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Media 1986: A new age of broadcasting

20 Dec 2016  |  Torin Douglas 
Media 1986: A new age of broadcasting

It started with Murdoch and it ended with Murdoch. In the last of 12 parts, Torin Douglas rounds off what was undoubtedly a defining year for the media industry.

As we've seen month by month in these columns, 1986 was a game-changer for all sides of the media business.

It began with a publishing revolution: the move of Rupert Murdoch's four national newspapers to Wapping, breaking of the power of the print unions.

It ended with two events that would usher in a new age of broadcasting. BSB won the UK's Direct Broadcast by Satellite (DBS) TV licence and a new BBC chairman arrived with a brief to 'sort the place out'. Within weeks, its director-general Alasdair Milne would be fired and the radical reformer John Birt would be hired.

That chairman was Marmaduke Hussey, the former managing director of Times Newspapers who Murdoch had kept on the board after he took the papers over. Hussey was appointed by the Thatcher Government after the Peacock Report had failed to recommend that it should be funded by advertising.

In the summer and autumn of 1986, a series of rows had exacerbated Margaret Thatcher's dislike of the BBC, echoed and amplified by her husband Denis and the Conservative Party chairman Norman Tebbit.

A libel action over a Panorama programme called Maggie's Militant Tendency was abandoned halfway through a High Court hearing. A second programme, Real Lives, profiling the Sinn Finn leader Martin McGuinness, had caused a row between the BBC management and its board of governors, after the Home Secretary asked the governors to ban it.

Norman Tebbit had attacked Kate Adie's reporting of US air strikes on Libya, claiming the BBC Nine O'Clock News coverage had been "a mixture of news, views, speculation, error and uncritical carriage of Libyan propaganda." A series of documentaries called Secret Society led to a Special Branch raid on the headquarters of BBC Scotland.

A pro-Thatcher play about the Falklands War had been shelved by the BBC while a drama serial called The Monocled Mutineer, about a First World War deserter, had been widely denounced by the press as 'left-wing propaganda' and lies.

"The political nature of Hussey's appointment was immediately apparent," wrote Steven Barnett and Andrew Curry in their book The Battle for the BBC.

"Norman Tebbit announced in the Sunday Times that the appointment was designed to make it 'bloody clear' that change was demanded; Hussey, he said, was 'to get in there and sort the place out, and in days not months'."

In fact Hussey's early moves, when he arrived in late 1986, were to defend the BBC. He and the vice-chairman Lord Barnett rejected Tebbit’s attacks on its news coverage and then, early in 1987, he responded strongly to the Special Branch raid on BBC Scotland about Secret Society.

"Hussey, the new chairman, wrote an indignant letter to the Home Secretary," wrote Michael Leapman in The Last Days of the Beeb. "An equally stern protest from the director-general would have been appropriate - except that there was no director-general in place. Two days earlier, Hussey had forced Milne to resign."

Milne was stunned by the decision, as he acknowledged in his book DG: The Memoirs of a British Broadcaster. "Perhaps I should have seen the plot thickening, but I hadn't."

Milne was succeeded by his deputy Michael Checkland, a finance man with no editorial or programme experience. To fill that gap, Checkland selected John Birt, the director of programmes at LWT, and the choice was quickly ratified by Hussey.

Birt was unafraid to tackle vested interests, merging the separate radio and TV news and current affairs departments into a single BBC News division. Later, as director-general, he dragged the Corporation kicking and screaming into the modern world, introducing proper business practices and, ahead of most people, spotting the potential of the Internet.

Milne himself had also been grappling with new technology, as the Government struggled to work out a strategy for another game-changing development, satellite television. A whole chapter of his memoirs is devoted to DBS, for originally the project was to be led by the BBC.

"We started down the Direct Broadcasting by Satellite (DBS) road with high hopes back in 1980," he wrote. By the end, "DBS was one of the few things that gave me sleepless nights in my time as director general...The very real prospect of bringing the BBC to the brink of bankruptcy induced attacks of asthma and I was quite ill. At times, I have wished (like the Home Office officials frequently did) that we had never heard of DBS."

Many of those involved in British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) almost certainly felt the same.

On 11 December 1986, the Independent Broadcasting Authority announced at a news conference that BSB had beaten four other consortia for the licence to provide three new TV services by DBS. Its shareholders were Granada, Pearson, Virgin, Anglia TV and Amstrad (though Alan Sugar soon withdrew, to be replaced by the Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond, Reed International and others).

In his diary, the IBA director general John Whitney wrote: "The whole event went like clockwork...The Third Age of broadcasting had arrived."

Unfortunately, clockwork proved more reliable.

BSB struggled from the start, saddled with an unproven technology called D-MAC, which used a high-powered satellite aimed at the UK, while others - including Thames Television and Rupert Murdoch - thought the future lay in the medium-powered pan-European Astra satellite. In February 1989, Murdoch would use Astra to launch his four-channel Sky Television service, stealing a 14-month march on BSB.

Having presumed it would have a UK monopoly of satellite TV, BSB found itself second into the market in a head-on battle with Murdoch and the propaganda power of his four national newspapers. In its marketing - 'it's smart to be square' - BSB made much of its 'squarial' antenna, which was smaller than the dish needed to receive the Astra signals, but the technology was unreliable and never caught on.

After months 'haemorrhaging red ink', the two companies would merge under the name British Sky Broadcasting, using the Astra satellite and with a Murdoch man, Sam Chisholm, in charge. BSB shareholders would simply hold a minority stake.

Today - thirty years after it won its DBS licence - that final legacy of BSB looks set to disappear, following Sky shareholders' agreement to a full takeover by Murdoch's 21st Century Fox.

The events of 1986 are still echoing around today's media world.

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08 Jul 2020 

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