Back Bone Cheer 

30 March 2015

Hill condemns - Telegraph

It can easily be argued that the BBC is doing its job as the principal broadcaster in the UK well when it is receiving criticism from all sides.

And the BBC has always faced criticism from all sides, going back to its foundation as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922. The Corporation has almost always handled criticism in the same way: develop a siege mentality about it, then come out fighting again.

In the 1960s, the BBC had become something of a campaigning organisation in the eyes of much of the Establishment, giving airtime to the new “permissive society” directors and producers with dramas like Cathy Come Home. This had alarmed the then Labour government, who took the opportunity rein the BBC in by moving the controversial and controlling Lord (Charles) Hill of Luton from the chairmanship of the Independent Television Authority over into the same role with the BBC’s Board of Governors. His implied job was to sack Huge Carleton Greene, the maverick Director General. He soon procured Greene’s resignation, and Greene was kicked upstairs to a non-position as a governor, from which he soon retired.

Hill then, as so often happened with chairmen and directors-general alike, went native. But when he tried to make himself be a wall between political criticism of the BBC and the actual programme makers, he alienated both.

BBC Handbook 1972

The item that Sean Day-Lewis is reporting in the Telegraph, Hill’s foreword to that year’s BBC Handbook, was prompted by a couple of events. The BBC had come under immense pressure from the relatively new Conservative government to change its reporting on events in N Ireland, then just hitting the peak of ‘The Troubles’ before the terrorism campaign/civil war/how you wish to describe it moved to Great Britain in general and London and Birmingham in particular.

Hill had responded to the complaints of this coverage by getting personally involved in reviewing the BBC’s N Ireland output. This was meant to reassure the politicians that there was someone on their side who was watching out for mistakes. At the same time, he allowed virtually everything through on to the air, trying to reassure BBC staffers that he was not interfering in the Corporation’s output.

The result now seems predictable: the politicians saw the BBC governors as acting as if under siege and being unhelpful; the BBC staff saw the governors casting a chilling effect over their work.

BBC Election 1970 studio

BBC Election 1970 studio

Julian Critchley MP (Conservative, Aldershot), spoke for many MPs in the House of Commons on 25 November 1971 when he said:

“To claim that this is censorship reveals on the part of the B.B.C. no more than a feeling of being under siege. If the BBC is under siege, it is because of several anxieties which we all have about certain aspects of its behaviour, whether it be sex, which Mrs Mary Whitehouse has made her own, or triviality or violence or distortion or bias. There is any number of anxieties which many people feel about the condition of television.

“The feeling that we have not altogether seen a fair picture of what is happening in Ulster must be seen in the context of the wider disenchantment which many of us have with the conduct of the BBC itself.

“If the BBC is under fire in part because of its Ulster coverage, the other war which is being fought is not between the BBC and its critics. The real war is being fought within the Corporation itself between the management of the BBC and those of its producers, editors and performers who were licensed by Sir Hugh Carleton Greene to say precisely what they wished to say on any given issue.” [Hansard]

This criticism managed to touch all the bases – Sir Hugh’s permissive BBC, Mrs Whitehouse’s futile campaign against it and the BBC’s initial response to criticism – reacting as if under siege, then coming out fighting later.

While annoying much of the Conservative party with its coverage of N Ireland, the BBC also managed to alienate the Labour opposition with a Panorama feature called Yesterday’s Men. This piece, widely seen now as a knife-job on the Labour leadership following their defeat in the 1970 general election was to sour relations with Labour for a political generation and provide both parties with a stick to beat the Corporation with. Hill had called the documentary in, reviewed it (to please the politicians) and then allowed it through almost uncut (to please the programme’s makers). Neither were pleased. The programme’s makers took their name off the “butchered” programme, while in the House of Commons on 21 July 1971, this exchange took place:

Philip Whitehead MP (Labour, Derby North): “Is the right hon Gentleman aware that I find that a most satisfactory answer and that it reveals that the public has a very proper appreciation that direct control in these matters should not rest in the hands of politicians? Will he, nevertheless, take note of the feeling of hon Members, on both sides of the House, that in the recent inquiry into the programme “Yesterday’s Men” the BBC governors were acting as judges in their own case, since some of their executive decisions in the sequence of events under examination were, or might have been, open to question? Will he, therefore, look again at early day Motion #643 recommending the appointment of an independent broadcasting council?”

Christopher Chataway MP (Conservative, Chichester; Minister for Post and Telecommunications): “I will certainly take note of what the hon Gentleman says. The Times leader today pointed out some of the essential differences between broadcasting and the Press which make the Press Council not a good model to follow. What a number of hon Members are arguing for is a radical change in the system so that the BBC governors would no longer have the twin functions, which they have always had hitherto, of both managing and answering to the public. There are arguments, as the hon Gentleman will know, on both sides of that proposition.” [Hansard]

It was this type of idea – introducing a broadcasting complaints commission and replacing the governors with a notionally more independent council or trust that Hill was warning against in his piece for the handbook. His fear was that such external monitoring would lead to a BBC cowed and supine, responding favourably to anything the current government, of whatever colour, was doing. That way would lie madness and the BBC might then fight back internally, not least by promoting the political extremes that the then-government might be scared of.

Lord Hill (left) and Director General Charles Curran

Lord Hill (left) and Director General Charles Curran

Hill’s piece was designed to be read by middle class men over Christmas, as the handbooks were published expressly to be given as presents to politically-aware parents and older children who wanted to know more about broadcasting – at that time, virtually the entire male middle class of the UK.

He was signalling that the fight-back stage had begun. The BBC was under threat and had woken from its ignorance and siege positions. When Labour was returned to power in 1974, after Ted Heath had asked the British people “Who governs Britain?” and received the resounding reply “don’t ask us, we don’t know”, they set up the Annan Committee with a plan of really reining in the BBC.

The BBC fought the Committee tooth and nail; fought the resulting report loudly and in public; and fought to remind people what they would lose if the BBC was neutered. The result was that the only part of the Annan report to be implemented properly was… an increase in the licence fee from £25 to £34 for colour (from £135 to £170 in today’s money – roughly the highest it has ever been).

The BBC, when roused, can be a mighty powerhouse with the ability to demolish pointless complaints from politicians and special interest groups. That it takes so long to move from bowing under the weight of criticism to fighting back on all fronts may be part of this or it may be a symptom of an organisation so large and varied.

Either way, opponents of the BBC with their vested interests have repeatedly learnt that you can keep kicking the BBC as much as you like, but one day it will turn round and bite back.

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2 responses to this article

Victor Field 31 March 2015 at 12:39 pm

So they’re not good at taking criticism. File alongside the religious inclination of the Pope and the toilet habits of bears.

trevor 20 May 2015 at 7:25 pm

It doesn’t surprise me that Critics of the BBC continue growing,
despite the BBC attempts to “modernize”
It is safe to say that many people are tired of paying the license fee.
and regardless of what the BBC think,
It has to face facts that the License fee can no longer be Justified
especially with the invention of the set top box and the seemingly endless channels that are free to watch…accept the BBC.

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