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.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue