Books

Another enemy within: Thatcher (and Wilson) vs the BBC

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

In a ‘Dear Bill’ letter in Private Eye, an imaginary Denis Thatcher wrote off the BBC as a nest of ‘pinkoes and traitors’. That drollery points to the corporation’s paradoxical place in British life: an essential part of the establishment (‘Auntie’) yet sometimes its most daring critic, willing to put impartiality above patriotism. Jean Seaton makes one wonder at this impressive balancing act in a book that continues Asa Briggs’s magisterial history of the BBC up to 1987.

After the war many from newly liberated Europe thanked the BBC Overseas Service for keeping hope alive during the Occupation; this was reprised after the Berlin wall fell. Yet one British government after another from 1974 to 1987 attacked the BBC and the licensing system that guarantees its independence. A saga of excellence under siege.

Suspicion and threats came from both main parties. After plotting to abolish the licence fee, Harold Wilson moved the Beeb from the Post Office to the Home Office to keep it on a shorter leash. From 1976 — despite Cold War exigencies — Labour made the World Service renegotiate its funding year by debilitating year.

The Tories were even worse. Margaret Thatcher treated the BBC as yet another ‘enemy vested interest’, not wholly unlike the miners. Newscasters during the Falklands war spoke of ‘British’, rather than ‘our’ troops: well-established usage agreed during the second world war. But Thatcher ignorantly misread this as ‘rank treachery’. She threatened to replace the licensing fee with advertising revenue, turned down 27 invitations to appear on the Today programme, and sought Rupert Murdoch’s approval for her suggested new BBC chairman.


The BBC produced each hour of television more cheaply than any other European broadcaster and was leaching staff whose training it had financed to ITV. Moreover in the same period it had to fight its destructive and arrogant unions, given to restrictive practices as surreal and self-serving as those that troubled Fleet Street. Its reward was to have the Thatcher government try to bring it to heel by annual and inadequate licence-fee settlements during a period of inflation.

Instead of proceeding chronologically Seaton offloads a series of elegant dissertations, each generous with information and thought, within which she charts the BBC’s many battles and champions its successes. This is rich and essential cultural history rather than a light read.

The chapter on Northern Ireland, ‘The Right Amount of Blood’, is nonetheless gripping. The BBC was ferociously attacked by both sides in the conflict, as also by Westminster. Nationalists perceived it as an arm of the established order; unionists hated its refusal to act as their private stooge. A dozen car bombs were parked directly outside the Belfast BBC offices with another 143 in the vicinity. One brave cameraman suffered petrol bombs, paving stones and nail bombs; he was also clubbed over the head with a concrete sock and twice hospitalised. The BBC’s intrepid reporting of the use of force during interrogations was later shown to be accurate. Thus, by dint of establishing ‘a shared set of facts’ and through patient objectivity, it slowly helped enfranchise all sides, transmuting violent opposition into politics.

Light entertainment is not ignored. One American asked: ‘Gee — does that mean you have Heavy Entertainment there too?’ It is surprising to learn that only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers and 45 of Monty Python were broadcast. There is an ecstatic hymn of praise to the pioneering educational virtues of Life on Earth and its heroic mastermind, David Attenborough. Other chapters evoke the rise of women within the corporation; the great age of TV drama, the Ethiopian famine, and the emotional feast provided by the royal wedding.

Many dream of the Queen: the BBC helped Princess Diana ‘enter the nation’s sleep’ too. Diana wept at the wedding rehearsal but the BBC kept this last-minute distress secret, ensuring that the pictures never reached newsroom or press. Later, Diana’s interview with Martin Bashir permitted her to challenge the monarchy without the usual rules of balance or questioning.

That interview falls outside the period covered by this book, at a time when BBC chieftains were sometimes charged with excessive pay rises. Is Seaton too starry-eyed about such matters? Jimmy Savile’s long, squalid history reflects badly on an institution that shares many of the weaknesses of wider society. Seaton acknowledges as much.The world nonetheless envies us the BBC, which has longer-term purposes than any passing government, and attempts doggedly to put the beleaguered British people in charge of their own story. We sometimes take ‘Auntie’ for granted. This absorbing book explains why we might feel proud of it instead.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £24 Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • tjamesjones

    i’m with maggie

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    When living in Bratislava, not all that long after the Velvet Revolution, I was told by a Pole who had lived there during the Communist era that the sound of Lillibullero followed by the words “Volaar Londine” had the same emotional impact for him and his fellow dissidents as the V for Victory dots and dashes and the words “Ici Londres” had for the French Resistance. The BBC World Service is a much under-rated and under-funded institution. As my Polish friend said, “We listened to the BBC to get the truth”. It is no wonder that dictatorial regimes have always tried to jam its signal – and still do.

  • john

    For all its perceived faults, the BBC is a huge asset to Britain and commands great respect everywhere. We don’t have many highly regarded, world standard institutions in Britain but the BBC is certainly one.
    However, the Beeb does need to reflect ALL the citizens of the UK – not just those with influence in the London Establishment.

    • jim

      No. It is the preserve of homosexual,metrosexuals,feminist harpies,trannies and small furry squeaky little beta males all parroting the same liberal drivel as if they’ve just unearthed some profound truth.

    • jatrius

      “Used to command high respect” would be nearer the mark. They’ve frivolously wasted that high mark of admiration they once commanded abroad.

      • john

        These comments are a bit over the top.
        I live outside the UK and work in many different countries. Everywhere the Beeb is well received and regarded as the definitive news service. In China for example, many contacts say that their primary vehicle for English training is BBC broadcasts. Maybe their international services are now more credible than their domestic.

        • jatrius

          I too average slightly less than double figures, countrywise, a year. Whereas the Beeb’s stock has definitely fallen over the last couple of decades, they haven’t been supplanted by any other, it’s true. What has happened though has been a levelling. Being a vehicle for the projection of ‘soft power’ is now a false argument, however, as a justification for Auntie’s continuing under the same dispensation. The old girl has simply spread herself too thin over far too many platforms. ‘Content’ is the driving motor now and the cracks are showing all too obviously from poor spelling mistakes on sur-/sub-titles to facile journalism which in its insistence upon equal weight being given to differing viewpoints means the entertainment of far too much ideological nonsense as if it were of an equal stature and weight.

          • john

            Good comments. I watch Beeb America on a daily basis. It’s far better than US domestic channels for international news but I agree the content is being thinned out.

  • Diggery Whiggery

    “The BBC produced each hour of television more cheaply than any other European broadcaster and was leaching staff whose training it had financed to ITV.”

    Those are two sides of the same coin. It produced TV cheaply because it had to and so it paid poorly. Stopping staff going elsewhere in those circumstances becomes impossible.

    It’s a problem found in any public service. The NHS is a relatively cheap form of healthcare provision but the flip side is that it pays relatively poorly and that means many British trained doctors and nurses (of the few that we still train) often go abroad to Australia, Canada, USA etc where they can earn more money. Is that a benefit to our country?

    Whenever the state tries to deny the market by providing services, those services, the people who work for them and the people who use them, become victims of the market.

  • logdon

    I have reduced my el-Beeb intake to Radio Three in the hope of escaping the stultifying, on-narrative pc pumped out at every and any opportunity.

    Even that however is no haven as I found last week.

    Listening to an afternoon programme which followed on straight after the news of Green Party, Natalie Bennet’s excruciating performance on LBC, we were treated to a very revealing exersise in sick making sisterhood of the left wing variety.

    The presenter (who happened to be female) just could not stop herself in the gushing sympathy which oozed from her left to the bone psyche.

    ‘Brain fade’ was the phrase du jour and did she pile it on with the cliches around ‘we’ve all been there’ as if she were Natalie Bennet’s very own lap-bitch.

    Imagine if say, Nigel Farage had forgotten what he was there for in an interview?

    Would the sychophantic grovelling have ensued?

    Somehow I think that that lesser Beeb-bird would have to be dragged, screaming as her very own ‘brain fade’ took hold.

  • Callipygian

    ‘The Tories were even worse’. How original.

    I take it that candles have been lit and incense wafted about at the Conradi BBC shrine? Blimey.

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