Show Hide image

From the NS archive: Thought control at the BBC

15 November 1958: Command and bias dog the institution.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

There is nothing new about the politics of the BBC. In 1958, the colourful Labour MP Tom Driberg examined the appointment of Hugh Carleton Greene (Graham Greene’s brother) as the director of news and current affairs. The newly created position allowed Greene to vet and veto every aspect of the corporation’s output. Driberg was not a fan of such centralised control: not only did it leave creative producers hamstrung, but it could also take on a political aspect, too. When bias was shown, said Driberg, it tended to favour the right, “almost as invariably as an error in a restaurant bill is against the customer”. The BBC, he reckoned, needed less bias and less stuffiness.

***

“It was felt that an editorial mind was needed.” These are the significantly impersonal words used by a senior executive of the BBC to explain a major recent change in BBC policy.

On 18 August Mr Hugh Carleton Greene took office as director of news and current affairs. This post has no precedent in the history of the BBC. Its holder (with his staff) has, perhaps, more power over the content of the most important BBC programmes than any other single man. Even the director-general himself, though his power may be thought absolute, exercises it intermittently and, often, retrospectively. Surveillance by the new functionary is continuous, covers both television and sound-radio, and (I am informed officially by the BBC) “any script relating to current affairs must be cleared in advance with his office”. There are, of course, a number of unscripted interviews and discussion programmes: in such cases, transcripts do not have to be submitted after the broadcasts (unless there are complaints to be investigated), but the director of news and current affairs must know who are on the various panels, who is being interviewed, and who is doing the interviewing.

BBC spokesmen say frankly that the object of this change is to unify and centralise (“to secure more effective central control of”) such programmes. Apparently, as a faint glimmer of reassurance, they add that “the planning functions of directors and controllers remain unchanged”. But this merely means that Mr Kenneth Adam is still allowed to decide that Who Goes Home? is to be broadcast at 10.15 on a Friday. Main control over the content of these programmes passes to Mr Greene’s office.

One serious aspect of this reform is that it must diminish the freedom and initiative of the creative man in charge of a programme – the producer. A number of BBC producers (whom I naturally cannot name) are disturbed and enraged both by the general implications of the change and by the actual interference to which they have been subjected. In such an atmosphere no creative workers can do his best; and this may be one explanation of a tendency to stodginess, in programmes that had formerly been lively and enterprising, that puzzled me when the autumn schedule began. (The significance of the appointment probably passed without much public comment because it became operative in the middle of the holiday season, when serious programmes were off the air.)

Mr Carleton Greene would not, indeed, be doing his duty if he did not interfere from time to time, to promote the prescribed Gleichschaltung. I will quote only one example of interference (because, though I know it to be authentic, it did not come to me from anyone concerned with the programme in question). Some little time ago, when a feature of Cyprus was being planned for Panorama, arrangements were made for an interview with Archbishop Makarios to be recorded in Athens. When the outline of the feature was submitted to Mr Greene’s office, this interview was vetoed – on the ground that the Archbishop “could have nothing new to say at this stage”. (This was about a week after his sensational interview with Mrs Castle, when it might be supposed that any competent journalist could have thought of a number of ways of seeking to persuade the Archbishop to clarify his intentions.) I do not know if much resistance was put up to this veto, but the present producer of Panorama, Mr Rex Moorfoot, is described by those who know him as “a nice chap and an experienced producer, but not a fighter in a situation like this”. In this he is unlike his predecessor, Mr Michael Peacock, and unlike Mr Donald Baverstock, producer of Tonight – with whose free and easy independence it would indeed be suicidally foolish to interfere, even though a bit of political propaganda (usually Tory) may half-accidentally slip into it.

[see also: The BBC and the battle for truth]

It is the political consequences of the change – in a pre-election period – that will seem most important to many not on the staff of the BBC. I do not know the political views on Mr Greene (who happens to be a brother of Mr Graham Greene): as a correspondent before the war, he was expelled from Nazi Germany; he was engaged in psychological warfare in Malaya in 1950; and his intimates deny with amusement that he holds the extreme right-wing views attributed to him by some angry BBC men. Nor do I know the views of his chief assistant, Mr G Gordon Mosley: he held a position in the Indian Army and is an accomplished linguist, and most of his BBC experience has been in overseas talks. But I make no personal attack on these two men: I am sure that they will do, ably and conscientiously, what is required of them.

What is required, politically? In so far as “current affairs” consist largely of politics, the tendency of BBC programmes must surely, now more than ever, be away from the unorthodox and “extreme” and towards whatever is “sound” and moderate and of the very essence of the establishment. To the director-general and to the director of news and current affairs, an ideal panel for the discussion of some controversial issue of foreign affairs would consist of (a) a Conservative MP, (b) a right-wing Labour MP (perhaps one who had disagreed with his party’s policy on the issue in question), with (c), say, Mr Monty Woodhouse, of Chatham House, thrown in as an “independent” expert (despite the fact that he is now, officially and openly, a prospective Conservative candidate for parliament). Thus is secured what passes for balance and impartiality.

Sometimes, of course, a programme slips off balance, no doubt through a genuine oversight (but the slip seems to be to the right almost as invariably as an error in a restaurant bill is against the customer). There was a particularly glaring slip in the morning news bulletin on 27 October and, since it occurred at 7, at 8 and at 9am, someone must surely have noticed it and decided to let it through. This item referred to an article in the British Iron and Steel Federation’s quarterly review, published that day. The article was on “the opposition of the steel industry to threats to take it back into public ownership”, and the newsreader read a summary of it, including such blatant anti-Labour propaganda as the claim that “nationalisation would violently set aside, on purely theoretical grounds, a system which has been evolved from experience and which can be adapted to meet changing circumstances”.

This really cannot be justified as news: it would have been news (on the man-bites-dog principle) only if the Iron and Steel Federation’s quarterly had come out for nationalisation. I wonder how often the BBC news has quoted so gratuitously an article in favour of nationalisation from Tribune or Socialist Digest or any other Labour periodical?

This bias, then, may help the Conservatives in two ways – first, positively, by plugging their propaganda; secondly, through the virtually total exclusion of the left from discussion programmes, by stressing the similarities between the parties rather than their differences (which, as is now understood, must be stressed if Labour is to have any hope of winning the next election). Politics on the BBC is too often a kind of airy coalition.

Politics apart, however, the new set-up seems to me deplorable – partly because, as I have said, no producer of talent can work well under such pressures and prohibitions, and not least because the BBC’s case against ITV is seriously weakened if the BBC is going to relapse into its old stuffiness. (I don't say that ITV, under Ivone Kirkpatrick, couldn’t be tightened up just as effectively, and on Monday night the president of the FBI said, on ITN, that the FBI was “not a party political body in any sense” and that its new pamphlet on nationalisation was “absolutely objective, generous, and fair-minded”; but at least his interviewer sounded a little sceptical, and some ITV programmes are still refreshingly adventurous.) The BBC has got ahead of it a battle much more important (to it) than the next general election – the battle of Bands III and IV. It ought not to try too hard the goodwill of its natural allies.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)