'Pinkoes and Traitors': a tunnel vision of broadcasting history

Jean Seaton’s latest history of the BBC is mired by typos, inconsistencies and factual errors. Far from incidental, this is symptomatic of a broader carelessness that ultimately undermines her analysis. 

David Elstein
20 March 2015

Pinkoes and Traitors – the BBC and the nation 1974-1987 by Jean Seaton, Profile Books, 326pp, £30

Asa Briggs was 74 when OUP published the fifth volume of his History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. As ITV does not make an appearance until the fifth book, essentially these volumes are a history of the BBC, and to take the story forward, the BBC appointed Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History at Westminster University.

Seaton’s new book Pinkoes and Traitors: the BBC and the nation 1974-1987, dedicated to Briggs, now in his 94th year, appears 28 years after the last year it covers, and has been at least a dozen years in preparation. Compared to the 1200 pages of volume five, which appeared just five years after the last year it covered, Seaton’s text is a mere 326 pages in length (though she assures me it was three times longer before the lawyers got at it). There is a new publisher (Profile Books). Presumably, another new author will be needed to bring the story anywhere near up to date.

Curiously, almost the same ground was covered in Michael Leapman’s journalistic The Last Days of the Beeb, (340 pages in the 1987 Coronet edition). He interviewed over 100 providers of information (unnamed, to protect confidentiality). Seaton names some 300 interviewees (I am one of them). Oddly, both authors kick off with an anecdote about Patricia Hodgson, now chair of Ofcom, then a rising executive within the BBC.

Seaton recounts an encounter between Hodgson and Margaret Thatcher at a Bow Group dinner Hodgson had organised in 1976 for all living Conservative leaders: both women arrived wearing cream silk – “you said you’d be wearing blue!” protested the new Tory leader.  She sulked, ate nothing, but later sent Hodgson a typical Thatcher letter of apology for her bad behaviour.

Leapman recounts the day the BBC Board of Governors sacked Director-General Alasdair Milne. Hodgson – by then BBC Secretary – had approached Milne, amongst a group of colleagues waiting to join the Governors for lunch, saying “Alasdair, the chairman and vice-chairman want to see you”. Milne was struck by her using his first name in such a public forum: she always addressed him as DG. Within a few minutes, he realised that she already knew he was no longer DG.

Seaton understandably leaves the 1987 defenestration of Milne to the latter part of her book, but otherwise she has opted for themes rather than chronology: the Thatcher relationship, money, Northern Ireland, arts, drama, light entertainment, Ethiopia, monarchy, the Falklands war, Attenborough, women in the BBC and vetting.

This means a dozen essays of about 25-pages each, some more shapely than others. The story of how an 8-minute Michael Buerk news story from Ethiopia in 1984 led to a huge outpouring of public generosity, through the 1985 Live Aid concert organised by Bob Geldof and subsequent events like Comic Relief, and how an item on her consumer show That’s Life motivated Esther Rantzen to launch the ChildLine charity (now run by the NSPCC), is told with the skill one would expect of an author who passionately believes that, at its best, the BBC offers the nation so much more than just programme content. Yet even here she says “nobody had ever run a telethon before” – as if the telethons every year on ITV since 1980 had never happened.

A similar chapter about the creation of Life on Earth unfortunately tips over from history into hagiography (“by the seventh episode, more or less the entire nation sat down to watch it”). Excellent as that series was, and brilliant as David Attenborough’s contribution to television has been, its breakthrough status in Seaton’s eyes begs a number of questions. Was it really ahead of Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man in intellectual terms? Its supposedly innovative employment of a “full-time organiser” must have puzzled Liz Sutherland, who had sat at the heart of the Thames TV series The World at War seven years earlier, wrestling with the logistics of producing twice as many episodes as Life on Earth, involving archive politics in a dozen countries. The World at War cost much more than Life on Earth, yet did not require “the independent means provided by the licence fee” to finance it.

Part of Seaton’s problem is that she is almost completely uninterested in what was happening outside the BBC, such that whatever information she does provide on ITV, for instance, is of doubtful reliability. Indeed, one of the authors of the most recent volume of the history of ITV, Paul Bonner, is referred to as the “late historian of ITV” (he seemed pretty lively at the BBC launch party for the Pinkoes and Traitors): by contrast with her book, the ITV volumes are largely free of error and commendably objective.

Seaton believes she has something of a scoop (“perhaps the most remarkable fact”) in her chapter on the monarchy, in revealing that the BBC outside broadcast unit attending the rehearsal of the Charles and Di marriage never disclosed at the time that she had been in tears. This “omerta” she attributes to “an ethic of responsibility” at BBC OBs – “The BBC, having been given access to the rehearsal because they were utterly trusted, repaid it as a matter of honour”. It seems not to have occurred to Seaton that the ITV OB crew would also have attended the rehearsal. Indeed, the wedding day itself she describes as a “wonderfully crafted piece of state and BBC drama” (what were the 8 million viewers tuned in to ITV watching?).

But so one-eyed and peculiar is her judgement that “It’s a Royal Knockout" appears as a section heading in the monarchy chapter, whilst the programme itself, with its vast audience and horribly embarrassing impact on the royal family and the BBC alike, is not mentioned. 

At one point, Seaton contrasts Reith’s “honourable” invigilation of Edward VIII’s abdication speech (to ensure no deviation from an agreed script, thereby “protecting the constitution”, whatever the “constitution” may be) with Panorama’s Princess Diana interview, “which permitted her to challenge the monarchy without the usual rules of balance or questioning” (as if Martin Bashir was not actually there during the interview!). She concludes this dotty section with the even more bizarre statement that “the political nuances of the abdication would not be made widely public until a 1978 BBC Drama series on Edward and Mrs Simpson”.

Putting aside the startling assumption from a history professor that only a TV series, 38 years afterwards, could tell the public the truth about the abdication, she seems to have forgotten that Edward and Mrs Simpson was, of course, an ITV series (it won the best drama series BAFTA for Thames TV).

This is not the worst of Seaton’s misattributions. Death of a Princess is credited to Channel 4 (which did not even exist when it was transmitted) rather than ITV. G. F. Newman’s classic drama Law And Order is credited to Jim Allen. In a lengthy section revealing the subtle correspondence with David Cornwell (John Le Carre) that induced Alec Guinness to accept the part of Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, she twice mangles the names of the adaptor and director – Arthur Hopcraft becomes Hopcroft and John Irvin becomes Irving.

Elsewhere, Tom Bower becomes Bowyer, Sally Doganis becomes Jane, Tim Eggar becomes Tom, Austen Kark becomes Austin, Stewart Purvis becomes Stuart, as does Stewart Parker, Mark Damazer becomes Damazar (twice), Phillip Whitehead is reduced to Philip (twice), Grahame C Greene is abbreviated to Green, Ronnie Stonham is repeatedly expanded to Stoneham, David McKittrick becomes McKitterick, Bryce McCririck becomes McCrirrick, Pat Loughrey becomes Loughery, Deryck Cooke becomes Derek, as does Derrick Amoore, Christopher Andrew becomes Andrews, Sara Nathan becomes Sarah, Giles Oakley becomes Oakely, Mark Tully becomes Tulley, and even her close colleague at the University of Westminster, Steven Barnett, becomes Stephen. Daithi O’Conaill (the Irish version of the IRA leader’s English name of David O’Connell) becomes the hybrid Daithi O’Connell. Two of those whose names are mis-spelled are amongst the twelve people thanked for reading drafts of the book.

In the same vein, “Howards’ Way” becomes “Howard’s Way”, “Gardener’s Question Time” becomes “Gardeners’ Question Time”, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” becomes “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide”, “The Mousetrap” becomes “The Mouse Trap” and – inevitably – “The Thorn Birds” becomes “The Thornbirds”. The militant technicians’ union ACTT is dyslexically rendered ACCT, and Timothy Garton Ash becomes Garton-Ash.

We are told that studio-based drama won no awards after 1970, yet I, Claudius won four BAFTAs in 1977 and 1978 (Seaton claims 13 episodes for that series: there were 12). We are told that Alan Bleasdale did not work for the BBC for “several decades” after the fiasco of The Monocled Mutineer: two, in fact. And although that drama receives some attention, the Panorama Carrickmore episode is ignored, and Yesterday’s Men is mentioned only in passing, even though the first – untransmitted, but no less infuriating for Mrs Thatcher in its filming of an IRA road-block – had poisoned relations with the Tories, just as the second had with Labour. Serious students of the period need to consult Leapman.

Titles are another Seaton blind spot. Anna Home is described variously as “director of children’s programming” and “head of Children’s programming” when she was actually “Head of BBC Children’s Television Programmes”. Paul Fox, Director of Programmes and then Managing Director at Yorkshire TV, is loosely titled a “director”, as is John Tusa, Managing Director of the BBC World Service, three times. Humphrey Burton was Head of Music and Arts, not “television head of Arts” (and how Alan Yentob, “at his enabling best”, but actually a junior producer at the time, could have been responsible for bringing “Burton back into the BBC” is unexplained). Aubrey Singer was Head of Television Features (not Science) and Alasdair Milne Managing Director (not “head”, or elsewhere “controller”) of Television when they commissioned Life on Earth. And Harold Lever’s third wife was a Lebanese heiress, but not a princess.

Colin Shaw is credited with setting up the “Television Complaints Council”: by which Seaton presumably means the Broadcasting Standards Council. Sydney (not “Sidney”) Newman, a Canadian not an American, worked at ABC, not ATV, before joining the BBC. It was the Richard Dimbleby lecture, not the Reith Lectures, which E P Thompson was disinvited from delivering; and it was in 1981, not 1980. The IRA hunger strikes were also in 1981 (not 1982).

How much do these details matter? To the lay reader, very little in themselves; but they are indicators of a broader carelessness, and once we encounter substantial issues, Seaton’s inaccuracies demonstrate a degree of casualness – or perhaps even ignorance – which is quite disturbing.

Two major public inquiries into broadcasting – the last two ever undertaken – dominated the years at the beginning and end of her chosen period. These were chaired by Lord Annan (who reported in 1977) and Sir Alan Peacock (who reported in 1986). Seaton devotes a paragraph and a couple of asides to the first, and two pages to the second: both are almost comically misrepresented.

Annan took a vast weight of evidence – seventeen stone of it, he calculated – and much was highly critical of the BBC. In line with previous such reports (Beveridge and Pilkington), Annan took the view that services supplied by the BBC should be funded by those who received them: radio by a radio licence, TV by a TV licence, colour TV by a colour TV licence. However, the cost of collecting the radio licence had, by 1971, outrun the revenue generated: from then on, television would have to pay for all radio, which led Annan to oppose the BBC local radio project, as not all licence payers would be able to benefit.

The BBC was able to block that recommendation (thereby severely limiting the viability of local commercial radio), as well as the call from a large minority of the Annan Committee (six out of sixteen) for BBC radio and television to be split. So large a single power bloc, straddling two media, said the six, was contrary to the interests of pluralism; and also resulted in the BBC constantly being on the defensive. The job of Director-General, they said, “was an impossible one, paralyzed by the over-riding need for consistency, chief executive, editor-in-chief and resident theologian, pope and emperor in one, interpreting and executing one indivisible Corporation”.

The Committee as a whole was scathing about the “caution, lack of direction, touchiness and unsteadiness in the BBC’s current affairs output...the BBC today sees itself as beleaguered, pressurised, lobbied and compelled to lobby...the BBC seems to us to have shown some loss of nerve which is partly the cause and partly the result of the barrage of criticism...its sense of direction has weakened.”

Almost none of this is referred to in Seaton’s book. Instead, she claims that the new Conservative government, elected in 1979, implemented Annan’s recommendations for the fourth channel, as designed by Anthony Smith. It is certainly true that Smith’s idea for a National Television Foundation was adopted by Annan, lightly re-touched as the Open Broadcasting Authority. But before the election the Tories rejected the OBA as a wholly unrealistic project, in favour of an ITV2. Then, after the election, Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw (advised by his minister of state, Leon Brittan) shifted away from ITV2 towards the independent commissioning service with which we are now so familiar. This closely followed a structure actually submitted to Annan, but explicitly rejected by him. Perhaps in 30 years’ time, historians like Seaton will enthusiastically cheer the coalition’s adoption of a brave LibDem manifesto proposal to treble university fees.

In some ways, the treatment of Peacock is odder. Twice we are told that Peter Jay was an important member of the Peacock Committee, who needed careful lobbying by the BBC: actually, he was not a member at all (whether that was the BBC’s error, or just Seaton’s, is not immediately evident).

The impression is given that Peacock was decisively influenced by a paper commissioned by the BBC, demonstrating that replacing the licence fee with advertising would reduce overall advertising expenditure (so bankrupting ITV and Channel 4 whilst barely sustaining the BBC). In fact, Peacock and his fellow economist on the Committee, Samuel Brittan, needed little prompting to see the risks in switching the BBC to advertising: and papers from ITV and the advertising industry had already made the case. As Peacock told the official history of ITV (volume 5, published 17 years ago) the BBC paper was “interesting, but seemed to us not to be getting to the central issue” (so much for Seaton’s claim that it “convinced the Committee”). Puzzling through the Seaton version of broadcasting history is rather like trying to figure out the plot of Hamlet by reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

You will find barely half a page in Seaton dealing with the fact that the BBC had spent the first half of the 1980s nurturing a satellite broadcasting project to be funded by subscription; and no mention that BBC chairman Stuart Young had called for the licence fee to be charged on a per set basis (only really achievable by a switch to subscription), or that the BBC’s official evidence to Peacock had described subscription as the most attractive way of funding the BBC, once technology allowed its adoption.

After the brief and inaccurate account of the failed BBC satellite venture (try Leapman’s 30 pages on the subject), Seaton ventures the foolish throwaway remark that “Sky had legislation written later to help it launch its service” (a misapprehension she shares with many a media academic – and in the same vein, irrelevantly, she claims the ending of the Fairness Doctrine in US broadcasting in 1987 “wrecked the mighty machines of American news, CBS, NBC, and responsible broadcast news across the USA”, which will come as something of a surprise for CBS and NBC, not to mention ABC and CNN).

Far from consigning subscription to the “long-term”, as Seaton says, Peacock called for all television sets manufactured from 1988 onwards to include a socket that would enable them to accommodate a plug-in device, so that multi-channel offerings and subscription funding could be deployed as soon as they became available.

That the BBC has managed to evade that prospect – and, indeed, sabotage it – is an (untold) story in itself. As for Seaton’s lauding of index-linking of the licence fee (Peacock’s medium-term solution to the problem of constant politicisation of financial negotiations), the BBC sharply and repeatedly criticized the idea for failing to take account of “industry inflation”.

Peacock’s major recommendations – auctioning of ITV franchises, allowing Channel 4 to sell its own airtime, and giving substantial access to independent producers across the industry – are all ignored, even though the last in particular was to have substantial implications for the BBC, right up to the present day, as Tony Hall wrestles with the conundrum of how to spin off but still retain the BBC’s production division, so as to allow it at last to maximize its programme-making potential.

A supposed strength of Seaton’s book – access to BBC and official files – turns out to be something of a weakness. Footnotes are often bland reference numbers, with no sense of context. Contradictory remarks in passing about the World Service offer no footnotes at all. Apparently, the Treasury thought of cutting the grant-in-aid to the World Service in 1974 “so that the BBC does not have a surplus to play with” – yet three pages earlier Seaton tells us that the licence fee was subsidizing the World Service. “Foreign news costs quadrupled in six months” – an astonishing claim – but which six months, in which year? 

We are told of “an absurd Labour plan (from young female Turks at the centre of government) to reduce the World Service to an anti-communist propaganda rump” – but with no footnote, no date and no reference. Yet the 1978 Labour plan to create three BBC management boards, with half the members appointed by the Home Office (which would have seriously compromised BBC independence and was only thwarted by the election of Thatcher) goes unmentioned. Apparently, “the evidence shows that Labour considered an extraordinary intervention in the ownership of commercial TV to make it more compliant”: but again we are offered no reference, no date, and no specifics.

The only Labour attempt at interference in ITV that Seaton identifies is hard to take seriously (though she insisted to me that a civil service minute supports her claim). Apparently, Roy Mason, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, having threatened the BBC Governors with permanent freezing of the licence fee unless it reported the Ulster crisis as he would want it to, belatedly decided to put pressure on Thames TV, whose reporting on that crisis had been throughout the five years of Mason’s incumbency consistently more incisive than the BBC’s. His chosen medium, says Seaton, was the newly appointed chairman of Thames, Lord Barnetson. As it happens, his chairmanship at Thames and Mason’s role in Northern Ireland barely overlapped in time.

It is true that Barnetson had also served on the board of BET, parent of the minority shareholder in Thames, Rediffusion; and it was reportedly a shareholder in Rediffusion, “unhappy about Thames TV’s current exploits in Northern Ireland”, who offered to use his influence. However, as Rediffusion had no say in Thames programming (the majority shareholder Thorn-EMI controlled the company), this was a fairly daft route to adopt.

I was responsible (with reporter Peter Taylor) for most of Thames’ coverage of Northern Ireland through the 1970s, and we certainly encountered plenty of pressure from our regulator, the IBA (two programmes failed to make it to air as a result). But I never heard a word of complaint from the board, and never met or spoke to Barnetson. I suggested to Seaton that this might be an example of a civil servant mischievously writing a minute for the future embarrassment of his boss: absolutely not, she insisted – indeed, she continued, Peter Taylor was fired in 1980. In actual fact, he wasn’t fired at all: he was recruited by Panorama – arguably the most important transfer of journalistic talent from ITV to the BBC in the last 25 years.

At one point, Seaton claims that workers at Thames TV “would ask for steak at lunch, and when asked how they wanted it would answer ‘raw’ and take it home for supper”: no footnote, no reference, and for someone like me who worked at Thames for twenty years, frankly nonsense.

Seaton’s inability to stand back from what her informants tell her allows her to take seriously Sir Denis Forman’s remark that, within ITV, “Thames was the big security worry”. In fact, Thames – unlike Forman’s Granada – never employed Trots or former Trots in its current affairs programmes: the proudly radical World In Action team would have been most disappointed to hear such a comment from their boss.

As for the BBC’s coverage of Northern Ireland in the 1970s (as in the 1960s), Seaton adopts a curious formulation for its inadequacies: “the Corporation’s apparent (sic) one-sidedness came from its constitutional (sic) obligation not to question the political settlement in the North”. It is probably coincidental that the BBC was first established in the year that the UK was created (“the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, marking the exit of Ireland south of the border). But the notion that the BBC was somehow obliged to abandon its duty to truthful reporting of the Ulster conflict as a result begs many questions. Another formulation in the same vein is the statement that “at the start, the BBC was unthinkingly on the side of order (sic) in Northern Ireland”.

Seaton refers to “the BBC’s persistent reporting of official use of force in interrogations”, which, though “much disputed by government, was later shown to be accurate”, citing a document dated 1976. To the best of my knowledge, the most significant such BBC “reporting” came when “Nationwide” in London ran lengthy extracts from the This Week account of these interrogations, timed to coincide with publication of a 1978 Amnesty International report on the issue. The footage had surreptitiously been handed over by Thames journalists after the IBA had blocked transmission of This Week the previous evening.

Bewilderingly, Seaton refers to a “programme” mounted in London, after the 1974 election had scuppered power-sharing in Northern Ireland, in which “Jonathan Dimbleby launched an attack on the way the Corporation had ignored the history of Northern Ireland. In response, Robert Kee’s great series, The History of Ireland, was commissioned”. Kee’s series was not actually commissioned till five years later; but in 1974 itself, This Week (the programme for which Dimbleby worked) mounted a 90-minute network programme entitled Five Long Years, which traced the roots and the course of the conflict up to that point. It was thereafter regularly used as a training film for soldiers posted to Ulster. Seaton seems oblivious to this.

Seaton’s most revelatory material is reserved till near the end of the book, and actually deals with the extraordinary early days of the BBC and its involvement in staff vetting by the security services. It transpires that the Controller of Programmes Reith appointed in 1933, Colonel Alan Dawnay, had half his salary paid by the War Office, and spent his time vetting every single officer in the BBC. Later, the proportion dropped to about 40% of entrants, with a run rate of some 1,400 a year (I assume I was amongst them).

Seaton reveals that this vetting was substantially at the BBC’s request, starting with anxiety over the security issues connected with transmitters, and later related to possible Communist infiltration. Few people were actually rejected, but many were refused staff employment or promotions, and personnel files with designations rather resembling Christmas trees abounded, until the practice was abandoned in 1984 (the irony attracts no comment).  

The absence of references frustrates any attempt to verify the improbable story of how Phillip Whitehead, whilst a Labour backbencher, not only “insisted that the chairman of Channel 4 had to be a Privy Councillor, in order to deal with security”, but secured this demand (how and why?) in the appointment of Edmund Dell, who duly became the nemesis of Phillip’s close friend, Jeremy Isaacs, the channel’s first chief executive.

Even a bibliography is missing. In the notes we are told that one can be found at bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc, but that website has no trace of the book, the author or the promised bibliography.

Amusingly, Seaton at one point dismisses R. H. Coase as “a great economist but a very bad historian” for assuming that the BBC saw off the threat of commercial cable stations in the 1930s because it insisted on its monopoly status (which indeed it did, for many decades), rather than because it suited Whitehall concerns about security.

Jean Seaton is a popular figure in academia and on public platforms, serving as a persuasive non-BBC voice supporting public service broadcasting, the BBC and the licence fee. Threaded through her book are regular invocations of how the BBC’s many connections with “the nation” of her title enable it to rise above the status of a mere broadcaster. 

Her prose is richly different – BBC executives “libate” Mrs Thatcher, a generation of smart women go “thundering” through the BBC of this period. Her references to her late husband, Ben Pimlott, and her children (with their “vaunting lives” and “large, decent, thrilling stories”) are typically heart on sleeve.

Yet surely what we need from a professor of media history is a degree of accuracy, respect for the facts, ability to check detail, detachment and sound judgement, all of which Pinkoes and Traitors so lamentably lacks. Let us hope her successor as BBC historian serves us better.

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