How the FO tried to stifle the BBC

David Wedgwood Bennreveals details of an extraordinary row at the height of the cold war

You may believe, as many British people do, that nothing like McCarthyism ever happened in this country. Think again. Some recently declassified files reveal a bitter and largely forgotten dispute that raged between the Foreign Office and the Russian Service of the BBC at the time of Stalin's death.

They show how the Foreign Office accused the BBC of allowing material to be broadcast that was "damaging to the Free World". One charge in particular was that the Russian Service failed to reflect "responsible British opinion" and followed a general line "more like that of the New Statesman and Nation".

The files for 1953 relate to the now defunct IRD - the "Information Research Department", the covert anti-communist propaganda unit which existed at that time within the Foreign Office.

For me, the revelations were of special interest. I have known, and sometimes broadcast for, the BBC Russian Service for more than 40 years and can therefore fill in some details that the archives do not record. At issue were the tone and purpose of broadcasts to a Soviet audience, living in what was a very closed society, when the cold war was at its height. The question led to bitter editorial disputes within the BBC - and an IRD attempt to dictate the editorial policy of the Russian Service and to discredit its then head, Anatol Goldberg.

The conflict reached a peak in the period after Stalin's death in March 1953. Some people, including Goldberg, argued that the dictator's death might provide a fresh opportunity for dialogue with the Soviet audience and for the encouragement of gradual political liberalisation. (At this time, it may be remembered, Winston Churchill, the prime minister, was urging an immediate summit meeting between the west and Stalin's successors.)

By contrast, the "hawks" insisted that Soviet totalitarianism was inherently incapable of peaceful change and would only back down in the face of pressure. They were deeply sceptical of the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.

It was against this background that the IRD drew up a detailed charge-sheet against the BBC's Russian Service. It accused Goldberg of being "ambivalent" towards the Soviet regime and of having an attitude "more in accord with a dissident form of doctrinaire Marxism than with British feelings". The insinuation of disloyalty was obvious enough. Indeed, in one document, the IRD urged either "the replacement of Mr Goldberg . . . by someone who accepts our conception of the role of broadcasting to Russia" or else the replacement of Goldberg's immediate superior.

The IRD stressed that its complaint was "fundamentally about the general atmosphere and emphasis" of BBC Russian broadcasts and not about points of detail. One official went on to argue that "the definition of the role of the BBC's broadcasts to Russia is primarily a matter for the Foreign Office".

Much to the exasperation of the IRD, the BBC refused to dismiss Goldberg - although, in 1958, it did replace him as head of the Russian Service, it retained him as its main commentator. Contrary to all BBC rules, he remained on the staff long after the normal retirement age and died in his post in 1982 when he was 71.

Anatol Goldberg was a Russian Jew who had been a refugee twice over - from Russia after 1917 and then from Germany after Hitler came to power. A brilliant linguist and a lifelong Anglophile, he had come to Britain in the mid-1930s. His talents easily won him a job in the wartime BBC (monitoring foreign broadcasts); and in 1946 he joined the newly created Russian Service.

Goldberg had his critics, even among friends. Among the fiercest critics was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who, on a visit to the BBC at Bush House in 1976, refused even to meet him.

Certainly there was room for improvement in the format of the Russian Service in the 1950s - it needed more outside contributors to reflect the entire spectrum of British attitudes towards the Soviet Union - but the IRD sought secretly to transform Russian broadcasts into a government-controlled propaganda tool.

In 1990, I visited Moscow. Ordinary Russians were at last willing to talk freely into the microphone. Goldberg, so it turned out, had had listeners even during Stalin's lifetime. One Russian told me that Goldberg's uniqueness lay in the way "he destroyed the enemy image . . . He taught us, or at least me, to see Britain not as a potential enemy, but as a society made up of people who, like us, just want to live . . . And in this sense [he] was one of the main agents who prepared the ground for our perestroika."

Professor Boris Grushin, a one-time adviser to Boris Yeltsin, said that during the cold war Goldberg was "the only human voice that reached our country from abroad. He was extraordinarily popular. He was the Number One."

Full details of the attempt to discredit Goldberg have yet to be revealed. The files recently released have now, apparently, gone missing at the Public Record Office. Two other boxes for the same period apparently remain secret. The IRD campaign against Goldberg almost certainly continued at least until 1957, when the Russian Service was attacked in Another Magazine on grounds very similar to those put forward in 1953. It seems that the IRD helped to orchestrate these attacks.

Some people now take pride in exposing communist spies or fellow-travellers of long ago. In this case - which concerns a secret smear on a distinguished broadcaster - the need to uncover the full facts is just as strong. So, indeed, is the imperative need for freedom of information.

The writer is a former member of the BBC World Service

This article appears in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser