BBC World Service for North Korea Debated in the House of Lords

A prospective Korean-language radio service for North Korea has been discussed in a House of Lords debate on the role of the BBC World Service and the British Council in promoting British values and interests worldwide.

Initiated by Lord Alton, the wide-ranging debate focused on the historical and contemporary role of the BBC World Service in bringing impartial news and information to the world and, in doing so, highlighted its many achievements, such as the service’s impact upon notable figures, including Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mikhail Gorbachev.

House of Lords Debate on the BBC World Service
House of Lords Debate on the BBC World Service

Many Peers called to attention the role of the World Service in countries from the Balkans and Afghanistan to Burma and Cambodia, which, as Lord Williams commented, served to underscore “how critical the World Service is for people caught up in the vortex of violence and conflict, where information is always the first casualty”.

Following this line of reasoning, Lord Alton, Lord Eames, Lord Jay and Baroness Berridge all talked of the pressing need for the BBC World Service to broadcast free and accessible information into North Korea:

Lord Alton

“In considering commercial factors versus our Article 19 obligation under the 1948 declaration on human rights to take no notice of frontiers but to communicate information worldwide, the Minister may want to comment on the example of North Korea, which was recently listed by the United Nations as a “country without parallel” and a perpetrator of human rights abuses. In the view of the author of the report, Mr Justice Michael Kirby, BBC World Service broadcasts to the Korean peninsula would be a welcome contribution to breaking the information blockade that imprisons North Korea.”

  Lord Eames

Lord Eames
Lord Eames

“I visited North Korea…[and] From a most unlikely source, there was a remark that will live with me for a very long time. Obviously, I cannot disclose the complete circumstances, but the words speak for themselves. “Where”, he said to me, “is the BBC?”. If you knew the person who said that, the circumstances and the position that he held, it would set the balance right of many of the impressions that we have of what is going on in North Korea. Those words speak louder than statistics, transmission problems and the facilities needed, and I convey them to the House with great feeling.”

  Lord Jay

“The more closed and controlled the regime abroad to which [the BBC] is broadcasting, the more important its broadcasts and values are to the people who listen to it. That is why a number of noble Lords who have spoken today, and whose views I share, would very much like the BBC World Service to be broadcasting to North Korea. I know there are difficulties in that but I think it is an aspiration that [the BBC] should keep.”

  Baroness Berridge

“North Korea has a Cold War information embargo and is ranked 178th out of 179 countries for freedom of access to information. Why, then, is the BBC World Service not there? The BBC cites two main reasons. First, do North Korean people have a means to listen? That is, of course, hard to establish in a closed country but a 2010 survey of defectors found that 27% listened to foreign radio before escaping. Surely there were similar issues during the Cold War when the BBC broadcast…The second reason given is that it would cost about £1 million to launch the service.”

Baroness Berridge
Baroness Berridge

“However, surely the option of funding this from top-up advertising, as happens in Berlin, could be considered…The BBC is innovating technologically at break-neck speed, but is there such innovation around funding? Could it not even attempt to crowd-fund this? Perhaps more conventionally, can my noble friend the Minister outline whether DfID funding could be made available to fund such a service?…I grew up during the deep recession of the 1980s, and we saw the importance then of broadcasting to closed, mainly communist, countries. If the North Korean people are brave enough to try and listen, we should broadcast.”

Responding on behalf of the UK Government, Baroness Warsi, Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office, agreed that “there is a pressing need for a free, fair and impartial news service in the DPRK”.

Baroness Warsi
Baroness Warsi

But in communicating the BBC’s response to a prospective service for the Korean peninsula, Baroness Warsi noted that “the BBC World Service board concluded that it was not currently possible to offer a meaningful, impactful and cost-effective Korean language service. However, the BBC World Service has said that it is keeping the situation under review.”

Watch the debate here or read a transcript here.

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