British Iranian Relations: Bishop of St Albans stresses importance of media and need to support those demonstrating in Iran

The Bishop of St Albans spoke in a debate on British-Iranian relations on 23rd February 2023, emphasising the importance of holding the Iranian regime to account, and the critical role played by media services such as BBC Persian:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for obtaining this debate, for his superb introductory talk and not least for his powerful call that we should oppose the persecution of Baha’is and Christians. I will raise just two issues in the few moments I have.

First, as we conduct British-Iranian relations, it is vital that we support loudly and clearly those who are demonstrating for their freedoms, in particular those who face the most opposition: the young and the women who are being opposed by their own Government. They are rightly demonstrating for freedom of speech and for their rights to an education and a job.

It is difficult to know exactly how many people have been caught up in the demonstrations although it is widely reported that, so far, between 600 and 800 protesters have been killed, more than 30,000 have been arrested and more than 40 have been executed. Those are probably very modest figures. I echo the question to the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Alton: what attempts are being made to record the regime’s crimes so that they can be taken to the UN Security Council? What representations have His Majesty’s Government made to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran? Does the Minister agree that Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi should be held to account?

Secondly, I want to say just a few words about the vital importance of the BBC Persian service, to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred and which has a weekly estimated audience of 1.6 million people. The BBC Persian radio service costs only around £800,000 a year. It is appalling that BBC Persian staff, especially women journalists, are being targeted. Iranian journalists working here in the UK are finding that their families back in Iran are being threatened and sometimes arrested and interrogated.

Iran has a systematic programme of media censorship. It blocks Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, among other sites, and, at critical times, it shuts down the entire internet. So the only source of independent reporting comes via the radio. The official state media do not report on the demonstrations. If the BBC withdraws its service, as it is reported it will, the media will be delighted that one further voice has been removed. Surely this is the very time when we need to continue to support those who are beleaguered by their own state by ensuring the unbiased reporting of events in that country. Will the Minister make urgent representations on behalf of His Majesty’s Government to reverse this very unfortunate decision about the BBC Persian radio service?


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB): My Lords, I am delighted to follow the right reverend Prelate and also talk about the matters he talked about. My noble friend Lord Alton’s welcome and timely debate invites us to address the issue of what the Government’s priorities for British-Iranian relations should be. I would have no hesitation in naming the reversal of the lamentable decision to close down the BBC Persian radio service as the short-term top priority.

Why so? First, it would be one of the few actions that our Government could take of their own volition to reach out to Iran’s citizens in a period when they are going through great stresses and difficulties and are deprived of fair and accurate information.

Secondly, although I have listened carefully to the BBC’s and the Government’s explanations justifying the closure of BBC Persian’s radio broadcasts, I find them totally unconvincing. It is true that the radio audience is smaller compared with that of other media channels but, when they are deprived of radio, what alternatives will that audience have that do not put them at increased risk and cost?

Thirdly, and most importantly, why on earth is a step being taken that will only give delight to those who oppress Iranian citizens and deprive them of objective information—a step that they will surely hail as a victory? I very much hope that the Minister will tell us that this regrettable closure will now not proceed and that the cost of maintaining the radio service will be met as an addition to the FCDO’s block grant to the BBC’s overseas services.

Baroness Coussins (CB): We know from the most recent data that 1.6 million people a week get their news from the Persian radio service—around 8% of its total audience. However, the impact of that service is far more significant than those superficially modest figures suggest because it is the morning radio output that feeds the TV and digital news content. Closing the radio service would mean BBC Persian TV not having any scheduled live news programming for 17 hours a day, creating the space for other, less balanced outlets with rather less palatable values and interests to fill the gap.

As others have asked, why hand the Iranian authorities a gift on a plate? Closing down BBC coverage of what is going on in Iran is exactly what they want. It would be a victory for them but the tragic loss of a lifeline of information and hope to the millions of Iranians who suffer under their regime—and all for the cost saving of only £800,000 a year. Will the Minister commit today to three clear actions: reversing the decision to close the radio service; funding the shortfall; and stepping up the diplomatic measures and the hard measures to protect Persian service staff in London and their families in Iran? This would give the Iranian resistance what they—and, ultimately, we—need and value.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con, Foreign Office): I turn to the BBC Persian service. As the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, I could articulate what I said before about our support for the broader service. I shall be very clear to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Purvis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. Indeed, more or less all the contributions today have focused on BBC Persian, which is right—and I recognise the valuable service that it provides. I also recognise that we are in a very different phase to where we were when certain decisions were taken, even six to 12 months ago. Therefore, I shall of course take note of the immense strength of feeling, although I cannot give the assurances that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, seeks at this time. However, I shall take the issue back. As I said, I share many of the concerns that have been raised, and I recognise that, while radio is a small proportion of the service provided by BBC Persian, it is an important service, particularly in the current circumstances.

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