The BBC’s Advisory Bodies in 1968 

29 December 2016

From the Radio Times (North of England with Radio Merseyside) edition for 28 September – 4 October 1968

1968-09-28What are these ‘advisory bodies’? What kinds of advice do they give?

First come those Advisory Councils which the BBC is required to appoint by its Charter. They consist of a General Advisory Council and Regional Advisory Councils for the different parts of England and for Northern Ireland. (In Scotland and Wales respectively there are National Broadcasting Councils which have advisory as well as other responsibilities.) Then there is a group of over thirty specialist councils or committees. These advise the BBC on such subjects as religion, music, agriculture, engineering, science, appeals, school broadcasting and further education. The total membership of such bodies is nearly 600.

About 60 men and women sit on the General Advisory Council. I know myself what trouble the BBC takes to see that its membership reflects as many interests as possible: ambassadors and politicians, doctors and lawyers, industrialists and trade unionists, farmers and social workers, men and women with expert knowledge of the arts or wide experience of ordinary life. They come from all parts of the country.

Taken as a whole, it’s a huge structure of advice. Is it worth the trouble and expense? Each meeting requires the attendance of senior members of the BBC and involves them and their staff in the work of summoning these councils, preparing agenda, and circulating minutes. I have just counted and weighed the sheets of foolscap issued to members of the General Advisory Council for their last meeting. There were 41 sheets of paper and the weight was eight ounces. It is easy to see the justification for the specialist councils (education, religion, music, agriculture, etc.). They consist of members who are working in the field; their guidance is necessary to help the BBC to keep in touch with current trends and fresh developments. Even when individuals disagree and opinions conflict, the BBC gains an insight into problems that without this specialist advice it might fail to recognise as problems at all. But it is perhaps less easy to see the advantages of the non-specialist councils, like the General Advisory Council or the Regional Councils.

The BBC, providing a public service of broadcasting, obviously needs information about the number of people who receive its programmes and their appreciation of them. An efficient audience research department maintains a constant enquiry system and provides a steady flow of reliable information on these points and many others. But the BBC also needs to be in direct contact with public opinion and to discuss such problems as its balance of programmes, between serious and light, music and sport, discussion and comedy. What do people think of its timings, of its innovations, of its news, of its impartiality, and many other similar topics? One source of such information is the quarter of a million letters it receives every year. Though valuable, this source is not enough. Letters tend to come from those who are dissatisfied, who feel strongly and who are letter-writers. But the majority of people have neither the time nor the inclination to write and they are even less likely to do so to express their satisfaction. So the BBC likes to have other sounding boards. Its many councils have this second function, to act as a check on the body of opinion represented by correspondence and to clothe audience research statistics with flesh and blood.

A council is usually at its best when it gives an opinion about a matter of policy. For instance a cybernetician may argue that the BBC is failing to prepare the country for a future in which science fiction has difficulty in keeping ahead of scientific fact. University professors are likely to provide helpful comments on the BBC’s projected contribution to the ‘Open University.’ A member of the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants can speak with special authority when the council is discussing programmes for immigrants. A few years ago the whole question of satirical programmes was discussed. Some members had deplored the virulence and vulgarity of ‘That Was The Week That Was.’ Others, delighted with this uncharacteristic innovation of the BBC’s, made the point that while items lampooning someone unable to defend himself were offensive, satire used to defend someone unjustly attacked was both brilliant and laudable. The council as a whole ended by expressing the opinion that it was better to have a satirical programme that involved the risk of sometimes overstepping the bounds of good manners and good taste than to have no such programme or one so hedged with prohibitions that its producers and authors were frustrated and unable to develop their unusual and original talent.

Members of these councils have another function. They should not only interpret the public’s view’s to the BBC but, as far as they can, they should explain BBC policy to the public. Having heard questions and complaints from their individual circle of friends and acquaintances for transmission to the BBC, it is also up to them to convey back the BBC’s explanations and justifications.

One final comment. Advisory Councils have of course no executive power : the BBC need take no notice of the advice tendered. Yet influence can often be as effective as authority. My own experience has been that on occasion the BBC explains in detail why a course of action recommended is unworkable. Yet some time later the recommended course is adopted. Like Byron’s maiden, the BBC ‘Whispering, “I’ll ne’er consent,” consented.’

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