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16 December 2014

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.

By Douglas Beattie Douglas Beattie

“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.

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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.