HL Deb 23 October 1986 vol 481 cc438-41

3.27 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the Foreign Office is responsible for monitoring the Overseas Services of the BBC and whether they are satisfied that these present a politically balanced viewpoint of Britain.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

My Lords, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is responsible for issuing and monitoring the grants-in-aid of the BBC External Services and for prescribing the languages and hours broadcast. The BBC, however, retains full editorial control. It is for it to ensure that programmes are presented with due impartiality.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. I support the idea that we should expand our overseas services. It is clear that the Foreign Office is monitoring expenditure of £91 million and that we are getting reasonable value for money. However, are we sure that the content is representative of the broad view of Britain? Does my noble friend recall that in 1978–79 it was discovered that Khomeini's students in this country were providing broadcasting tapes in Farsi and that no one in the BBC in control of these had any idea what was being broadcast? It was discovered that they were being broadcast to unseat the Shah and promote Khomeini's interests. Has that matter now been put right, or ought perhaps an independent body see that we are broadcasting to the world at large a true representation of what is happening in Britain?

Baroness Young

My Lords, under the BBC licence and agreements with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is responsible for prescribing the languages and hours broadcast by the External Services, it is required to consult the Foreign Office and obtain information to enable it to plan and prepare the External Services programmes in the national interest. On the matter that the noble Lord raises about the broadcasts at the time of the fall of the Shah of Iran, I shall draw attention to that, but I can make no specific comment at this time.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, instead of intervening more in our overseas broadcasts, should not the Government be intervening less in our broadcasts to home audiences?

Baroness Young

My Lords, any matters on home broadcasting are matters for the Home Office and quite wide of the Question on the Order Paper.

Baroness Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe

My Lords, may I wish the noble Baroness many happy returns of the day? Is she aware that wherever one travels, in the Far East, in Africa, in Europe and so on, one hears nothing officially and privately but praise for the World Service of the BBC for giving the real news, and impartially? Is she further aware that there is only one thing wrong with the World Service and that is that it is almost impossible to hear it at home?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Llewelyn-Davies, for her kind good wishes today. It is not a cause for celebration in my case, but she might like to extend those wishes to my noble friend Lady Trumpington whose birthday is also today. I can confirm that we estimate that there are 120 million regular listeners to the BBC external services; the largest of any external broadcaster. I believe your Lordships will agree that the BBC external services enjoy a high reputation abroad.

Baroness Cox

Can my noble friend say whether there is any information available concerning the relative outputs of the BBC Overseas Services and Radio Moscow? When I was in the Sudan in the summer it was easier to pick up Radio Moscow, and it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two programmes.

Baroness Young

My Lords, audibility is a matter which has been of great concern. We have a 10-year capital programme to improve the audibility of the service. If the noble Baroness has some particular point that she wishes to raise in regard to the BBC's broadcasting to the Sudan, I hope she will bring it to the corporation's attention. If she cares to write to me, I shall send on the letter on her behalf.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the point raised by the noble Lord who introduced this Question is very important and that the issues he stated ought to be examined? Is she also aware that, by and large, both in the English and the German languages, the BBC's Overseas Services do remarkably well? They have one difficulty: they do not stick to politics, but broadcast sport and cultural matters. Is she aware there are difficulties when they have to quote the national press, which is so massively biased in favour of the Conservative Party and hence the Government? That more than anything else creates difficulty and gives an awful impression overseas that we have nothing but a Right-wing press and that we never get a liberal point of view.

Baroness Young

My Lords, it is very difficult to answer generalisations of that kind; but if the noble Lord has some specific point on the broadcasting by the BBC external services to a particular country, then he should write to the external services about that.

Lord Morris

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that it is worth recalling in 1984 the BBC external services went to Athens to collect the Onassis award for setting the highest standards of objectivity and balance in the field of international news broadcasting? Subsequently her right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs stated on receipt of the Perry Report—an independent report on the workings of the BBC external services—that that report confirmed the very high reputation abroad for the quality, accuracy and impartiality of the output of the BBC's external services.

Baroness Young

Yes, my Lords. I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks about the external services. On the Perry Report, the review made a number of recommendations to improve the efficiency and effectiveness with which the external services are run, including regular reviews both by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the BBC of individual services but nothing in the report implied any change in the Government-BBC relationship or in its traditional editorial independence.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that when I was in Moscow last week visiting refuseniks on behalf of the all-party committee on Soviet Jewry, they assured me that the World Service was a veritable lifeline to them for news and encouragement, and that they had no difficulty whatsoever in distinguishing between the World Service and Moscow Radio?

Baroness Young

I am very grateful for the remarks of the noble Baroness. I believe this is a service which is of enormous value to very many listeners around the world.

Lord Merrivale

My Lords, as many francophone West African countries and Madagascar do not wish to be considered as chasse gardée francaise countries, is she satisfied that the BBC, in effect, presents a politically balanced viewpoint of Britain in French to those countries?

Baroness Young

My Lords, under the terms of their charter, the BBC external services are under an obligation to present the news in an impartial way. I have already indicated that if there is evidence that if this is not the case, then the noble Lord should write to the BBC giving the evidence.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, in view of what the noble Baroness has said, does she not congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on her unexpected tribute to Radio Moscow?

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that there will be no further cuts to the overseas foreign language services, particularly the French service alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, is very well aware, the amount of money spent on the external services has risen from £91 million annually in 1985–86 to £110 million in 1986–87 and to £115 million in 1987–88. Since 1979, there has been an increase of about 54 per cent.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that since this Question went down I have had a number of conversations with people who listen more studiously than I do? The complaint sometimes, both about the World Service in English and also "News about Britain" and "Letter from London", is that very often it is trivia that is being broadcast; such as sensational murders, drug trafficking, minor strikes; and very seldom is the good news about the contracts won overseas by our high-technology industries mentioned at all.

Baroness Young

My Lords, we receive occasional complaints, particularly from people who listen abroad. On balance I stand by what I said earlier: I think the service is much appreciated by an enormous listening audience throughout the world. However, I shall undertake to draw my noble friend's remarks to the attention of the external services department at the BBC because I should not wish it to be thought that this kind of criticism might go unanswered.

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