HL Deb 01 December 1982 vol 436 cc1237-40

2.38 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the range and extent of the foreign broadcasts of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords; the BBC external services broadcast about 725 hours per week in English and 36 vernacular languages. The BBC estimate that some 100 million people tune in at least once a week. We expect this audience to increase as we implement the new and expanded capital programme designed to improve audibility.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very satisfactory Answer. May I ask him whether he agrees that

"Bemã etelããt az dunyâ-ye ãzãd bedahïd"


"Dýe-chay nam informâtye zvolnéygo sheeáta"

which, translated from Dari and Polish, mean, "Give us information from the free world", is a desperate plea? Would he confirm that increases have been made in foreign broadcasts, in the Polish language to Poland and in Dari to Afghanistan?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, not only for her supplementary but also for translating it. It is not a prerequisite of my job that I understand every known language. However, I agree with my noble friend that Polish has increased and also that Pushtu to Afghanistan has increased recently. The present total of 725 hours broadcast weekly compares favourably with 712 hours a week broadcast in 1979 and with similar figures for the four preceding years.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, will the Government allow the BBC to re-open the Spanish language service? Are they aware that its absence was bitterly regretted by the British Embassy in Madrid during the Falklands campaign, and continues to be regretted considering the attitude of the present Spanish Government to Gibraltar?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, put a similar supplementary question to my noble friend Lord Belstead fairly recently. I have not the reference with me, but I am sure this is so. I have nothing to add to what he said then.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us whether any additional direct broadcasting to Venezuela is planned for next year in view of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bolivar, who of course came to England in 1810 and derived most of his political ideas from reading Hobbes and Locke?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, not so far as I am aware.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the noble Lord recall that earlier this year there was great consternation expressed in this Chamber about the Government's decision to cut back drastically the BBC's overseas broadcasts? The BBC itself made protestations, and so did all the responsible newspapers. Those cuts still remain. Is the noble Lord now saying that the situation is satisfactory, when we are not covering nearly as much as we did before those cuts were inflicted?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, I am not saying that at all. What I am saying is that the total number of hours has increased; but the noble Lord's memory is quite correct. We have debated the matter very fully and have had many Questions on the subject of the cuts, which amounted to 30 hours' broadcasting time and involved £l½ million. All this was switched to increases in capital equipment, and new money was added by the Government. This was agreed by Parliament in October last year. Since then the following increases have been made: Polish by five hours a week; Spanish, to Latin America, by 8¾ hours a week; "Calling Falklands" from 40 minutes once a week to 45 minutes seven times a week; and Pushtu, to Afghanistan, by 1¾ hours a week. The Government are determined to maintain the fluidity of the situation, and where a demand arises we shall most certainly do our best to meet it.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of any impending anniversary affecting these most prestigious services?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend. The 50th anniversary of the BBC's external services is on 19th December this year. I am sure that the whole House will want to wish them well in the future and congratulate them on putting up a magnificent show in the past.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, would I be correct in thinking that under this Government vastly increased sums of money have been spent on external services than ever were under a Labour Government?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords, that is absolutely true. As I said, we have changed the emphasis to making sure that such services as there are should be heard in as many places as possible, rather than concentrate, as our predecessors did, on having as many languages as possible.

Lord Whaddon

My Lords, referring to the increase in broadcasting to Poland, is the noble Lord aware that the vast majority of our friends there will say, "bardzo dobrze I dziepuje", which means "very good and thank you"? Does he also appreciate that they will be looking forward to hearing on the BBC that the sanctions have finally been abandoned?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the second part of the noble Lord's supplementary question does, I suggest, go slightly wide of the Question on the Order Paper. However, to keep all this in perspective, I should also say that of course we are continuing, and have continued throughout, to keep world service broadcasts in English on the air for 24 hours a day.

Lord Derwent

My Lords, did we not have a full-scale debate on this subject a short time ago? Ought we to have two debates so close to each other?

Lord Kaldor

My Lords, is the noble Lord able to give the House any indication when the audibility of BBC shortwave broadcasts will be strengthened to make them comparable to those of the Soviet Union, Germany or a number of other countries, which always seem to crowd out the voice of the BBC, making it difficult to hear?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord. This is exactly the reason why we are pursuing this capital development programme.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord will be prepared to check the coverage? This is a vitally important sector, I believe, of the BBC's activities, and much has been lost because of these cuts. Is the noble Lord not aware that one cannot simply go on saying that the service is costing more, because everything in this island has cost much more since we have had a Conservative Government. That does not mean that standards have been maintained.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Lord's impressions obviously vary from mine. I was under the impression that inflation was falling drastically and is expected to fall further next year. However, so far as his real point goes, inevitably the BBC and the Foreign Office have a budget in this matter. It is a matter for joint decision by both bodies to assess priorities within the range of the available money. This they have done. It has been done very amicably, and I am glad to say that we have agreement.