HL Deb 28 March 2002 vol 633 cc352-5

11.17 a.m.

Lord Campbell-Savours asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they have to promote within the United Kingdom an understanding of Islamic views on international affairs.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, we are always alert to opportunities to promote understanding of Islamic and, indeed, other views on international affairs relevant to the United Kingdom. Recent examples include the Foreign and Commonwealth Office leaflet, Never Again, highlighting reactions from the Islamic world to the September 11th attacks sent to MPs for use with constituents; sponsored visits by Islamic journalists and dignitaries and a new British Council programme bringing together young people of different cultural backgrounds from the UK and mainly Muslim countries. I welcome views from across the House on how this important work can continue.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, the whole House will recognise the need for a mature and sympathetic understanding of Islamic issues. Would not an Islamic-based television channel transmitting in the English language news bulletins and documentaries competing with the BBC and in particular with CNN be helpful in taking forward that process?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am sure that any such channel could potentially spread enlightenment. Several Muslim channels are available in the United Kingdom which present perspectives of advantage to our community. But these are essentially commercial decisions. I remind the House that there are live channels already broadcasting to the United Kingdom from Islamic backgrounds and providing a useful service. They decide the extent of that service.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, the Minister says that these are commercial decisions. However, at the moment we see how unwise commercial decisions can be taken with the vanishing of ITV Digital. Will the noble Lord tell us the cost of this proposal? Would it not be better to include the kind of information we are discussing in general programmes that are available without much additional cost being involved?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, those matters are included in the costs of general programmes. I do not think that anyone doubts the role of the BBC and independent television in terms of news coverage and the fairness and appropriateness of that coverage. If the suggestion is that public money should be devoted to the establishment of a specific television channel, I can only say that that is not contemplated at the present time or in the foreseeable future.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, as a former chairman of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, may I draw attention to a remarkable programme of seminars, lectures, publications and the like that Chatham House has put out on a regular basis, perhaps most particularly on Islamic opinion since September 11th?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful for that contribution. As the noble Lord rightly says, Chatham House plays an extremely valuable role in that respect. The Foreign Office also organises a range of meetings to extend the understanding of Muslim issues in this country. There are regular meetings between Muslim leaders and government Ministers.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, I declare an interest as the deputy chair of the Independent Television Commission. Is it not now more than ever important—for the sake of peace at home as well as abroad—for the Government to ensure that there is a diversity of views in broadcasting?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, there is a responsibility to ensure a diversity of views but we all recognise that a very significant number of television channels is now available. I do not think that our main broadcasters fail to present a diversity of opinion. If it is suggested that particular viewpoints could be expressed more effectively, that is for the commercial market to determine.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the incomparable contribution of the BBC World Service includes bringing to the attention of Muslims what is happening in the world outside the Middle East and bringing to our attention Muslim opinion? That is of very great value to this country. Does he also agree that it is crucial that the BBC World Service has the resources that it needs to continue its remarkable contribution?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for drawing attention to one of our most valued assets, which helps the British people to understand world affairs. There is no doubt that the World Service is sufficiently funded to play a crucial role with regard to the great public interest in the Muslim world and Arabic countries.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, does the Minister agree that channel 643 gives perhaps the greatest opportunity to see the most diverse view of developments in the Islamic world? The difficulty is that the majority of people in this country cannot understand what is being said because the channel broadcasts in Arabic. Would it be possible to reach agreement, not necessarily on providing a public service channel but on finding funds to subtitle what is broadcast on channel 643? That would not cost a fortune. Is it not worth pursuing?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend should not underestimate the cost of a subtitling service. I hear what he says about the comprehensibility of a programme presented in a language that is not English. It is surely for the broadcasters to take such a decision. If they are beaming their channel to the United Kingdom and wish to bring their views to the attention of as many people as possible, it is for them to pursue that matter with the best techniques that are available.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this issue must be handled with enormous sensitivity? There is a wide diversity of geographic and cultural origins in the Islamic community, and a unified view could damage our understanding of that diversity and our standing in the international community.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. The matter should be handled with sensitivity. My noble friend who asked this Question and others who supported him are probably referring to a particular channel, which has a considerable reputation for objectivity and which models itself on BBC standards. I am sure that those noble Lords are hoping to see progress in that area.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, does the Minister agree that schools have a tremendously important part to play in increasing understanding? Is he aware that many schools have initiated excellent programmes whereby children of Islamic faith are able to talk about their special festivals and tell other pupils about their faith? Does he agree that that underlines the importance of keeping our schools multi-faith and not excluding children of different faiths or stopping them mixing together and learning about each other's interests in faith?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that is a most constructive comment. The noble Baroness is right about the increasing attention paid to the view that schools should form partnerships and pursue strategies together, when they are differentiated in ethnic terms, in order to spread understanding of each other's cultures. I can think of several towns in Britain in which that programme is proceeding apace.

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