Issue 68 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 1995 Copyright International Socialism

News from nowhere?

A review of Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom--Volume Five: Competition 1955-1974 (Oxford University Press, 1995), 45


This is the fifth volume of what is somewhat misleadingly called The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. It is really that history as seen from within the BBC for, although a work that is painstakingly researched, it depends on the voluminous BBC archive and interviews with members and ex-members of the BBC staff. But official records and internal memoranda are not necessarily witnesses of truth; they are often rewritings of history designed precisely for the archives. More importantly, the history chronicles but does not look critically at the role of the BBC, its nature as an institution or its place in the social and class structure of Britain.

There is therefore no comment on the close relationship between the BBC and Whitehall or the BBC and the establishment. The history treats these links as natural and unproblematic. Thus in the period under review one chairman of the board of governors--who are in law the BBC--was an ex foreign office official. The director general, the BBC's chief executive, had been a military secretary to the wartime cabinet serving under this official. The next chairman was the ex-head of the civil service. Today, continuing this tradition, the chairman is brother-in-law of a Tory minister and his wife a lady-in-waiting to the queen. During the period covered by The History the members of the board of governors included a former under-secretary of state at the foreign office, an earl, the chairman of a multinational corporation and the ex-head of a public school. The national governor for Northern Ireland was an ex civil servant who had been in charge of Churchill's maproom during the war.

The members of the board of governors are chosen by the government of the day from the list of the 'great and good' which is kept in Whitehall; from it the members of quangos and royal commissions are routinely drawn. The men and women selected to govern the BBC are not in any sense representative but are appointed because they are 'safe hands' who will know what is expected of them. Their task is to see that the policies of the BBC reflect a consensus in politics, in the arts, in 'taste'--which is frequently defined as 'mainstream broadcasting. 'Mainstream broadcasting' has always excluded 'extremes'. This means that political opinions which fall outside the parliamentary spectrum have been denied a voice--or granted one only grudgingly. The parameters of the 'mainstream' define not only a political spectrum; the same criteria were applied in the period covered by The History to popular culture. Thus 'pop music' which many governors disliked intensely and others found uninteresting was not broadcast. The refusal to understand or give expression to the pop culture of the late 1950s and 1960s left the field open to the 'pirates' who broadcast from boats off the coast to a large young audience.

Given the background of the governors it is not surprising that they should have spent a whole meeting in 1957 discussing an article in the American Saturday Evening Post entitled 'Does England Need a Queen?' The author was Malcolm Muggeridge, the writer and journalist who was under contract to the BBC. He was considered to be a 'radical' but would become notorious as a moral crusader alongside Mary Whitehouse. His article was considered to have overstepped the mark and a couple of his programmes were cancelled as a mark of disapproval. In the same loyal spirit the governors decided that there was no need for 'one or two serious programmes in which the functions and circumstances of the monarchy would be expounded or argued'.

These are relatively trivial matters and important chiefly as indicating attitudes. More important is that people of this class and social background were in charge of the BBC when there was a proposal to make a programme about the H-bomb. Recent research has shown that the Tory government of the day got wind of the project which was sabotaged after confidential exchanges at a high level on both sides. What is significant is that there is no mention in The History of the episode and its mainly off-the-record conversations and decisions. What alarmed the government was that the programme proposed to discuss the effects of the bomb on the civilian population, which it did not wish to alarm. It was on these grounds that the chairman of the board of governors later forbade the screening of Peter Watkins' film The War Game, on the effects of an atomic attack. The reason given was that it was 'too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting' although (Briggs adds) it was to be made available to invited audiences, who presumably were made of sterner stuff than the ordinary viewer.

One important element missing from The History is any account of the part the BBC was expected to play in the event of an atomic war. There is no doubt that the BBC was (and no doubt still is) closely involved in the emergency plans for this (or any other national 'emergency'). Thus it is unquestionable that BBC engineers helped to plan the communications to and from the various bunkers where our rulers were to survive the catastrophe. No doubt BBC personnel would have been on hand there. The role of the BBC suggests that there is little danger of the BBC disappearing; the government needs it too badly to let it die.

Over Northern Ireland The History is congratulatory. In 1969 the chairman, who was then Lord Hill, sent 'a message of appreciation and confidence' to the BBC's chief executive there. The problem for the BBC was admittedly a difficult one. How does an organisation based on the idea of a consensus conduct itself where no consensus exists? The Unionists in particular complained vehemently at any news coverage of Republican affairs. The BBC in Belfast, as the chief executive there explained, 'cut out' parts of filmed or recorded interviews which included 'violently or offensively expressed opinion' and avoided inviting people liable to use inflammatory language to take part in live studio discussions.

This policy was in fact one of censorship which was compounded by protestations of ignorance. For example, when in August 1969 Catholics were burnt out of their homes in the Falls Road by Protestants, the BBC in Belfast claimed that they did not know who started the trouble and who carried it out. The result was that reports, as one BBC journalist confessed later, 'gave no indication of who these refugees were... the public was not to know... who was attacking whom.' There is no mention of this in The History. It also plays down the rumpus over a report from Belfast by Alan Whicker for the Tonight programme for which the BBC first apologised profusely and then blocked the remaining programmes in the series. The incident is mentioned only in a footnote to a passage in the text which admits that 'independent reporting... was made almost impossible because of Northern Irish sensibilities', ie Unionist sensibilities. In fact there was no coverage of the situation in Northern Ireland by 'outsiders' for the next five years.

By contrast a good deal of attention is paid by The History to the programme The Question of Ulster, which was conceived of as a panel of 'wise men' who would listen to evidence from 'expert witnesses' (who had to be 'uncontroversial') from the opposing sides in Northern Ireland. This programme was strongly resisted by the British government in the shape of Maudling, the home secretary, who had complained about interviews with members of the IRA, and by Faulkner, the Unionist prime minister of Northern Ireland, who had complained about an item on the activities of the Ulster Volunteer Force which he described as 'mischievous.' The programme did, however, go ahead. Among the panel of witnesses were Gerry Fitt, Ian Paisley, Bernadette Devlin, two members of the Dail and a Unionist MP who agreed to take part although Faulkner had set his face against the programme. In the event the programme was seen, as Briggs records, by 7.5 million viewers, the majority of them in favour of the exercise.

The whole episode is interesting because of the panic among the BBC governors during the run up to the broadcast, the pressures from the governments in London and Belfast, the campaign against the idea by the Tory press and the fact that it happened at all. What it illustrates is a deep contradiction in the BBC. It is on the one hand an institution involved with the establishment and the subject of overt and covert pressure from government, and on the other it has--as its charter says--a duty to inform.

The history of the BBC, going back to its earliest days, reveals the tug between this duty, which many journalists and programme makers take at its face value, and the pressure from the governors not to rock the boat. In short there is a clash between what one might call the professional ideology of some of the staff and the wider ideology which the governors personify and perpetuate. One executive in Northern Ireland--significantly he had been responsible, from London, for the idea of a debate on the Irish question--put the situation there very clearly. The BBC was expected, he observed, to stand by the government 'in the national interest'. But which government? he asked--Westminster or Stormont? There was a need for the media to function as the 'fourth estate', distinct from the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. 'It must be left to the media', he argued, 'to decide (within the limits of responsibility) as to what to publish'. The parenthesis about responsibility is significant but it was an important formulation from someone who was later to become the butt of Thatcher's ire for suggesting at the time of the Falklands War that Argentina had a case.

The concept of the fourth estate naturally raises the question of the ideology that underlies news and current affairs reporting and the validity of the claim to 'objectivity'. But the tension between the ideology of the professionals (another term that would require analysis) and what one might call the institutional ideology has from time to time been fruitfully exploited not only in journalism but in other areas as well. Indeed it can be argued that during the period covered by this volume of The History--the period that saw Greene as director general--the exploitation of the contradiction has born fruit in various fields. This was the era that saw David Mercer pursue his anti-Stalinist politics in a series of TV dramas, the documentary realism of Cathy Come Home dealing with the housing crisis, the so called kitchen dramas sponsored by Sidney Newman who said, 'I am proud that I played some part in the recognition that the working man was a fit subject for drama and not just a comic foil in middle-class manners.'

One programme which is generally taken as an icon of the period is That Was the Week that Was, the hallmark of which was a lack of respect for some sacred cows in British society. It took politicians, the Church and the royal family as the butts of its jokes. But Macmillan, the then prime minister, had the measure of the programme and advised the postmaster general not to take any action about it because 'it is a good thing to be laughed over. It is better than to be ignored.' In fact the political thrust of the programme was similar to that of Private Eye, which some of those involved in the programme went on to contribute to. That is to say, it was the politics of the insider cocking a snook at figures of authority and was in no serious sense of the word a political programme that challenged the ground rules of society or made any coherent attack on its inherent injustices. What it did do was to strike a chord of disrespect in the British public--the audience at its peak was 12 million.

TW3 was described by a Conservative Party official as being 'extremely left wing, socialist and pacifist'. It did much to implant the idea in both the Tory party and the Labour front bench that the BBC was a nest of radicals. Such radicalism as there was, however, was 'professional radicalism' often fuelled by the experiences of men and women who saw at first hand the evasions, the dishonesty, the two faced nature of political spokesmen. The more truly radical currents within broadcasting were to be found in the Free Communications Group(FCG) which included men and women not only from broadcasting but also from the press. The FCG's stated aims were the social ownership of the means of communication. This would require a 'radical change in the present state of society'. A beginning should be made by fighting for 'a change in the relationships between the state and workers in the industry and the community.' There were, Briggs darkly suggests, Marxist undercurrents of thinking in the FCG's spasmodic publication Open Secret which published what was often confidential information from inside the media institutions.

The FCG was deeply divided and in due course ceased to exist. What is not unconnected with this leftist current is the fact that the BBC faced in 1969 the first official strike in the history of the Association of Broadcasting Staff about pay and the effects of the government's incomes control system.

The question that The History poses implicity but does not attempt to answer is, how was the Greene era in the BBC possible? The answer is to be found in part in the economic situation of the BBC, which because of the rising graph of TV licences enjoyed a parallel rise in its income. This meant that it did not have to go to the government to ask for an increase in the licence fee--an approach which governments have exploited to put pressure on the BBC to behave properly.

The BBC was a beneficiary of the 'you have never had it so good' period under Macmillan. At a moment of prosperity and against a background of social changes, the cracks in the monolith could be and were exploited by broadcasters.

Things have become more difficult in recent times with the application of Thatcherite policies. These had clear aims. One was to ensure that the board of governors was in right wing hands. This was accomplished by appointments to the board who proceeded to support a policy of marketing in programme production which has a parallel in the NHS market system. Another was to destroy what Thatcher saw as the last bastion of trade union power--the broadcasting industry. This was accomplished by the stipulation that 25 percent of BBC production must be out of house. The result has been to casualise much of the television industry, to undermine working practices and wage levels. These developments fall outside the period covered by The History.

The work has considerable shortcomings but will be useful for anyone who wants to pursue research into the period. Tucked away in the footnotes are important clues for anyone with a good political nose.

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