The BBC has, throughout its one hundred years, had a delicate relationship with politicians and governments.
From the standpoint of early 2022 that sentence may seem to be something of an understatement.
Let me fill in some historical context, and explain how I’ve been researching other ways to think about the portrayal of the BBC in society and culture in Britain.
In particular I want to use the examples of the movie The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983) and a 1988 episode of Yes, Prime Minister.
Together these illustrate the fine balance in the way the BBC’s susceptibility to political pressure, and its upholding of journalistic ethical standards, has been perceived. Some of what follows doesn’t make for comfortable reading.
By its very nature and history, many would say, the Corporation has played its own tense game of thrones (not too many cheap cultural references, please. Ed.) with those politicians in power over the decades.
Examples abound. Depending on who you talk to, the 1926 General Strike (when the Beeb was still a private company and not yet a statutory corporation governed by a royal charter) was either a challenge or a deep fundamental problem for the nascent BBC.
A statutory corporation in English law is a body created, without shareholders, by legislation to provide a public service. Current examples include the BBC and Channel Four. Past examples include the National Coal Board and what was known as the General Post Office. As a statutory corporation the BBC is granted a royal charter in order to operate, renewable every ten years.
The late 1920s were a time when the BBC struggled with maintaining the public’s trust as an independent media organisation, yet could not ignore Stanley Baldwin’s threats to take it over and turn it into a mouthpiece for propaganda.
At the start of the Second World War, Winston Churchill fulminated about the Corporation, even as the Beeb entered into a delicate, uneasy, balance between providing impartial and truthful news and supporting the nation by building morale through its radio broadcasts. Indeed, a mini culture war broke out between the BBC and the Authorities, with the latter thinking that Vera Lynn’s singing on the radio was mawkish and damaging to the morale of the troops. Public opinion, and the Beeb, begged to differ, as I’ve written about previously.
Events surrounding the nationalization by Egypt of the Suez Canal in 1956 were key moments for the BBC, when – again – its impartiality and independence were questioned, and for a brief moment it looked as if the Corporation would lose control to the machinery of Government. From one perspective it was always thus: news output, and the way it is received by some in the audience can cause upset and political offence.
There’s all sorts of complicating factors: speaking truth to power, the national interest, truth, impartiality, reflecting all sides of a debate, as well as connecting and engaging with audiences. Conflict seems inevitable.
Into the new millennium, there were more editorial dramas for the Corporation – including the 2003 Iraq War dossier, the Cliff Richard “search” of 2014, the Princess Diana interview inquiry of 2021, and the Jimmy Savile abuse cases.
Then there was the early 1980s and the Falklands War – the coverage of which, together with Northern Ireland, was one of many skirmishes between politicians and the Beeb’s journalists. Margaret Thatcher was said to have detested the BBC’s news reporting but still found time to laugh out loud at the comedy series Yes, Prime Minister. More on Jim Hacker in a moment.
Meanwhile, the film The Ploughman’s Lunch captured a sense of why Mrs Thatcher held the BBC in a certain amount of disdain – particularly in the way she regarded its journalism.
The film recreated the atmosphere of the era, but gave added emphasis to a storyline about the competitive and selfish streak in one of the Corporation’s staff journalists.
The film’s script was the first screenplay by the novelist Ian McEwan. It was directed by Richard Eyre and was an overtly political movie that reflected on the contemporary preoccupations with career advancement, dissimulation, and the hypocrisy of the nascent Yuppie culture.
The title referred to a pub lunch of cheese, bread and pickle, which was rightly dismissed by one of the film’s characters as a fictitious creation, that supposedly patronised a rural worker’s midday meal, to be served to busy metropolitan types.
The movie mixed the fictional story with scenes shot in front of real events: a radio journalist attempting to write a book about a controversial moment in the BBC’s history, whilst working in Broadcasting House, and attending the actual 1982 Conservative Party conference in Brighton.
The opening scenes featured the smoke-stained BH newsroom of the time, including manual typewriters, copy typists, telex machines and cold flourescent strip lighting. Looking at the images now, it appears grimmer than memory serves. In a future article I’ll go into more detail about how radio journalists (including, for fairness and balance, ILR newsreaders) have been represented in other TV series, movies and novels over the decades.
Meanwhile, a seperate portrayal of Corporation journalists came in the sit-com Yes, Prime Minister (BBC2 1986-8). It was the follow-on to Yes Minister which ran from 1980 to 1984. One episode, from 1988, was called ‘The Tangled Web’. It showed a fictional BBC radio producer who was comfortable acquiescing in the control of political minders who wanted a pre-recorded interview ‘disappeared’.
The episode also included this clip. You may think it’s relevant to current events; I couldn’t possibly comment. (Stop mixing up your cultural references. That was the House of Cards. Ed.).
Yes, Prime Minister was a satire of the contemporary political climate and in this episode BBC newsroom staff were cast as being in thrall to the political establishment.
The cabinet private secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) did not realize his off-the-record disparaging comments about the unemployed were still being recorded at the end of a radio interview with Ludovic Kennedy (as himself).
However, any hope that radio may have been able to speak truth to power was dashed when the viewer learned that the BBC producer had – apparently without question or protest – given the prime minister, Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington), the original copy of the audio tape of the offending interview. (It was comforting to see a 10″spool with a NAB centre appearing on national telly – and properly edited with yellow leader at the front as well.)
The narrative was hopefully an exaggeration of reality, and material would not in practice have been handed over by BBC staff to a politician in such a manner.
However, research in the archives by Tom Mills (see my reading list at the bottom of this article) indicates that the BBC as an institution has, for almost all of its existence, had a tendency to follow the Establishment’s views and bidding. In effect, the portrayal in this episode of Yes, Prime Minister could be said to serve – in some way – to reinforce that conclusion. Even so, the mid 1980s were a febrile time: I recall – for example – standing on the steps of the local radio station where I was working, supporting BBC network colleagues in their strike over the Real Lives affair.
These events, amongst others, help to put the politics of the BBC’s one hundred years into some form of historical perspective. However, in the 2020s it appears that the present-day pressures and tensions have increased dramatically for Auntie Beeb. The sense of urgency is palpable.
Let me know your thoughts about truth, balance, accuracy, impartiality, and the importance of detail – including the fictional portrayals of journalists and media workers. Drop a message in the comment box below.
If you’re interested in reading more, I suggest the following sources:
- For the events of 1926 and the General Strike, see: Asa Briggs (1961), The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Volume I, The Birth of Broadcasting, London: Oxford University Press, pp. 360–84.
- For a highly readable account of the political pressures on the BBC during WW2, see Ed Stourton (2017), Auntie’s War: The BBC During the Second World War, London: Black Swan, pp. 238-257.
- A detailed analysis of Suez appears in: Mélanie Dupéré (2021), ‘BBC Independence and Impartiality: The Case of the 1956 Suez Crisis’, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXVI-I 2021. Available online: http://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/6992 (accessed 4 February 2022).
- The Suez Crisis is also mentioned by Asa Briggs: (1995), The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Volume V, Competition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 75–137.
- For recent pressures, and a balanced assessment of how the BBC aligns itself, see: Tom Mills ( 2020), The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, London: Verso. He presents a useful summary of Suez on pp. 83–7.
- If you’re interested in the most recent centennial history of the Beeb’s first 100 years, I recommend David Hendy (2022), The BBC: A People’s History, London: Profile Books.
- For the history of British radio – as told through three hundred pop songs, movies, novels and art – see Martin Cooper (2022) Radio’s Legacy in popular Culture: The Sounds of British Broadcasting over the Decades, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
This latter volume is, according to Hugh Chignell, Emeritus Professor of Media History, Bournemouth University, “An important new source for radio historians. The perfect book to celebrate the one hundred years of radio broadcasting.” (That’s enough self-promotion. Ed.)