The British government has strongly defended the BBC and its editorial freedom in Parliament after the Income-Tax department’s survey operations on the UK-headquartered media corporation’s New Delhi and Mumbai offices over three days last week.
A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) junior minister responded to an urgent question raised in the House of Commons on Tuesday to say that the government cannot comment on the allegations made by the I-T department over an “ongoing investigation” but stressed that media freedom and freedom of speech are essential elements of “robust democracies”.
David Rutley, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of the FCDO, pointed to a “broad and deep relationship” with India which meant the UK was able to discuss a wide range of issues in a “constructive manner”.
“We stand up for the BBC. We fund the BBC. We think the BBC World Service is vital. We want the BBC to have that editorial freedom,” said Rutley.
“It criticises us (government), it criticises the (Opposition) Labour party, and it has that freedom that we believe is so important. That freedom is key, and we want to be able to communicate its importance to our friends across the world, including the government in India,” he said.
Updating the Commons on the issue, the minister said India’s I-T department conducted what has been described as a survey on the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, beginning on February 14 and finishing after three days, on February 16.
Highlighting that the BBC is “operationally and editorially independent”, the minister said the public broadcaster plays an important role and the FCDO funds services in 12 languages, including four Indian languages: Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi and Telugu.
“It will continue to do so, because it is important to ensure that our voice and an independent voice, through the BBC is heard throughout the world,” he said.
Pressed on by Opposition MPs on the “deeply worrying raids” and asked about discussions with the Indian government, the minister added: “It is because of our broad and deep relationship with India that we are able to discuss a wide range of issues in a constructive manner with its government. As part of those conversations, this issue has been raised and we continue to monitor the situation.”
The urgent question was raised by Northern Ireland MP Jim Shannon, who branded the action a “deliberate act of intimidation following the release of an unflattering documentary about the country’s leader” and sharply criticised the UK government for failing to make a statement on the issue.
“The raids happened seven days ago. Since then I say this respectfully there has been silence from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. No government statements have been issued, and it has taken an urgent question to encourage the government to condemn this blatant attack on press freedoms,” said Shannon, a member of Parliament for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
British Sikh Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi expressed his concerns that “India, a nation with which we have shared values of democracy and press freedoms, decided to conduct a raid on the BBC offices after the airing of a documentary critical of the Indian Prime Minister’s actions”.
“These issues have absolutely been raised as part of those conversations,” the minister responded.
Other Labour MPs pointed out that it was not the first time that the authorities in India had undertaken such “investigations into media organisations that are critical of the current government”.
“We need to ensure that our views on media freedom are communicated clearly with other governments. We have those conversations not only with the government of India, but across the world. We think these are very important principles and, as I said, they are essential elements for robust democracies,” the minister said.
“Our broad and deep relationship, guided by the comprehensive strategic partnership and the 2030 road map for India-UK future relations, allows us to discuss a wide range of issues in a constructive manner with the government of India. We continue to follow the matter closely,” he added.
Conservative Party MP Bob Blackman, a vocal supporter of the Indian government, asked the minister to confirm if the I-T authorities in India have been investigating the BBC for seven years.
The minister, however, declined to comment on “an ongoing investigation that the BBC is actively engaged in”.
The I-T department said in a statement following the survey that the income and profits disclosed by the organisation’s units were “not commensurate with the scale of operations in India”.