The BBC made the decision to broadcast Hilary Mantel's short story. Photo: Getty
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The BBC is right to broadcast Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

The fictional account of an IRA sniper targeting the Conservative Prime Minister threatens no one and shows the Corporation is in good shape.

"Froth and bile” neatly sums up Tory criticism over the BBC’s decision to broadcast Hilary Mantel’s short story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

The author herself came up with the above quote as a response to the anger of Norman Tebbit and others over her work being serialised in Radio 4's Book at Bedtime.

Tebbit – himself badly injured in the 1984 IRA bombing of Brighton that Thatcher survived – went as far as to say the decision was the product of a “sick broadcasting company”.

That is quite wrong and I’d suggest the former Tory Chairman and cabinet minister knows it. Certainly having worked for BBC News for a dozen years it is not a description I recognise.

The funny old thing about the BBC is, given its size and scope, it’s pretty hard to define as a single entity, “sick” or otherwise.

The corporation – despite internal PR spin of "One BBC" – is a place where people work in silos. On the shop floor of news, radio rarely talks to TV, and just about no one talks to online (even in the open plan newsroom at New Broadcasting House).

The Book at Bedtime producers are not journalists, and are not dealing with politics every day. Rather they are in their jobs because they love bringing words to life.

They would not have been thinking of some grand anti-Tory conspiracy in airing the work of the two times Man Booker prizewinner, nor most likely the attendant fallout.

In the wider BBC, decisions would then have to be made about what had become a story in itself once Tebbit and Lord Bell had waded in. These are never taken lightly in my experience, and always in the knowledge that the establishment is watching. 

“Should we do it?” and, “how should we do it?” would be among many questions asked by editorial teams working on programmes and news bulletins of all shapes and sizes, with plenty of knockabout before an outcome is reached. 

The truth of the matter is the BBC is no nest of socialists fomenting revolution. Despite longstanding claims of left-wing bias, it has folk of all political persuasion, and none, in its ranks; alumni include Ben Bradshaw (Labour MP), Craig Oliver (communications chief to David Cameron) and Paul Lambert (the political producer who recently jumped ship to Ukip).

Perhaps the most illuminating tale of conservatism at the Corporation was that of a chap – well known to old soaks who ran the newsroom when I joined – who stood in silence with a pint at the bar every lunchtime.

Apparently he was the MI5 man permanently placed inside the BBC, with the full knowledge of the Director General. When recruits arrived, their files would be sent to the spook for vetting. Deliciously this took the form of a stamp in the shape of a Christmas tree.

If the tree was the right way up you were cleared for promotion at a later date, if upside down, however, you had been identified as a subversive. Worthy of Mantel herself? Perhaps, but it was always told as plain fact by aged and wise colleagues.

I rather suspect the Book at Bedtime row shows that the so often embattled BBC is now a bolder beast than in the years immediately after the death of Dr David Kelly where fear of original journalism stalked the corridors of Television Centre.

Mantel’s detractors should realise, in stamping their feet, they are merely adding to public interest in a story they foolishly seek to suppress.

They would also do well to welcome a BBC that, though cut to the bone, remains determined to stick to the "Reithian Values" of education, information and entertainment.

It would be a strange political animal indeed who cried foul over such noble objectives. So let’s snuggle up in January and enjoy The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (a work of fiction).

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.