On 1st December 2022, the House of Lords debated a motion to take note regarding the importance of the BBC World Service, and the impact of cuts to its service. The Lord Bishop of St Albans spoke in the debate, highlighting the benefits of truth in reporting and global access to information, particularly for vulnerable populations:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for tabling this debate, and for his excellent exposition of the impact and importance of the BBC World Service.
The BBC World Service is one of the most potent ways in which we can act in the world, not least to help those persecuted people who often are voiceless. I think of the debate that we had a couple of weeks ago about the hundreds of thousands of women on the streets of Iran. I think about the debates and Questions in this House about the various persecuted people in China. They need accurate reporting and, very often, knowing that something is being reported gives people hope and keeps them going when they are being crushed by their own authoritarian leaders.
The World Service is a way of spreading our values, encouraging change, and providing an independent and impartial voice to those who are voiceless. Accurate and truthful reporting is an increasingly rare phenomenon in our world. Sadly, we saw what happened in America under President Trump but, more worryingly, under President Putin and from China, we realise the huge amount of energy being put into suppressing truthful and accurate reporting. I think of those words of Jesus:
“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Truth is very often unpalatable. It is often unpalatable to the powers in this country but, ultimately, the facts and the truth are what we need. It will help us, however painful it is, to build a better and fairer world.
It is interesting that His Majesty’s Government think that soft power is important. The integrated review, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, states:
“The UK’s soft power is rooted in who we are as a country: our values and way of life… It also enhances our ability… ultimately, to effect change in the world.”
Therefore, it is ironic that a Government who support soft power are now cutting the World Service. Surely these two things do not go together. It is precisely because the World Service broadcasts unbiased reports, offering information often covered up by authoritarian regimes, that it is so powerful. Many people in many different parts of the world look to the World Service for independent and accurate reporting. Since September, the journalists at BBC Persian have been bravely covering the ongoing protests and the brutality against women by the Iranian regime, which the Iranian state news and local media have not. It is extraordinary that BBC Persian has been deemed a terrorist organisation, having its assets frozen and with journalists even being arrested. Yet, as we have heard, it is a service that reaches over 20 million Iranians weekly. Surely, at a time when the Iranian people are standing up against horrendous injustice, we should not be cutting one of the few lifelines that these people have.
Of course, the cuts to that service will affect not only the Iranians but people across the entire region. The BBC proposes to close BBC Arabic, a radio network that has operated for 84 years and reported independently and impartially on such events as the Arab spring protests some years ago. The BBC also plans to reduce its presence in Myanmar, when the Rohingya and other people are facing the most appalling persecution. I have already mentioned the challenges in China.
The BBC World Service is uniquely positioned to challenge these regimes simply by reporting the truth. It is an essential element of the UK’s soft power and a vital lifeline to many people. I support the many noble Lords who have already spoken in the debate to underline the importance of the service and to urge the Government to come to a new settlement to ensure not only that it is sustained but that its service is enhanced.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con): Since the decision was made to move to the licence fee, the FCDO has provided the World Service with nearly £470 million in funding through the World 2020 programme. Since that programme launched, as we heard from many noble Lords, 365 million people have tuned in weekly. That is a 40% increase since 2016, which was the start of the FCDO-funded World 2020 programme. The two are linked. It is hard to know exactly how strong that link is, but it is hard to believe that there is no such link.
This has allowed for expansion, including 12 new languages, mainly across Africa and Asia, and enhancements to existing language services including English, Russian, Arabic and Thai. The funding has helped with digital transformation and supported countering disinformation. In response to comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, the FCDO has committed to maintain the same level of flat cash funding of £283 million over the spending review period of 2022 to 2025, which equates to £94.4 million a year, of which £76.9 million is ODA and £17.5 million is non-ODA. None of that is licence fee funding; it all comes from the FCDO.
The BBC has set up new units in London, Delhi and Lagos to counter disinformation, producing award-winning investigative documentaries and impactful stories on modern slavery, the rights of women and girls, and local elections. In response to comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, a new China global unit will produce content focused on exposing the challenges and realities currently facing China and its fight for global influence, so we are not backing away from attempting to use this extraordinary tool that we are discussing today to try to influence proceedings and affairs in China.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, it is clear from the Minister’s speech that he passionately believes in the BBC World Service. I hope that he will take our rich debate today to his ministerial colleagues as they reflect on the gap between resources and the ability of the BBC World Service to fulfil its mandate, not least to the 40% of the world without digital access. It may well be true but, compared with the number who listen from digital platforms, which can so easily be closed by regimes such as that in Iran, there are still 1.6 million people who listen by radio to the BBC Persian service.
The noble Baroness, Lady Browning, said that we must look at this with fresh eyes, particularly the funding model. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said that the World Service is our greatest gift from Britain to the world. It should be a gift that goes on giving. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that “London calling” still means so much around the world. My noble friend Lady Coussins emphasised the importance of the BBC World Service in moments of jeopardy. It should not be a binary choice between radio and digital. “A voice for the voiceless,” said the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, said that once it is closed, it cannot easily be restored. The Minister referred to my noble friend Lady D’Souza saying that it is the jewel in our crown.
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