Overseas Service of the BBC. I entirely endorse all that has been said about the excellence of its programmes, its news bulletins and the correspondence column which covers many countries. We in this country have much to praise ourselves for as well as much for which we must accept criticism. Even at a time when cuts in public expenditure are necessary, if we were to advertise our own plus points as well as we do our minus points—which is done so effectively by those who work so conscientiously for the Overseas Service of the BBC—the state of this country could gain much.
§ 8.11 p.m.
§ Lord RITCHIE-CALDER
My Lords, I apologise that my name does not appear on the list of speakers, but I have been out of the country and was not sure whether I would be back in time for this important and critical debate. At least I want to stand up and be counted. The remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, about the relative importance of military and political economies reminded me of how during the war I had a pretty heavy commitment as the Director of Plans and Operations for Political Warfare. We—that is to say myself, the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, and many others—were trying to build up what we called rather pretentiously the "Fourth Fighting Arm". That was the political warfare element and an important part of that was the BBC and its Overseas Services.
Apropos what we are saying about the Overseas Service today and what it has been doing over the last 30 years; it is a great tribute to us, the BBC in particular—some of us were trying to manipulate it—that we maintained the total integrity of the BBC. As regards that integrity I vividly remember that I had great battles in which I was fighting something called"the projection of Britain". The "projection of Britain" would nowadays be regarded as the advertising of Britain, the public relations of Britain. I maintained, and I still do, that the most effective propaganda for Britain, the most effective projection of Britain, is to show how Britain behaves—not to show what it is doing, but to show how it behaves. Therefore, the whole of our services—and they have continued to be so—were built up with the power of independence and a scrupulous regard for truth which we insisted on respecting. I am talking again as though we were trying to manipulate the BBC; but we insisted on respecting the total integrity of the BBC in its presentation of facts and also on recognising that what was said critically, often by people from various other countries on their own services, was a very important aspect of our promotion—that is, we were letting them criticise us. We built this up until the end of the war when I insisted that Great Britain had lost a great deal. However, we recognised at the end of the war, as we must recognise now, that the BBC was 304 our greatest single asset. We had an authority which we could not have bought. There was no way in which we could have exploited the situation to create the authority that we had, except for the war.
I come back to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa. He said that we must not cut the life support systems of these people. We had become the life support system of the resistance movements everywhere in Europe. I insisted then, and I still insist today, that the whole face of Europe was turned West—not to Britain as a self-advertised Britain, but to London which had become the lighthouse, the only beacon in the Western World. They turned to us as a point of reference. The fact that we behaved well in those circumstances was to our credit, but we could have built into that authority a great influence which we could have exercised; but I am afraid in many instances after the war we failed to do so.
Today something still remains. The remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, about the parallel with the military are absolutely indisputable. We used to talk about the BBC as our "grand fleet in being"; we were keeping it intact and not allowing it to disgrace itself, and even if it wanted to do so we would not let it. It was the biggest instrument that we possessed. It was our fleet in being. We should not take our Overseas Service and put the ships into mothballs—if we do so we shall sink them. It is a Scapa Flow: we would be putting them at the bottom of the sea, because as everyone agrees we would not be able to restore them. If we lose the people, we would have no crew. We would have sunk the grand fleet. That is what we are proposing to do. I say to the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, whom I deeply respect, that I hope he will not go down in history as the man who succeeded in doing what neither Goebbels nor the Russians ever succeeded in doing, namely, shutting the mouth of Britain.
§ 8.18 p.m.
§ Lord GEORGE-BROWN
My Lords, I rise with more than the normal amount of trepidation because I am inserting myself into a debate most of which I have not heard. My only excuse is that I have spent the last hour in the chaos of London 305 traffic trying to get here from Euston. I fumed more and more, but all to no avail, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, for saying that he would not add this particular sin of intervening now too heavily to all the other sins which he already, I know, holds against me in a variety of ways.
There is a matter that I should like to raise and which I suspect has not been raised by other speakers. It is a matter about which I feel strongly and, as we have a debate on this subject so rarely, I should not like to lose the opportunity of raising it tonight. I have raised this matter on the radio and I have written about it in newspapers, and I should like to say it to my noble friends here tonight.
We all pay tribute to the Overseas Service of the BBC and in general I have no wish to disagree with my colleagues about that. Certainly that part of it which goes out in English, which is the part that I can hear and understand—in part anyway—when I am travelling about the world, is one that I am always very glad of, proud of and feel pleased that there is such a clear and trustworthy source. However, if that were all there was to it there would be no excuse for my intervention tonight at all. However, I have recently begun to worry a great deal about other parts of the Overseas Service of the BBC—those parts which we do not normally hear and which even if we did we normally would not understand and therefore would take for granted.
Two recent examples have worried me. A similar example occurred when I was Foreign Secretary. While negotiating in Moscow on some delicate matters, I found myself in great difficulties due to the absolute and, as I then thought, rather arrogant refusal by those who were running the Russian service of the BBC to consider the foreign and diplomatic policy of Her Majesty's Government and the negotiations in which I was then engaged, and who, instead, insisted upon exercising their total independence of the Foreign Office and created some considerable difficulty for me. There is a case for telling Ministers that it is time we had an inquiry—it would probably be better done by Parliament than by anybody else—into the way in which the "own-language services", if that is a clear statement, of the Overseas Service of the BBC are being conducted, how 306 policy is being made and to what extent, if any, the foreign policy being pursued by Her Majesty's Government at any time is taken into account.
In parenthesis let me say that we must remember that, although we in this House know about the independence of the BBC, it is very difficult to get that clearly understood in countries which themselves have no such independent organisation. They know that the BBC is funded by the Government and they assume that it must therefore be—as it would be in their own countries—a government service. All of us who have travelled must have had the same experience as I have had in trying to explain to foreign statesmen, politicians and newspapers that that is indeed not so. Although I would not have it otherwise, I believe that it is necessary to be quite sure that those who run what perhaps could be called the covert operation of Bush House are in some way democratically responsible—if not to the Government, then to whom?
Let me give the examples of the recent past which I have very much in mind. Last November and again last January I was in Iran, closely in touch with both Her Majesty's Government and with the embassy, but acting as an independent and individual Member of this House and, therefore, disownable by everybody. However, what worried everybody in Iran—the British embassy, British businessmen, Persian journalists and other nationals—was the extent to which they regarded the BBC Parsee service as exceeding all bounds of news or justifiable attitude-striking in its comments. I had transcripts made for me by our embassy and I had transcripts made by Iranian journalists who had been imprisoned by the Shah, and it was evident that not only were we broadcasting from here news of what was happening, but that we were broadcasting calls from, for example, Khomeini in Paris to the people in Teheran to rise and do things, to engage in disorder. There is the disputed question of whether on one occasion they actually broadcast instructions as to how to make Molotov cocktails, but certainly there were calls to go on strike the next day. On my return when I challenged this I was told that it was news because Khomeini had said it in Paris. Then it became news the next day because it had 307 happened in Teheran. In all the answers that I received to my protests I was met with a very fanciful and unreal defence.
This is a danger when our own-language service is bound to be operated by emigres and by others who are here because they are opponents of the existing régime. Unless one is very careful, an enormous amount of bias will be injected. It is unlikely that Mr. Gerald Mansell or his acolytes at the BBC actually read Parsee easily enough to be fully up to date day by day with what is being said by these emigre broadcasters. Last November many people still thought that we had a chance to help get some other government in Iran, either with the Shah still there or with him absent, which would certainly have been a much better situation than the one we have at present. However, the overseas Parsee service of the BBC was not only delivering, in the guise of news, anti-Shah and anti-régime propaganda; it went even further and was delivering pro-Khomeini propaganda. There is no dispute that that is what was being done. Not only in my view but in the view of the business community, other journalists and certainly of the British Embassy they had a very great deal of responsibility for building up the Khomeini campaign which has produced the disasters today, which are certainly as bad as the worst under the Shah, and I suspect very much worse.
That worried me in November when there was still a chance to do something else; it worried me when I returned in January at the invitation of everybody who was struggling to do something; I saw it in an even more exaggerated form then. All appeals that they should desist or that they should be much more careful, or that they should listen to the Foreign Office were refused. I know very well that the Foreign Office here, our embassy there and various very distinguished people in this country, to whom appeals were made, made great efforts to persuade everybody from Micheal Swann to Gerald Mansell and other people at Bush House for Heaven's sake to reconsider the depth of the seas into which they were getting.
I have spoken to people about this since, and as I say I have written about it. I might have forgotten it or tucked it away in the back of my mind like my previous 308 Moscow experience 10 years ago, except that one night a few months ago I was watching on BBC 2 a broadcast and then there was a rebroadcast of a film on what is called the "Markov affair". This had to do with the death of a Bulgarian refugee who was stabbed with an umbrella point and died rather horribly, poisoned by, it was thought, agents of the régime. The régime in Bulgaria is very different from the régime in Persia. I do not feel any softer about the régime in Bulgaria than about the other—that is for sure and certain. However, I was horrified by what the BBC showed in the film of the Markov affair. They were very proud of themselves because they showed the film twice. They emphasised that Markov was almost certainly murdered because he was broadcasting propaganda against the régime and the leaders of the régime in his native land, and that this had so stunned the leaders of the régime and was having such an effect that they had decided to eliminate him, and had made attempts to eliminate other members of the BBC's staff. But then I stopped, because that worried me as much as the Iranian matter. What business has a Government funded service to be broadcasting propaganda against the régime of a country with which Her Majesty's Government feel it politic to have friendly relations? Who is making the foreign policy of this country?
I got very worried indeed by the Markov account. I think that somebody has to be asked to look at the directions, because all one's attempts to raise it seriously and in an understanding way with the BBC have failed, because they simply say that one is trying to make a case for the Foreign Office. They have a jaundiced view of the Foreign Office, and they do not wish to have any connection with or control by the Foreign Office, which in a way I hear many people say. But in point of fact the desire to be independent of the Foreign Office does not in my view justify running what amounts to a separate foreign policy. Certainly in the case both of Iran, which I know of first-hand, and of Markov, which I know from their own broadcasts, the BBC were running a policy which was not the policy of our diplomats en poste or of the Foreign Office at home.
This brought a comparison to my mind. Some years ago in the 1950s I was intro- 309 duced to, and got very interested in, the operations of Radio Free Europe. It operated from Munich with American funds. It again got terribly involved in running covert propaganda operations. That went on right up until recent times when the American Congress, in the aftermath of Watergate, insisted that the funds of Radio Free Europe should be provided by Congress, and that a Select Committee of Congress should satisfy itself about the operations of Radio Free Europe because of the effect that what they had been doing was having on United States' relations with eastern European and other countries.
I express no view as to whether the United States Government's policy or Her Majesty's Government's policy is right about those countries. That is a matter about which we shall argue on another occasion. But I say that until it is changed it is highly dangerous to have a private empire in the bowels of Bush House, employing emigrés, employing refugees from existing régimes, conducting—it is done covertly but it is open in the sense that it can easily be heard—their own covert operations against the régimes with which we chose to have friendly relations.
Whatever may be the Government's answer to this Motion tonight about making some cuts—and I am pretty certain that some cuts can be made, as one can always find room to make cuts in almost any service, and I do not want to support any view that may have been expressed that you can easily think you can transfer the cuts proposed for the Overseas Service to other foreign department services without also doing damage to the other foreign services—I ask them to consider my proposition that the two House of Parliament should be asked to set up a Joint Committee. This could examine what is going on and discover how policy is decided in this part of the Overseas Services, who directs it, to whom he or they are responsible, and whether any changes ought to be made from here on to secure Parliamentary, if not Government, control. I apologise again for intervening on this point.
§ 8.35 p.m.
Lord BRUCE of DONINGTON
My Lords, the House will be grateful to the 310 noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, for having introduced this Unstarred Question today and for having initiated the debate. It would seem that there has been an astonishing degree of unanimity in the House when it has come to consider what we will think of for the moment as the projected cuts that the Government may have in mind to impose on the BBC External Services. The noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, will perhaps forgive me if I do not deal immediately with the point he raised, but I shall endeavour to refer to it in the course of what I hope will be a short rejoinder this evening.
On the 27th July, in answer to a Parliamentary Question concerning the future of the Overseas Services, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said that there was a review of expenditure. He was pressed in this House as to its possible extent but he declined to commit himself beyond saying, as it was quite proper for him to do, that of course it would be incorporated in the normal way in the Government's statement on public expenditure which—and the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong—is expected towards the end of the autumn. This has not discouraged rumour. It has been said, and I have reason to believe, that the Foreign Office at any rate until quite recently has been asked to effect something like £4½ million of savings on the BBC Overseas Service. As I said, we cannot say that these are firm Government proposals yet, but the reports are that cuts of this magnitude are in contemplation. I hope that after listening to the debate this evening the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who is to reply, may be able to assure us that after giving mature consideration to the whole question these cuts will not in fact take place at all. Or he may be constrained to say that the Government have not yet made up their mind, and will take faithfully into account the views which have been expressed in this debate by the 11 or 12 noble Lords who have spoken.
When we are considering cutting the services, or effecting economics in the Overseas Service of the BBC, what are we really doing? What we are really doing is—and I shall return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown—cutting down the quantity and spread of information that is going out from these islands to the rest of the world. Sound 311 radio has a great advantage over other forms of media expression, because for vast parts of the world television is quite out of the question for the vast majority of people. It is different from the Press—on the assumption that a free Press had full circulation throughout all the populations of the world—because the great mass of humanity, although it can speak and can hear, cannot read. Of course radio, particularly where it is addressed to these millions of people in their own language, is something they can understand, even though they cannot read. What we are in effect considering, therefore, is the possibility that the Government of the day may be taking away the only means that millions of people have of knowing what is happening in the remainder of the world—what is happening in the United Kingdom, in Europe and elsewhere.
I can well understand the views of the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, who bearing in mind the time he was a distinguished person in a very distinguished series of offices, might have found independence highly inconvenient to Government. One of the great strengths of the BBC's Overseas Service, whatever errors it might make, is precisely that point; it is not susceptible to governmental pressures or to those pressures that are overtly and ruthlessly exerted in totalitarian States. It is known to be independent and it is known that many politicians—not, I trust, the noble Lord—would like to have it less independent than it is.
It may well be the case, in the broadcasts on the Overseas Services, that where convenient they employ the services of emigrés, and we know that the enunciation of truth can be taken as an attack on the régimes in certain dictator countries. It may be taken, as Lord George-Brown said, as propaganda; there are many in this world to whom all truth is dismissed as propaganda if it is inconvenient to the dictator and the dictator States. Although I would not invite the House—I would not dream of doing so because I am not an expert in these affairs—to accept the BBC Overseas Service as being the last word in perfection, I am reasonably satisfied that a genuine and objective effort is made to convey what they consider to be the truth to the outside world, 312 and I would not resist in the slightest any inquiry to determine whether or not that is in fact the case.
We talk from time to time about the necessity for the Free World to match up in terms of armaments, manpower and science to those other countries which live under different systems from ours in the West and which, it is apprehended, present a threat to the Free World. Indeed, the Prime Minister herself recently emphasised the necessity for the West, and in particular the United Kingdom, to play its part in preserving at least parity with the military menace which is apprehended from other sections of the earth. Therefore in the United Kingdom, in spite of all the cuts it has been found necessary to make in all types of social expenditure—with consequences that were adequately dealt with by my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell in the debate yesterday—there has been a deliberate increase in expenditure on defence.
I listened with interest to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. We are currently engaged, when we are not retiring behind our defences and improving them, in a battle for men's minds, and in terms of military defence that battle plays a very significant part indeed. My noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder referred to the whole question of psychological warfare during the last Great War. The battle for men's minds is the most important thing of all, bearing in mind that out of the 152 nations in the United Nations, only about 30 have the freedom of media expression such as we have in the United Kingdom and in other countries of the West.
In terms of defence alone I cannot understand what has, or may have, got into the mind of Her Majesty's Government, who are passionately addicted to defence. Yet when it comes to this vital part, evidently they are seriously considering mutilating the service, and in exceptional circumstances. I could understand the position on 27th July last when the Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said the matter was under review. But since that time we have had a number of uncovenanted benefits on the credit side of the balance sheet which must have given the Prime Minister rather greater room for manoeuvre than she might otherwise have 313 thought. They might even have given the Chancellor of the Exchequer some slight cause for rejoicing.
Noble Lords will recall that on Monday we had the uncovenanted bonus of £14½ million which are to be the savings as the result of the abolition of exchange controls. So there is £14½ million of uncovenanted benefit since these cuts were originally contemplated. Moreover, since then there has become a dawning of the significance of the deficit this county has with the EEC, amounting to some £1,000 million, and, if one reads the Press, the Prime Minister will make every conceivable endeavour to ensure that this country's net liability to the EEC is very considerably reduced. I hope it will be reduced by more than the £4 million or so which is covered ostensibly by these cuts. It would be a poor testimony to the confidence the Government have in the Prime Minister if they were to say that she will not get back more than that.
Of course this country can afford the £4½ million which may be involved here. It is nonsense to suppose otherwise. It is not as though there has been an objective review of the BBC, and apart altogether from any question of asking the BBC to review its own operations, no real coherent reason has been put forward other than the mathematical necessity for making cuts. This is not the technique of Government. This is the technique of the bacon slicer and it is something the country cannot afford to do.
I have said that the Overseas Service of the BBC is a vital factor in the nation's defence. It is also a vital factor in connection with trade. On any one of the three packages that have been put forward as alternatives—and there is the inescapable alternative of the BBC—broadcasts to South America would most certainly suffer in any eventuality. I thought that it was necessary for us to develop our export trade with South America. It is not a very good start to such an operation to cut entirely, or to mutilate, our communications with them.
My Lords, I will not weary your Lordships by repeating the arguments that have been put forward so ably from all parts of the House. It would be invidious to mention names. It may be that at the end of the day the noble 314 Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will be able to say that the Government have not committed themselves yet, that they have no real intention of doing anything of the kind, but that they have the intention not only of maintaining the BBC's Overseas Service, but even of increasing it. In that case we should all be very happy to offer the noble Lord our felicitations. But if the Government persist in what must be regarded in any objective language as a completely nonsensical policy, then the verdict ultimately will be as follows. There are cuts in the social services which have been recognised so far as in some cases stupid, in other cases vicious, and in some instances both stupid and vicious. In this particular case if the Government make a decision on the lines feared, they will be completely stupid.
§ 8.52 p.m.
§ Lord TREFGARNE
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Ferrier referred during the course of his speech to the thought that he was here among the big guns this evening, and I was reminded of an occasion a few months ago when we were in Opposition. I went to South Wales, to a constituency which has hardly ever returned a Conservative MP, certainly not recently. Of course that is why no one more senior was sent. I addressed a gathering of the small number of party faithful who were to be found in that area. When I had finished my speech the local chairman came up to me and said, "Thank you very much for coming. Do you think we could have a Tory big gun next year—perhaps Lord Carrington?" I know that Lord Carrington would have wished to be here tonight but other duties well known to your Lordships have prevented him from doing so, and I must therefore do my best.
If I was in any doubt about the intensity of feeling on this subject when I came into the Chamber this evening, that doubt has been very firmly dispelled by the speeches which we have heard in this debate. My noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa, to whom we are indebted for initiating this discussion, has put his point of view very clearly, and he has been powerfully and ably supported by very many of your Lordships this evening. I should like to say at the outset that of course the Government agree with all the powerful reasons which have been mentioned tonight in 315 support of the BBC's Overseas Service, but it is an unhappy fact of life that in Government we very often have to distinguish between the greater and the lesser evils.
First of all, we have to be quite clear what we are talking about when we refer to the BBC External Services. Unlike the BBC domestic services, which are financed by the licence fee, the External Services are wholly financed by a Government grant carried on the Foreign Office Vote. Although these services are financed by Government, the BBC have full responsibility for their broadcasting operations and are completely independent in determining the content of news, and indeed other programmes. I shall develop that point a little further when I come to the most interesting remarks of the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown.
There are many facets to the BBC External Services, some of them highly specialised like the Monitoring Service which provides speedy and accurate reports of significant news and comment from the foreign transmissions in all parts of the world. There is also the commercially successful "English-by-Radio", whose product is in use in about a hundred countries, and the Transcription Services and Topical Tapes which provide recorded programmes to overseas broadcasters. But by far the best known part of the organisation are the World Services in English and the so-called Vernacular Services.
The BBC World Service broadcasts in English for 24 hours each day. It is a complete radio service, providing not only news and every kind of talks programme, but also sport, drama, light entertainment, and music in continuous transmission addressed to all parts of the world. The Vernacular Services (providing broadcasts in more than 30 different languages) do not provide quite such universal coverage, but their broadcasts usually include news bulletins, and topical commentaries of particular interest to the regions to which they are beamed. These services are carried by some 47 transmitters in the United Kingdom and 27 transmitters at relay stations sited around the World.
The context in which this debate is taking place is that of the overriding need 316 to keep Government spending to a figure which is commensurate with our resources. It is in this context that the Government have embarked upon a review of all aspects of public expenditure and, as has already been said in both Houses, the BBC as a grant-aided body cannot be excluded from this review. The Foreign Office itself, as has already been announced, has been forced to bear heavy cuts involving 23 posts abroad, besides substantial economies at home, and further staff cuts are still under consideration. Many other Departments are faced with similar painful choices.
For the Foreign Office it has been particularly painful and difficult to contemplate reductions in the Overseas Services of the BBC, for who better than our diplomatic representatives abroad can appreciate the value and quality of the BBC's External Services, both because of their high degree of professionalism and because of the image which they project so successfully of a civilised and democratic Britain?
Since the inception of the public expenditure review, we have had representations, not only in Parliament and in the Press, but from a wide variety of correspondents both at home and abroad, making special pleas for us to deal lightly with the BBC's External Services. The vast majority of these correspondents have emphasised the value of the World Service in English, which all of us at one time or another, I am sure, have had reason to appreciate. Indeed, I understand that it has a large audience in the United Kingdom as well. The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, and others mentioned this. I have a little personal memory of the Overseas Service of the BBC. I was brought up as a boy in Sussex very close to the main transmitter of the World Service, and I remember that the only thing that I could receive on the crystal sets that I connected to my bed springs at night was the Overseas Service of the BBC, usually in Polish, but none the less interesting when you are nine years old and should be asleep anyway.
Let me say that Ministers have not been unmindful of the often eloquent and deeply-felt representations made by people of all political persuasion. We have also taken into account the points of view expressed by the BBC themselves in the 317 consultations they have had with Foreign Office officials. As always, it is a question of priorities. As I have said, the BBC broadcasts in English to the whole world, and in more than 30 other languages to particular areas. Each naturally has its own supporters, but each cannot be said to be equally important to our national interest, contrary to what some of the arguments canvassed publicly in recent weeks—and particularly here tonight—would, I think, have us believe.
My noble friend the Foreign Secretary is firmly resolved to minimise the implications for our interests of any economies in the BBC's External Services; but I am sorry to say that such is the overridding general need to find economies that some at least will have to be made. I regret that I am not yet in a position to give financial details, as these, together with the financial details of economies in other Departments, must await the publication of the White Paper. For the same reason, I am unable at this stage to go into specific details about the nature of the economies which will be made. But I am happy to be able to say that the World Service in English will remain intact; audibility will be maintained and, where possible, improved; and vernacular services to developing countries and to those countries which do not enjoy free and open access to news and information will also be largely unaffected. This announcement will, I believe, allay many of the fears which have been expressed tonight.
May I now deal with some of the points raised by noble Lords during this debate. I apologise if I am not able to deal with all of them tonight, but I will, where necessary, undertake to write to noble Lords who have raised matters to which I cannot immediately provide an answer. First of all, the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, asked me whether we could not use some of the existing aid monies for supporting the Overseas Services of the BBC. This is a detailed technical matter which I really do not think I am competent to go into at this stage; and, of course, the details will have to be gleaned from the White Paper when it is published in due course.
I was a little puzzled by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton. It indeed followed the general pattern of the speeches on this subject in your Lord- 318 ships' House tonight, and one's memory fails over the years, but is it not the case that during a distinguished ministerial career the noble Lord was himself responsible for considering, if not implementing, a good many cuts of a fairly firm nature in the BBC's Overseas Services? I confess that at a distance of 20 years one's memory plays tricks. It may be that I am wrong, and my researches have not been able to go back that far in the short time that I have had available tonight, but I thought that the criticisms that the noble Lord was levelling at us tonight did not lie too well on the shoulders of somebody who, so far as I can recall—and I may be doing the noble Lord a grave injustice—was responsible for some cuts, at least, in years gone by.
§ Lord HILL of LUTON
My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt him in order that the record may be put straight? The White Paper to which he refers, which he might have re-read in order to approach accuracy, was published 22 years ago. It moved some strength from one country to another, but it increased the amount of money available to the BBC and the British Council ; and each change during my four years of responsibility for overseas information services revealed an increase, not a decrease. A shifting of resources which involved Scandinavia and Portugal, and those only, plus an increase in the amount of money available to those services, is hardly comparable to the minor massacre to which the noble Lord is now referring.
§ Lord TREFGARNE
My Lords, if the noble Lord had had such a distinguished record in these matters I am surprised we did not hear more about it when he spoke. The expression "shift of resources" is one which I think I have heard before in other contexts.
§ Lord HILL of LUTON
My Lords, the noble Lord really must allow me to intervene once more. This debate is about reducing the financial resources to the BBC's Overseas Services. On the occasion to which he refers, and on any other occasion during my four years, the change was one of increased resources, and never one of decreased resources.
§ Lord TREFGARNE
My Lords, I do not deny that for a moment. As the 319 noble Lord has said, it was 22 years ago and I would not want to claim accuracy of memory in that matter. But I am still a little puzzled that that splendid record did not appear in the noble Lord's speech. He could have compared it, could he not, so favourably with what he is complaining of from this Dispatch Box?
A good many noble Lords referred to the "crippling" of the service, for which we are apparently responsible at this time. I really think that that is rather over-egging the pudding. It is really not fair. Noble Lords will have heard what I said just now: that, for example, the vernacular services to developing countries and to those countries which do not enjoy free and open access to news and information will also be largely unaffected. That does not sound like "crippling" to me. I think I would also want to reject the expression, which I noted down from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, that we were "sinking the fleet."
§ Lord GLADWYN
My Lords, may I intervene for one moment? I have been following the noble Lord's argument with attention. I understand his argument on this, that there must be some cuts in the overseas programmes of the BBC because everybody is being cut. On the other hand, it is known to all of us, and indeed to the noble Lord, that the defence departments have been exempted altogether from any cuts. If that is so, does he totally reject the argument advanced here tonight by myself and by others, I think, that the overseas programmes of the BBC are, in effect, in the front line of defence of this country?
§ Lord TREFGARNE
My Lords, that is a sort of philosophical point which I would find it difficult to develop from the Dispatch Box at this time——
§ Several noble Lords: No, no!
§ Lord TREFGARNE
——and I really decline to be drawn along that line. Perhaps I can refer to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. "Of course we can afford £4½ million", he said; "we are adopting the technique of the bacon slicer". My Lords, failure to adopt the technique of the bacon slicer was the characteristic of the previous 320 Administration, and look at the mess that they got into!
I cannot hide from your Lordships the regret with which we have decided that some economies must be made in the BBC's Overseas Service. But when we were elected to office last May we accepted as our principal task the need to contain public expenditure, thus controlling inflation and thus, in due course, allowing our economy to prosper and grow. It is for this reason that we are engaged in a public expenditure review, and it is for this reason, and this reason alone, that we must look for economies—happily, fairly modest ones—in the BBC's highly regarded Overseas Services.
§ Lord CHALFONT
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I return to one point in his very eloquent reply, concerning the apparent decision of the Government not to cut services, as I understood it, to countries which do not have access to free news and information services. Is the noble Lord aware that this is a situation that can change overnight and that this is the great danger of the Government's policies? Countries which today have access to free news and information might not have it tomorrow. Is the noble Lord aware that once the Government have made those cuts there is no restoring them? That is the danger of this kind of policy.
§ Lord TREFGARNE
My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is right that we have to take our decisions in the light of circumstances as we see them today. Although I should like to be able to assure your Lordships that we will change our plans and our broadcasting destinations (if that is the right word) or audiences as the political situation in the countries concerned change, I think I should be wrong to give a commitment to do that now because of the difficulty that that would cause. I failed to deal with a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown. Perhaps I can refer to it now. He was concerned, rightly, about difficulties which he experienced—and he gave some of his experiences—with regard to BBC broadcasts which he felt were on some occasions not as helpful as they might be. The Corporation have a duty to take these matters into consideration. I quote from the licence agreement of the 321 Corporation with regard to these services:The Corporation shall consult and collaborate with the Department so specified"—which means the Foreign Office—and shall obtain and accept from them such information regarding conditions in and the policies of Her Majesty's Government aforesaid towards the countries so prescribed and other countries as will enable the Corporation to plan and prepare its programmes in the external services in the national interest".I hope that the noble Lord will agree that that is a helpful provision.
§ Lord GEORGE-BROWN
My Lords, I have no complaint that there is no more detail than that on the point that I raised, since my late arrival prevented me from giving the noble Lord any hint of what points I may have raised. When Hansard arrives would he consider the record of what I said? In particular, will he consider with his colleagues whether my plea for a parliamentary inquiry into the way in which these services are controlled might be accepted? Perhaps he and I could have a talk some time.
§ Lord TREFGARNE
My Lords, I shall consider that, but I must confess that I cannot hold out much hope.
§ Lord HANKEY
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord to consider a point I made of a slightly more technical type? If the Government are going to abandon 322 some of the vernacular language broad-cases, it is important that they should preserve the use of those wavelength channels for the BBC. There is tremendous congestion on the short waves and countries all over the world are trying to steal wavelengths from each other all the time. If ever we want to get back, when the Government (as we hope) have set this country back on its feet, it is important that we should be able to continue to use those channels. If we do not do it in the vernacular, will the Government consider pumping out more English broadcasts on those channels simply so as to go on using them?
§ Lord TREFGARNE
My Lords, I will consider that but, as I have said, again, without a lot of hope. It might be helpful to refer to the proceedings of the World Administrative Radio Conference which is taking place in Geneva now and at which the Government are represented. The conference is concerned with the general revision of the entire spectrum of frequencies to particular services but is not expected to assign frequencies to individual countries. The United Kngdom are to propose an increased allocation of high-frequency bands to broadcasting which should, we believe, strengthen the position of the BBC's External Services.
§ House adjourned at twelve minutes past nine o'clock.