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BBC RUSSIAN SERVICE - 16 December 2008

BBC RUSSIAN SERVICE - 16 December 2008

Dr Julian Lewis: For personal reasons, I shall be making only a brief contribution to the debate. I promised some people that I would contribute, and I intend to keep that promise. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Greg Hands) for his masterly presentation of his concern about the state of the World Service in general, and the Russian Service in particular. He has an extremely long track-record of interest in the matter, as we heard, and I do not pretend for one moment to be able to match the depth and detail of his knowledge.

I wish to contribute to the consideration of the underlying philosophy which I believe has motivated the World Service in the past. That philosophy ought to motivate the Service in future but, as my hon. Friend indicated, it may be in danger of being lost in a more modern, commercial environment. If our relationship with Russia had remained as positive as it was at the end of the Cold War, that would be understandable. However, that Cold War confrontation shows signs of slowly creeping back, and no one regrets it more than those who were involved, as I was professionally, in anti-Soviet-propaganda activities. It seems to me that the BBC World Service has been behind the curve on that, and that it is running frantically to keep up with a previous development, namely the growth of the threat of what I call un-Islamic extremism. It is so busy doing that that it does so at the cost of the effort that it should continue to make in Russia, particularly in view of the fact that the future of Russian society is, if it is not already once again set on a downward path, on the cusp of being sent in the wrong direction by the people in charge of that great country.

I was particularly alarmed by what my hon. Friend said about the attitude of the senior officials to whom he spoke on the question of objectivity and impartiality. The strength of the BBC’s broadcasts to foreign countries, whether to foreign countries with which we are at war, as was the case from 1939 to 1945, or, more subtly, countries with which we are in confrontation, as was the case for half a century during the Cold War, is that it tries to be objective, even in trying circumstances. That objectivity should be objectivity with a mission to promote the values of Western democratic civilisation. It should not necessarily convert those in what I unashamedly call target countries, but it should give heart to people in oppressed or un-free countries who inherently believe in ideals of liberalism, freedom and democracy, but who need external reinforcement to encourage them to hold fast to and develop their ideals, so that they do not give in to the incessant, narrow-minded propaganda that they receive domestically.

There has been a worrying trend in the BBC more generally to move away from what used to be called the concept of due impartiality. It was not absolute impartiality – impartiality between the arsonist and the fire brigade – but 'due impartiality' between the mainstreams of opinion which are represented across the spectrum of politics in a democratic society. In recent times, even domestically, the BBC has at times moved towards saying: “Well, perhaps we ought to give more air time to Fascists and Communists because it’s only fair for them to be able to balance their views against those of constitutional democrats, even though they are not democratic”. I reject that opinion, and I am concerned that we are now importing it to an external body, when the whole purpose of the BBC’s broadcasts to foreign countries should be to promote the values of a free, democratic and liberal society.

How do we know when we have crossed the line? We have crossed the line when the editorial policy of a service that broadcasts to a foreign country is shaped by former senior officials in the propaganda network of that country. I am not an expert on the Russian Service and am less of a specialist on these matters than I was during the Cold War. However, I have been informed that a former deputy editor of Izvestia who was a special TASS correspondent in Iraq, and that a former senior functionary at Radio Kiev – an English language Soviet propaganda station in the Cold War – are deeply involved in advising senior people in the Russian Service and the World Service on editorial policy. I have no reason to doubt that information, given its specificity. If it is true, clearly the Service has lost its way.

It is not often that historians of Russia of the distinction of Antony Beevor, Orlando Figes and Simon Sebag Montefiore, literary figures of the distinction of Doris Lessing and D. M. Thomas and a playwright of the distinction of Tom Stoppard – whose devotion to the cause of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe is beyond question – join a recent British ambassador to Moscow and a former British ambassador to the USA to write to The Times. The letter, published on 7 November this year, deplores the cuts and trends implemented by the BBC in the Russian Service. It states:

“At a time when in Russia misunderstanding and mistrust of Britain has reached a height unprecedented since the end of the USSR this deliberate reduction in the role of the Russian Service seems a perverse concession to those authorities in Russia who have been doing their best to curtail the activities of all British cultural institutions (the BBC and the British Council in particular).”

Like my hon. Friend, I am troubled by the idea that journalists and analysts of an external service of the BBC should be moved to the target country. I make no excuse for calling it that because the targeting is not adversarial, but gives people the option and the benefit of understanding how Western, liberal, free societies operate and gives an insight into our values and culture. To move broadcasters to countries where in the past broadcasting dissenting views has cost broadcasters their lives is insane. It is a recipe for intimidation and self-censorship.

In conclusion, there must be a review of the policy of the World Service by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Preferably that would be public, but otherwise I would like an undertaking from the Minister that there will be such a review internally. There should be particular reference to the future of the Russian Service, a restatement of the strategic role of such services, an assessment of the relative effort to be made in respect of each country, and it should be underlined that the philosophy of ‘due impartiality’ does not mean impartiality between liberal democracy and the enemies of liberal democracy. There should also be investigations into the co-opting of former employees of Russia’s media into the Russian Service, and into the naive and irresponsible decision to move independent broadcasters to the target countries.

* * *


8 January 2009

Dear Dr Lewis,

I am writing to you following the Adjournment debate on the World Service last month, at which you spoke and raised a number of points – some of which, I have to say, I found surprising. Since I became Director of BBC World Service I have regularly written to you, knowing of your interest in our work, to keep you informed of developments. On each occasion I have invited you to contact me should you have any queries regarding the World Service. I am sorry therefore that you felt it necessary to make public, and what I consider to be damaging, assertions about BBC World Service and our staff, without raising your concerns in advance. However, I hope that I can address some of them, and help to clear up any misunderstanding.

I agree with you that "the strength of the BBC's broadcasts to foreign countries ... is that it tries to be objective, even in trying circumstances" and would therefore reassure you that we do not, have not and will not ever compromise our role as a robust, trusted, impartial and editorially independent news provider. The World Service's aim remains to be the world's best-known and most-respected voice in international news, thereby bringing benefit to Britain, the BBC and to audiences around the world. Modern media environments are more complicated, more crowded and more commercial than in the past, and we try continuously and unapologetically to reach audiences by the means which can deliver the maximum impact within the available budget. I regard this both as the only responsible use of the public funds we receive and also the best way of achieving our stated aim.

You then asserted that:

"the BBC World Service has been behind the curve ... running frantically to keep up with the growth of the threat of what I call un-lslamic extremism. It is so busy doing that that it does so at the cost of the effort that it should continue to make in Russia ... ".

Far from being 'behind the curve', the World Service developed a proposal for an Arabic television service over 15 years ago. The proposal was not granted public funds, but permission was given to enter an external partnership, which ceased in 1996 after editorial disagreements with the satellite distributor. In more recent years, proposals for BBC Arabic television and BBC Persian television were developed not only in response to the increased strategic importance to the UK of Arabic and Persian speaking countries, but also to the dominance of television in the region as the primary source of news. BBC Arabic television now operates successfully as a Grant-in-Aid funded, free-to-air satellite service, and BBC Persian television will shortly be launched on the same basis, and could increase our audience in Iran and Afghanistan by 10 million by 2012.

These major investments have been funded by a combination of earmarked public money and internal reprioritisation. In 2005 we carried out a strategic review of our language portfolio and as a result closed a number of services. However, Russian was re-confirmed as a priority language, and Russia a key market, for the World Service. In the light of current UK-Russian relations and tighter media restrictions in Russia, the changes to the Russian Service are designed to strengthen its impact, now and in the future. Despite the financial pressures we face, the proposals will not involve a reduction in the service's budget over the full period of this Spending Review. The service's radio budget, and number of broadcast hours, remain the second largest of all the World Service's language services, and in addition we are significantly boosting Russian online output

On the matter of "due impartiality", I do not recognise your description of the BBC as having changed its view of impartiality, or of wanting to "give more air time to fascists and communists". This is utterly unrepresentative of the professionalism, endeavour and intelligence that are the hallmarks of World Service journalists. All BBC World Service employees are appointed on merit, and against considerable competition. They are thereafter continually judged against the high standards and editorial values expected by the BBC. The BBC's Editorial Guidelines apply throughout the BBC and throughout BBC World Service – there are no separate editorial policies for the Russian Service or any other language service.

I am therefore very concerned about your imputation that some World Service journalists – two of whom you singled out in a way that would allow them easily to be identified – are somehow suspect, and that by employing them the World Service has "lost its way". It is in my view a serious matter to cast aspersions on individuals in Parliament. For the individuals concerned, it is intimidating to be personally singled out by a Shadow Minister; and it is regrettable that you appear to have repeated information from an unnamed source without seeking an opinion from or checking any facts with the BBC.

Finally, you were troubled by the idea that journalists should be moved abroad. Moving staff, where practicable, as close as possible to the audiences they serve, is not a new idea, either for the World Service or the Russian Service – overall one in four staff from our language services currently work abroad. We have already moved the production of some programmes to Russia, while maintaining a large base of staff and news coverage from London. This has helped improve the depth and relevance of the service's output; improve understanding of what listeners want; given them more authoritative content and allowed them to respond to regional events more quickly. But these latest moves do not significantly alter the balance between staff in London and Moscow

Suggestions that staff based outside the UK could be compromised or censor themselves are misguided. The BBC has total editorial control over its programming, regardless of the means of delivery or the location of production. There is a continuous cycle of output reviews focusing on programme content carried out within all the language services, as well as the English output. In addition, the BBC Trust commissions independent scrutiny of the output and impact of individual services. When it comes to the intimidation of journalists, and other forms of pressure, I can assure you that this is a matter that I and the BBC take extremely seriously, and that the safety of our staff is also of the utmost importance to us.

I am wholly committed to the World Service's mission, and to a strong BBC Russian Service that can make an increased impact, now and in the future.

Please do get in touch with me if you would like to discuss these or any other World Service matters.

Yours sincerely,

Director, BBC World Service

* * *


24 February 2009

Dear Mr Chapman,

You wrote to me on 8 January about my speech in Westminster Hall on 16 December referring to the BBC Russian Service, and I must apologise for not replying more promptly. This was partly because of an oversight which meant that I did not see your letter for more than a fortnight and partly because I wished to take advice from people who are concerned about the situation, and are closer to it personally than I am. As I understand that your last day is at the end of this week, I feel that I ought to respond before you leave. I trust that your staff will also show this correspondence to your successor in case he or she wishes to pursue the issues further.

1.         Your first point relates to my not contacting you to express my concerns. I would accept this were it not for the fact that I know you to have been contacted previously by people far more qualified and eminent than I am – and that their representations have been to no avail. When people of the stature of the signatories of the letter to the Daily Telegraph published on 23 December 2008 – including Sir John Tusa, whom I regard as one of the most distinguished post-war figures in the history of the BBC – are expressing concerns similar to mine, I really do not feel under the sort of obligation to make prior contact that would normally be the case were I voicing criticisms unilaterally. I was also particularly struck by the measured criticism set out in an article dated 19 July 2007 on the website of the Economist.

2.         Your second complaint refers to my concern that the BBC World Service is sacrificing its level of effort in respect of Russia in order to catch up with other broadcasters to the Arab world. Your response seeks to explain what appears to be a troubled history of proposals which – had they worked – would have meant that the World Service was indeed not ‘behind the curve’ in this respect; but, sadly, these plans went wrong for one reason or another. My understanding is that BBC Arabic was finally launched nearly four years after the initial Government announcement in 2004. I am not particularly interested in trying to allocate blame for this, but my point during the Debate simply sought to suggest, with justification, that the World Service’s work in Russia was suffering in part as a result of this belated effort to catch up in respect of the Arab world.

3.         I am baffled by your third main assertion which is that ‘In the light of current UK-Russian relations and the tighter media restrictions in Russia, the changes to the Russian Service are designed to strengthen its impact, now and in the future’. How you can possibly assert this, in the face of a barrage of concern about the cancelling of in-depth analytical features programmes, simply defies understanding. You must be aware that increasing online penetration will be far more vulnerable to interference, if the Russian Government revives its old jamming practices, than the tried-and-tested system of short-wave and other radio broadcasting.

4.         With regard to your fourth point – namely my reference to ‘a worrying trend in the BBC more generally to move away from ... the concept of due impartiality’ and to expand it to include giving airtime to Fascists and Communists, I would remind you of the lecture delivered at St Anne’s College, Oxford, by Peter Horrocks (Head of BBC News) on 28 November 2006.

After referring to ‘a public argument with a Conservative Party spokesman’ – my colleague Liam Fox, Shadow Defence Secretary – over a BBC interview with members of the Taliban currently trying to kill British Service Personnel, Mr Horrocks stated:

‘the days of middle-of-the-road, balancing left and right, impartiality are dead. Instead I believe we need to consider adopting what I like to think of as a much wider “radical impartiality” – the need to hear the widest range of views – all sides of the story. So we need more Taliban interviews, more BNP interviews – of course put on air with due consideration (sic) – and the full range of moderate opinions. All those views need to be treated with the same level of sceptical enquiry and respect ... So please get used to hearing more views that you dislike on our airwaves ... a more wide-ranging and radical definition of impartiality may help persuade those of strong views ... to trust us more.’

I raised the question with the then Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, in the presence of the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport at Business Questions on 18 January 2007. The exchange is recorded at column 927 of Hansard as follows:

Dr Julian Lewis: In case I am not fortunate enough to catch your eye during the next statement, Mr Speaker, may I ask for a full debate on the implications of the speech made by the head of BBC News last year, in which he spoke of replacing due impartiality in broadcasting with radical impartiality? That would result in the views of people associated with the Taliban and the British National Party being given much more airtime. That is a serious implication, and it requires a full debate because it sets aside the tradition that public service broadcasting should not be neutral as between the arsonist and the fire brigade.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr Jack Straw): ... I can save the hon. Gentleman the job of intervening on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, because she has just given me the answer, and I am grateful to her for that. The new charter has been published, and that charter is a matter for the BBC Trust, which is responsible to licence fee payers. Of course, the head of BBC News is not by any means the most senior executive of the BBC, and all the executives are responsible to the trust. My right hon. Friend and I, and the whole House, are clear about the need for the BBC to have appropriate and due impartiality, rather than the kind of impartiality that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

I then brought the issue up again with the Secretary of State herself a little later the same day, to make absolutely sure that she endorsed what Mr Straw had said:

Dr Julian Lewis: The Secretary of State will realise that licence fee payers do not expect their money to pay for airtime to be given to racists, Nazis, Taliban and other supporters of terrorism at home and abroad. Will she build on the excellent and encouraging answer given by the Leader of the House earlier today, and state whether she has made representations to the BBC about the opinion expressed on 28 November by the head of BBC News that such views should be accorded equal respect to those of democratic representatives? Alternatively, does she agree with the Minister with responsibility for community cohesion, who rightly regarded any such shift as dangerous?

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell):  The Leader of the House answered the hon. Gentleman’s question clearly, and I entirely agree with him. Let me underline that the policing of accuracy and impartiality is a job for the BBC Trust, but it does it on behalf of the wider public, who want just that: reliable accuracy and impartiality.

If it is the case that the attempt to widen the BBC’s concept of impartiality to embrace extremists – outside the spectrum of democratic debate – is now dead and buried, then I am happy to accept your assurances that the BBC has not changed its view in the way articulated by Mr Horrocks in his widely-reported lecture.

5.         Turning to your fifth point, I was very careful not to name the two senior advisers to whom I referred in my speech, or to identify their exact role in the Russian Service and/or the World Service of the BBC. All I said was that one of them is ‘a former deputy editor of Izvestia who was a special TASS correspondent in Iraq’ and that the other was ‘a former senior functionary at Radio Kiev – an English language Soviet propaganda station in the Cold War’. I believe that it is quite outrageous of you to condemn me for casting ‘aspersions on individuals in Parliament’ when you yourself confirm that what I said about these two characters ‘would allow them easily to be identified’. Yet, all I said about them was that they had held these particular positions and that, as such, were former senior officials in the Russian propaganda network. You cannot have it both ways. Either these facts are false – in which case, the two individuals cannot be easily identified by them – or, if they can be clearly identified by them, it must be the case that these facts are true.

At no stage do you say in your letter that the two individuals did not hold the positions in the Russian media which I ascribed to them. I find this omission revealing. In fact, it is probably an admission that what I said was factually correct. If so, it is a disgrace that the BBC Russian Service should employ people who are indeed, as you put it, ‘somehow suspect’.

6.         With reference to your final point, I find your defence of the policy of moving a large proportion of BBC journalistic staff overseas, to a country where journalists are frequently murdered, either disingenuous or naïve. I shall not waste your time or mine spelling out the obvious implications of this for self-censorship, let alone intimidation.

There are a number of questions which I could put to you in turn, but I shall restrict myself to only three: (1) What checks does the World Service undertake with official sources to ensure that it is not recruiting foreign ‘journalists’ with a tainted political record which ought to disqualify them? (2) Is it true, as the Economist stated in July 2007, that the one programme in which the Russian Service did use extensive interviews with Vladimir Bukovsky and Oleg Gordievsky was repeated only once rather than the normal five times; that it disappeared from the BBC website after only two days instead of the normal week; and that the producer received a severe reprimand? (3) Is it correct, as the Economist alleges, that the BBC is scrapping the very programme which it cited in its own defence as having given reasonably trenchant coverage of the Litvinenko murder?

Once again, I recognise that I should have composed this letter somewhat sooner. Nevertheless, as these are issues which are not going to go away, it is probably just as well that your successor should see it and perhaps make an appropriate response.

Yours sincerely,


* * *

Julian’s reply was faxed to Nigel Chapman’s office on the morning of 25 February 2009.

On 26 February 2009, Mr Chapman’s successor as Director of the BBC World Service was finally announced.

It was Peter Horrocks.

* * *


9 March 2009

Dear Dr Lewis,

Thank you for your letter of 24th February 2009 regarding the BBC Russian Service.

As you may know, Peter Horrocks, formerly Head of the BBC's Multimedia Newsroom, has been appointed as the new Director BBC World Service, following Nigel Chapman's departure. I am confident that Peter's experience as a strong editorial leader, coupled with his considerable energy and drive, will be a powerful asset as BBC World Service looks to attract new audiences and build on its reputation as a reliable and trusted broadcaster whether it be via radio, television or online.

Peter will take up his post at BBC World Service in mid-April, and given your reference to a lecture he delivered in 2006, I will make sure your letter is passed on to him on his arrival at Bush House.

In the meantime, I intend to briefly address the three questions you raise at the end of your letter.

1. What checks does the World Service undertake with official sources to ensure that it is not recruiting foreign journalists' with a tainted political record which ought to disqualify them?

As Nigel pointed out in his letter to you, all staff employed by the BBC, regardless of country of origin or background, have to meet robust and open selection criteria, and once working for the BBC must adhere to strict editorial policies and guidelines. These include ensuring that the BBC's values which include accuracy, impartiality, and editorial independence are upheld. The BBC does not keep records of specific information about their previous employment. It fully supports the work of senior staff in the BBC Russian Service, as Nigel Chapman also made clear in his letter.

 2. Is it true, as the Economist stated in July 2007, that the one programme in which the Russian Service did use extensive interviews with Vladimir Bukovsky and Oleg Gordievsky was repeated only once rather than the normal five times; that it disappeared from the BBC website after only two days instead of the normal week; and that the producer received a severe reprimand?

This query has been raised before, and was addressed as part of an internal inquiry into the Russian Service's coverage following the death of Mr. Litvinenko. As it is an internal staff issue, and not a matter for public debate, I am unable to comment. However, I am able to report that the investigation did not find any evidence of bias or avoidance of issues, and I am satisfied that the Russian Service sought to be as balanced as possible in its coverage of this important event. This coverage not only included the last interview with Alexander Litvinenko, but also clearly reflected the views shared by Mr Bukovsky and Mr Gordievsky.

3. Is it correct, as the Economist alleges, that the BBC is scrapping the very programme which it cited in its own defence as having given reasonably trenchant coverage of the Litvinenko murder?

There was comprehensive coverage of the Litvinenko story throughout BBC Russian's news and current affairs programmes and on This was a major story for all broadcasters which we fully reflected for our audiences. In the new schedule the key news and current affairs programmes Utro and Vecher na BBC will become longer, and a new weekend programme will be introduced. Other key programmes, such as, BBSeva, Vam Slovo and Ranniy Chas will remain. I am confident that such matters will be given as much airtime in the Russian Service's new schedule as they had in the old schedule.

It is also worth noting that since the debate in Westminster Hall, Nigel Chapman has met privately (at his suggestion) with some of those that have voiced concerns publicly about the changes to the Russian Service, and at this meeting, he went through the plans at length, answering all questions raised.

I am confident that the BBC Russian Service plan is the right strategy for the service in order to build on its reach and impact in Russia and the region, and I would also like to reassure you that the BBC will continue its strong commitment to the Russian Service and its role as a trusted, influential and editorially independent news provider.

Yours sincerely,

(Director, BBC Global News)

* * *


16 March 2009

Dear Mr Sambrook,

It was kind of you to take the trouble to send me a detailed reply on 9 March to my letter to Nigel Chapman of 24 February.

You can imagine how amused I was to see that the very person I had used as an example of someone who explicitly advocated replacing 'due impartiality' with literal impartiality between coverage of democrats and extremists – Peter Horrocks – has now been appointed to the top job in the World Service.

When I eventually hear from him in reply to my letter to Mr Chapman, I trust that he will explain in detail whether he accepts the traditional interpretation of 'due impartiality' now, or whether he still adheres to what he himself describes as the 'radical' alternative set out in his 2006 lecture.

With regard to the preliminary answers you have given to my three questions, I shall only comment on the first one for the time being: I regard it as entirely unsatisfactory that the BBC employs people who may well have worked for propaganda organisations dedicated to undermining the very values of tolerance and fairness for which our society stands and which our broadcasters ought to promote.

Yours sincerely,