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The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Richard Ottoway, opened a very interesting debate about the future of the BBC World Service yesterday. He was speaking after his Committee had issued a report, complaining about World Service cuts of 16%.
The motion was also supported by the Chairs of the Defence, International Development, Treasury, Home Affairs, Culture, Media and Sport and Environmental Audit Select Committees:
“That this House notes the Sixth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, The Implications of Cuts to the BBC World Service, HC 849; endorses the Committee’s support for the World Service’s invaluable work in providing a widely respected and trusted news service in combination with high-quality journalism to many countries; considers that the unfolding events in North Africa and the Middle East demonstrate the continuing importance of the ‘soft power’ wielded through the World Service; believes that the value of the World Service far outweighs its relatively small cost; and invites the Government to review its decision to cut spending on the World Service by 16 per cent.”
The importance of soft power in international relations: "It might seem odd to quote no less a person than Osama bin Laden on the importance of soft power, but, talking about jihad, he said: “The media war in this century is one of the strongest methods. It’s…90% of the total preparation for battles”. He was talking about the power and influence of media communications—soft power. Soft power is a rapidly growing way of achieving desired outcomes. In the cold war era, power was expressed in terms of nuclear missiles, industrial capacity, numbers of men under arms, and tanks lined up across the central plains of eastern Europe. Today, none of those factors confers power in quite the same way. The old structures are moving on. Cyber-attacks and the more subtle methods of the information age are the norm. Soft power—the power of Governments to influence behaviour through attraction rather than coercion—dominates. That point is not lost on the Foreign Office, high up on whose list of structural reform priorities—the reforms that it believes should have priority—is the “use of ‘soft power’ to promote British values, advance development and prevent conflict”.
The World Service is soft power at its best: "I can think of no better definition or illustration of the need for the World Service, and it is the opinion of our Committee that the cuts to its output are a false economy. If anything, it should be expanded to address the concerns of a changing world, just as the security services and the number of diplomats to key sensitive postings have been expanded."
Cuts in the World Service are steeper than in the Foreign Office as a whole: "Since its inauguration, the World Service has been funded by the Foreign Office. This will end in 2014 when responsibility will be transferred to the BBC. During the intervening four years, the budget is to be reduced from £241 million to £212 million a year. Taking into account inflation, that is a 16% real- terms cut. Last autumn’s spending review announced that the overall FCO budget would fall by 24%. However, a closer look shows that, once the World Service and the British Council are taken out of the equation, the actual cut in the Foreign Office budget is a shade under 10%. In my judgement and in the opinion of the Select Committee, a 16% cut in the World Service budget, compared with 10% in the Foreign Office budget, is disproportionate. I sympathise with the director of the World Service who argued that the service had to some extent been singled out."
Robert Syms MP raised the possibility that a slice of the international aid budget might be used to boost the World Service: "The investment over decades in the Reithian tradition of striving for truth is very important, and we should bear in mind the sums involved here. I think the figure for the Hindi service is £680,000, and that is very small in the grand scale of things. We therefore must pause to reflect, and it would be a good idea if thought was given to addressing the issue of the Department for International Development budget. Aid is one answer to the world’s problems, but good governance and truth is another. We can greatly improve the manner in which the developing and third world is governed by getting more truth and information into countries and getting much more openness, transparency and democracy. The World Service can, of course, play a role in that. I therefore hope the Government will listen. I hope they reflect on this excellent Select Committee report, and that we do not, as it were, throw the baby out with the bath water and for the sake of a small sum of money lose the ability to project truth, honesty and transparency to the world, which is so valued by people who live abroad and do not share our advantages."
Jeremy Lefroy MP echoed the idea of ODA money helping the World Service: "There has been analysis of how World Service spending might be classified as ODA, and I accept that this is one of those issues that one might say is about as long as a piece of string, but I have seen analysis showing that up to 40% of spending—something like £100 million out of the total spending of £250 million, including capital—could be classified as ODA. I therefore welcome the Secretary of State’s letter to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in which he stated that he would be prepared to support the relationship between the Department for International Development and the World Service Trust and that he would, in principle, be prepared to support it with an accountable grant."
Foreign affairs minister David Lidington justified the economies later in the debate: "The World Service undoubtedly provides a valuable service, but that is true of many other public bodies. The police, the military and the education system have all had to make savings, and so have the British Council and UK Trade & Investment. Some of those organisations have suffered cuts considerably larger than 16%. I am happy to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that all those institutions are vital assets of the UK. We do not take pleasure in what we have had to do, but the measures that we have taken are essential for the future well-being of our country. Much as I dislike having to support cuts to the budget of the BBC World Service, we cannot in good conscience say that we support cuts in general but resist all of them in particular."