BBC Under Fire – 80s Style 

1 April 2005

The BBC has been attacked by the government many times in its history. The events of last year were just the latest, says Glenn Aylett.

Every Prime Minister becomes paranoid about the BBC at some time. Margaret Thatcher was not the first PM to have problems with the BBC, and Harold Wilson had no love for the Corporation either, accusing it of sympathising with the Conservatives and trying to rubbish his government at every opportunity. Wilson refused to allow the Corporation to interview him on his victory train during the 1966 election, for example, and virtually blacked the Corporation – though arguably with some justification – after he was seen to be humiliated during the documentary Yesterday’s Men, following the 1970 election defeat, when he was subjected to satirical songs about his government by The Scaffold and insulting questions from David Dimbleby.

The following Conservative government introduced commercial radio as a way of lessening the influence of the BBC, though relations between Ted Heath and the Corporation were generally good. Under James Callaghan, the BBC was again under attack for seemingly favouring the Conservatives on the one hand and, on the other, being ambivalent in its coverage of Northern Ireland politics, giving airtime to Loyalist and Republican extremists as well as moderate politicians, which enraged the Ulster Secretary Roy Mason. Generally in the seventies, except for right-wing concerns about drama series like the left-leaning Days of Hope, the BBC seemed to be accused more of right-wing than left-wing bias, a topic the present author has addressed elsewhere.

The election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979 was to start a period of hostility between Conservative governments and the BBC. Thatcher had never liked the BBC, going back to 1969, when she challenged the near-unanimous consensus on the licence fee by telling the audience on Any Questions? that the BBC Third Programme could be financed by advertising on a more populist network. (Apart from Today, she never listened to the radio much, which showed, as the Third Programme had been replaced in 1967.) She saw the licence fee as a tax on television viewers whether or not they watched the BBC, and saw the BBC as both wasteful and, later on, politically suspect. Even though the Corporation employed the Conservative Ian Trethowan as Director General during her early years in office, Trethowan was a Tory wet, therefore not ‘one of us’ and not trusted with handling the alleged liberals in Langham Place and Shepherd’s Bush.

Relations between the BBC and the new Conservative government began well enough. The Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw was a friend of Ian Trethowan, and also saw the Corporation’s reporting of the government as balanced and fair. After all, the BBC was believed to be favoured by what Thatcher would call ‘our people’ – the property-owning middle class – unlike ITV, which was preferred more by working-class council estate (often Labour) viewers. However, despite ‘our people’ liking the BBC’s programmes, Thatcher disliked the Corporation for its alleged liberal bias and was determined to bring it under control. She stated – after a controversial Panorama documentary in November 1979 showing the IRA enforcing roadblocks in Northern Ireland, which she believed the BBC had set up – “My Right Honourable Friend the Home Secretary (Whitelaw) believes it is time the BBC put its house in order.”

Thatcher’s first challenge to the BBC was in 1980, when veteran Sir Michael Swann announced he was to retire as chairman. His favoured replacement was Mark Bonham-Carter, the former chairman of the Race Relations Board, a liberal whom Thatcher disliked intensely. Instead, the rather eccentric Lord Howard, owner of Castle Howard and a Conservative, was chosen as chairman, while fellow Conservative William Rees Mogg, former editor of The Times, became vice chairman.

Even allowing for the admittedly wet Trethowan as DG, Conservative supporters now controlled the BBC, but Thatcher still considered the Corporation to be suspect, especially in its news coverage. She was not happy with the coverage of the 1981 urban riots, which she viewed as encouraging copycat riots in other cities.

The first serious salvo in the war between Thatcher and the BBC came during the Falklands War. While she admired the courage of reporters such as Michael Hanrahan, she considered the BBC’s news editors to be biased. Norman Tebbit mentioned in his autobigraphy that the BBC became known as the “Stateless Person’s Broadcasting Corporation”, as it used neutral expressions such as ‘British’ and ‘Argentinian’ forces instead of ‘our’ and ‘enemy’ forces. The Sun referred to the BBC’s coverage as “penknife stabs against our forces” and Mrs Thatcher was annoyed at the Corporation’s even-handed coverage of the war, preferring it to use the more jingoistic language that it had used during the Second World War. After the war, Mrs Thatcher became even more enraged when a caller on an election programme questioned her about the sinking of the General Belgrano: “Only the BBC,” she said, “could ask a British Prime Minister why she took action to protect our ships against an enemy ship that was a danger to our boys.”

Clearly the gloves were off against the alleged lefties in the Corporation, though at the time the Right’s real contempt was reserved for Channel 4, which was seen as the province of the hard Left and frequently rubbished in the tabloid press for its minority programming and low ratings. It would have been interesting to see how Margaret Thatcher would have reacted to Channel 4’s coverage of the Falklands War if it had been on air at the time, though the channel would probably have been excused because it was funded by advertising, unlike the BBC.

The appointment of Alisdair Milne to replace Ian Trethowan as BBC Director General in July 1982 saw relations between the BBC and the government go through a very rough five years which would end in Milne’s dismissal. Milne – unlike Trethowan, who admitted mild Conservative sympathies and had worked for ITN in his earlier career – had spent almost all his working life with the BBC and, although never admitting his political views, was in fact a liberal who was determined to protect the BBC’s independent position and licence fee. Thatcher disliked him and appointed the millionaire Stuart Young, supposedly a Thatcherite counterweight, as Chairman in 1983, though she later grew desperate when Young became a defender of the BBC licence fee and she believed him to have ‘gone native’ against her wishes.

The darkness deepened through the mid-eighties. While arguments about political bias meant little to the vast majority of viewers, the Corporation was not delivering in other areas. Cash shortages and the uninspired reign of Alan Hart as controller of BBC1, following the golden period of Bill Cotton in the late seventies, meant that the channel – the public’s main access point to the BBC – was falling behind badly in the ratings. Fair enough, the BBC could cater for minority tastes well; but, the tabloids argued, its mass audience programming was failing badly against ITV.

BBC1’s most successful programmes at the time were the hopeless American mini series The Thornbirds and Dallas, the latter often its only Top 10 show in the ratings, while the supposedly downmarket ITV was producing such quality dramas as The Jewel in the Crown and Auf Wiedershen Pet. (I can remember looking at a copy of the Radio Times in January 1984 and seeing the BBC opposing Pet with the weak Dallas spinoff Knotts Landing that few viewers would want to watch.) BBC ratings against ITV and Channel 4 fell to a low of 40%, the Corporation’s demand for a £65 licence fee was met with derision, both from Mrs Thatcher – who believed the BBC should take advertising instead of demanding such a high licence fee – and the tabloids, whose readers tended to favour ITV anyway and promoted the view that people should not be forced to pay for a television service they rarely watched.

In particular, the Daily Star ran a virulent campaign against the BBC at the beginning of 1985, when BBC ratings fell below 40 per cent on one occasion, referring to the BBC as standing for “Beaten, Boring and Costly” and ran a series of articles exposing BBC waste and incompetence, though rarely mentioning its alleged Labour bias as News International columnists did, possibly because the Star, while occasionally favouring the Conservatives, tended to have large numbers of Labour readers. The Daily Star, though quite accurately at the time, and possibly the only time I have found this awful newspaper interesting, mentioned the fact the BBC had blown millions of pounds on substandard American miniseries while cutting back on home-produced drama, wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds on German luxury cars for executives instead of cheaper British cars, and was dominated by a culture of bureaucracy and waste. Originally the newspaper, rather than proposing forcing advertising on the Corporation, favoured it being funded by income tax, though I could hardly see Mrs Thatcher agreeing to fund the BBC by taxation.

Clearly the BBC was in a state of crisis in 1984-85. Its demands for a £65 pound licence fee, a rise of over 30%, were largely met with hostility, even though the Corporation argued, quite fairly, that it needed this rise to improve its programmes, which were becoming shoddy and cheap compared with ITV offerings due to a lack of money. Eventually, against the wishes of Mrs Thatcher and the tabloids, Leon Brittan, then Home Secretary, agreed to a rise to £58 in the licence fee in March 1985, but advised the Corporation that advertising could not be ruled out in the future. The Peacock Committee, appointed by Brittan to review funding of the BBC, also came out in favour of the licence fee, pointing out that a commercial BBC could lead to serious damage to commercial television and drive down standards. Fortunately for the BBC, under the populist duo of Bill Cotton and Michael Grade, a whole new raft of popular shows like Eastenders saw ratings pick up and the demand for the Corporation to take advertising subsided, though Mrs Thatcher was reportedly furious that Peacock had not recommended a commercial BBC.

Meanwhile the political war with the BBC continued. Brian Redhead, the presenter of Today, became a particular hate figure for both Thatcher and the right-wing columnist Woodrow Wyatt. Wyatt referred to the flagship news programme as “run for Socialist propaganda by Brian Redhead”, and Mrs Thatcher apparently kept an ear open for any hint of left-wing bias. Tory Party members were encouraged to phone or write in to Broadcasting House to counteract any type of anti-Conservative bias. (Ironically the alleged left-winger Redhead actually admitted, after Thatcher had retired, to voting Conservative.) Probably Redhead and the editorial team of Today were relieved when she transferred her loyalties to the breakfast programme on the commercial LBC.

The leaderene also became infuriated by individual BBC programmes. The Panorama documentary, ‘Maggie’s Militant Tendency’, about the threat of National Front infiltration of the Conservatives, caused a furore, though this time it was probably justified. While the Conservatives have, like Labour, always had an unpleasant extremist fringe – John Selwyn-Gummer at the time was appointed to root out so called ‘fascist moles’, who were attracted to the party as it moved to the Right – the documentary, after discussing some of these groups, then decided to accuse both Neil Hamilton and Harvey Proctor of flirting with fascism and dressing in fascist uniforms in their young days. While Proctor in particular was known for his racist views, as well as being outed as a homosexual in his later years, accusations against both men were flimsy and led to a libel case against the Corporation. Mrs Thatcher was furious, though I do believe on this occasion the party’s anger was justified, as what could have been a perfectly valid piece of balanced journalism – most attention was being focused on extremism in the Labour Party, while the extremist fringe of the Conservatives was being ignored – was turned into a badly-researched and badly-edited programme which was libellous.

The next major run-in occurred over the Real Lives documentary, which would eventually lead to the dismissal of Alisdair Milne as DG. The BBC had decided to interview the former IRA terrorist turned Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuiness and DUP member Gregory Campbell. While this was a balanced programme, allowing both sides of the Northern Ireland divide to express their views, the government believed it was giving terrorists “the oxygen of publicity.” Under pressure from Leon Brittan, the BBC decided to withdraw the programme, which led to criticism in The Times that the government had imposed a “quasi diktat” on the Corporation. A one-day strike in protest by BBC journalists followed, and even many Conservatives thought the government had gone too far.

The image of the BBC being a hotbed of liberalism and leftism became a popular one in Conservative circles by the mid-eighties, even though few viewers noticed any political bias and Conservatives such as Willie Whitelaw considered the government’s campaign against the Corporation as a vendetta. Norman Tebbit, as party chairman, heavily criticised the BBC’s coverage of the bombing of Tripoli. One Conservative MP, the controversial Peter Bruinvels, who once said he would volunteer to be a hangman if the government reintroduced hanging, launched his own campaign against the so called “Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation”. Conservative voters were requested by Bruinvels to black Casualty, as it was full of Labour propaganda about the NHS, and, more laughably, Eastenders, as it contained the left-wing actor Tom Watt (Lofty Holloway), whom Bruinvels referred to as ‘Lefty’ during an interview on Wogan. Few viewers took any notice, though the ultimate irony is what was the BBC-hating Bruinvels doing on a BBC show in the first place. I was not surprised when he lost his seat in the 1987 election.

Bruinvels presented a paradox in the government’s relations with the BBC. For all she despised it, Mrs Thatcher was not against appearing on the BBC when it suited her, unlike Harold Wilson who virtually blacked it after 1970. She made an appearance on Songs of Praise on Remembrance Sunday in 1982 to request her favourite hymn, ‘O Valiant Hearts’, the military hymn of remembrance. On another occasion she appeared on Jim’ll Fix It, and was always prepared to give interviews to her favourite and least politically-suspect interviewers Sir Robin Day and Jimmy Young. Then, of course, there was her cameo role in Yes Minister, one of the few television shows she liked. However, these were occasions when she knew the Corporation could not browbeat her or was non-political.

The government’s next opportunity to bring the BBC into line was the sudden death of chairman Stuart Young in 1986. Young, as already noted, had proved to be a huge disappointment to Thatcher, who was determined to find a replacement who was of her mindset and who would get rid of Alisdair Milne. Already Conservatives now dominated the board of Governors and a friendly chairman would be able to rid the BBC of its alleged liberal bias, personified by Milne.

Originally Lord King was the favoured choice to replace Young, but he was involved in privatising British Airways and could not be released, so Thatcher was advised to appoint the former managing director of Times Newspapers, the Conservative Marmaduke Hussey. Hussey, who took over as chairman in September 1986, was determined to get rid of Milne and appoint someone more favourable to the government.

The opportunity to destroy Milne came in February 1987. The BBC had produced a series called The Secret Society, concerning MI5 and the secret state, hosted by left-wing journalist Duncan Campbell. While this was hardly an original subject, a programme about the Zircon spy satellite caused the BBC to withdraw the series on the advice of the MOD. Two days later, the police raided the BBC in Glasgow and took away material relating to the entire series. This heavy-handed act, which Douglas Hurd referred to as “a zest for secrecy and the party’s growing obsession against the BBC”, was condemned across the political spectrum. Milne took the blame for the programme and was dismissed. Even the normally loyal Daily Telegraph noted that the Secret Society affair showed that “the Tory vendetta against the BBC is real and dangerous”, and caution was urged in relations between the government and broadcasters as political interference by the government with the BBC smacked of censorship. (There are parallels between this incident and the fallout from the Hutton Inquiry.)

Milne’s replacement was far less controversial: he was succeeded by former accountant Sir Michael Checkland, who ensured the BBC kept out of trouble with the government in Thatcher’s last years, though there was still a worry that the Corporation could be commercialised. John Birt, from LWT, was appointed as his deputy. Mrs Thatcher wrote that the new management structure at the BBC was “an improvement in every respect” and the criticism of the BBC died down. Indeed the BBC itself became more conservative after Milne left: controversial dramas and documentaries became less commonplace, Radio 1 was still quite happy to ban controversial records and even banned an entire genre of music – acid house – because it was though to be drug-based, while Radio 2 switched largely to playing show tunes and standards, the kind of music Thatcher would have approved of.

Yet the hostility was still there under the surface. Thatcher thought the 1988 Broadcasting Act would lead to a commercialisation of the BBC and she was very reluctant to renew the 1990 BBC charter, saying “I have fought three elections against the BBC and don’t want to fight another against it.” However, most of the Broadcasting Act dealt with commercial broadcasting, and to the dismay of Mrs Thatcher, the BBC was again guaranteed its licence fee. Indeed, the Broadcasting Act caused colossal damage to ITV, supposedly an ‘on-side’ broadcaster.

The decision to abolish the IBA could well have been political, as the regulator supported Thames documentary Death on the Rock, concerning the shooting of IRA terrorists in Gibraltar by the SAS, which the government considered biased and represented one of the few run-ins between Thatcher and ITV. Under the Broadcasting Act, Mrs Thatcher’s favourite media magnate Rupert Murdoch was given the green light to expand satellite television, while the 1991 ITV franchises were to be decided by auction, which saw such famous names as Thames being outbid by Carlton, and a collapse in standards and eventual consolidation at ITV in the nineties. It was thus commercial television that became the big loser under the Act, as the massive expansion of satellite channels led to worse programmes. Douglas Hurd described the Act as “one of the least successful reforms of these years”.

With the resignation of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990, the BBC lost its most severe critic. While newspapers such as the Daily Mail still railed against the BBC in the nineties for abandoning such traditions as BBC English, and vilified John Birt, there appeared to be less talk of left-wing bias at the BBC in the Major years. John Major largely left the BBC alone and had little interest in running a hate campaign against the Corporation. Indeed most of the criticism of the BBC was now centred on the joyless John Birt – who was determined to run the Corporation on business lines and had little interest in its programmes – and a decline in standards.

Under Blair a new charge of Labour bias came in June 1999 when Greg Dyke, a Labour Party member, was to be appointed to replace John Birt. However, Dyke gave up his party membership and insisted the BBC would remain impartial, though the Daily Telegraph‘s charges of “Blair’s Broadcasting Corporation” stuck throughout Dyke’s tenure and the newspaper even launched a spiteful campaign called ‘Beebwatch’, that rubbished the Corporation regularly. While the Conservative Party has remained quiet about the BBC, the Conservative press has continued the war that Thatcher started in the eighties, though the Hutton Inquiry saw the Daily Mail become, temporarily at least, an unlikely supporter of the BBC, while the resignations of Dyke and Davies caused an outpouring of sympathy for the BBC across the board.

The fact is that the BBC has never been a left-wing conspiracy, and neither has it been in hock to the government of the day, be it Labour or Conservative. The Thatcher years showed that the Corporation was determined to remain independent of the State, to remain impartial and give airtime to alternative viewpoints, which is not the same as being left-wing, and so it has remained. Despite having two Labour supporters in charge, for example, the BBC remained determined to stay independent of control freaks like Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair, ultimately leading to the ill-advised forced resignation of Greg Dyke. And an independent BBC is vital in a democracy if we are to have an impartial source of information.

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