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Media '86: Thatcher vs. the BBC

28 Jul 2016  |  Torin Douglas 
Media '86: Thatcher vs. the BBC

Thirty years ago this month, the Tory leader had the BBC firmly in her sights. Torin Douglas charts a battle that still rages on today

As Theresa May gets her feet under the desk at Number 10, and the new ministers at the DCMS, Karen Bradley and Matt Hancock, read up on how, exactly, to regulate the BBC, it's enlightening to look back 30 years to a time when relations between the Government and the Corporation were at one of their all-time lows, under Margaret Thatcher.

Last week's publication of a letter from the National Archives, in which the prime minister's husband Denis complained personally to the chairman of the BBC about a satirical item on the Today programme, is a reminder that Governments do not always cherish the independence of the BBC.

That's why the new ministers' decisions on the BBC White Paper - and how the Corporation can maintain its independence from government - are so important.

Mrs May may have sacked George Osborne, who made the BBC pick up the licence fee bill for the over-75s, and John Whittingdale, who wanted a much tougher White Paper, but it remains to be seen how she and their successors feel about the BBC.

30 years ago there were no such doubts. In July 1986, Mrs Thatcher had the BBC firmly in her sights.

The Peacock Report - published on 3 July 1986 - may have rejected her hopes of getting the Corporation funded by advertising (see last month's column) but within a few months she would find another way of trying to tame it - the appointment of a new BBC chairman, Marmaduke Hussey. Formerly managing director of Times Newspapers, and still a member of its board with Rupert Murdoch, he was to fire the troublesome director-general Alasdair Milne a few months later.

It was Hussey who would later receive the letter from Denis Thatcher, accusing the Today programme of a 'foul libel' on the prime minister and calling for the producer to be fired. On this occasion, to his credit, Hussey seems to have taken no action. The programme's then editor, Phil Harding (later to become the BBC's head of editorial standards), knew nothing about the letter till last week.

So deep was the Thatchers' antipathy for the BBC that Denis's memorable phrase 'Pinkoes and Traitors' was taken as the title of the latest volume of the official BBC history, written by Professor Jean Seaton. (The phrase actually came from one of the 'Dear Bill' letters in Private Eye, ostensibly written by Denis to Bill Deedes - but is reliably thought to have caught the flavour of his views.)

In the summer of 1986, an escalating series of rows - badly handled by BBC management - had added fuel to Mrs Thatcher's instinctive dislike of the Corporation. One was over a Panorama programme - Maggie's Militant Tendency - alleging extreme right wing views among the new intake of Conservative MPs.

It had been broadcast in 1984 but a libel action was still working its way slowly towards the High Court. Seaton's book reveals that the BBC was stringing out the legal process in the hope of (a) finding more evidence to support the programme's disputed claims and (b) in the belief that it had deeper pockets than the two young Conservative MPs who were suing it, Neil Hamilton and Gerald Howarth.

A second programme - Real Lives, profiling the Sinn Finn leader Martin McGuinness - had caused another major row, when the Home Secretary Leon Brittan asked the board of governors to ban it. It also led to a damaging internal rift between the governors, led by the vice-chairman William Rees-Mogg (who called it 'vile propaganda for the IRA'), and the BBC's management under Milne.

A US airstrike on Libya in April 1986 had led the Conservative Party chairman Norman Tebbit to attack Kate Adie's reporting from Tripoli, claiming the BBC's coverage on the Nine O'Clock News had been "a mixture of news, views, speculation, error and uncritical carriage of Libyan propaganda which does serious damage to the reputation of the BBC."

More battles were in the pipeline. A pro-Thatcher play about the Falklands War by a well-known TV dramatist, Ian Curteis, was about to be shelved by the BBC and in September a serial called The Monocled Mutineer about a First World War deserter would be widely denounced by the press as 'left-wing propaganda' and lies.

Part of the problem was that the serial had been heavily advertised as being based on a true story. In his book The Memoirs of A British Broadcaster, Milne admitted this was a mistake: "In an attempt to get more of a fair hearing in the press we had recently hired an agency to take advertising space in the papers and the serial was promoted, foolishly (our fault, not the agency's) as being a 'real life story'."

Michael Leapman, whose 1986 book The Last Days of the Beeb remains a riveting account of the turmoil in the BBC at that time, wrote:

"The dramatisation showed sympathy with the mutineers, portraying their officers as heartless buffoons. Bill Cotton (the director of television) did not help matters by saying that although the series might not be strictly true in detail, it illustrated a greater truth about the conduct of the First World War. The dispute made headlines for days and provoked more anti-BBC editorials in the popular press."

In Pinkoes and Traitors, Seaton shed further light on the row: "The Mutineer combustion, like many others, had an external motor that was only tangentially to do with the drama," she wrote.

"Three days before the first episode was broadcast, Stuart Young, the BBC chairman, died. Meanwhile Norman Tebbit was running a monitoring unit scrutinising the BBC for political bias and 140 Conservative MPs demanded that the Corporation flush out the 'Red Moles' who had infiltrated it."

Seaton claimed (citing an interview with Milne) that the plotters had a specific motive.

"Painting BBC drama as 'left-wing propaganda' was a shot in a larger war, designed to get the right-wing industrialist Lord King, chairman of British Airways, appointed to replace Young. Milne went privately to see (Tory grandee) William Whitelaw in alarm at the prospect of King. 'Please don't worry' he was assured."

The BBC got Marmaduke Hussey instead.


Next month: The battle for an independent production quota


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