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What would a world without the BBC look like?

The author of the recent BBC history Pinkoes and Traitors responds to her critics, arguing for the book’s contemporary relevance. 

When the BBC sacked Jeremy Clarkson, a dedicated social worker I know in south London found it a useful topical example to explain to her young offenders how workplaces had different rules. At the same time the director general got death threats. The BBC winds itself into our national consciousness in very odd ways. 

Arguing about how the BBC is paid for is a permanent fixture in British public life. But how it is held accountable and to whom, how politicians exercise power, and the apparently abstract structures of rules and habits and boards and relationships, does not bother the British public much. Like the rain, Auntie, it seems, is always there. That the BBC has commercial opponents who have a direct interest in it being smaller may not occur to the public either. And the BBC’s competition has grown immeasurably in the world of Facebook, Google, Amazon – mighty media monopolies which users think of as utilities that provide the conveniences they need, without perhaps understanding their potential stranglehold on differing opinions.

The wonderful thing about David Elstein’s ferocious review of Pinkoes and Traitors is that his agenda, pursued single-mindedly for over 30 years, is so transparent. He wants the BBC to be smaller or broken up or reorganised. He is in favour of anything that damages the BBC and crushes its universality. Above all he wants it financed by individual subscription for specific services. This would be the end of the BBC. His urge to say ITV was always better, first, superior, pristine in the past, is in his hands another aspect of the same argument.

ITV has certainly been a tremendous force, often knocking the BBC out of the water. And Elstein was part of that success. A distinguished and daring programme-maker, he started at the BBC, but worked for most of his career in commercial television, rising to become a top executive. Yet his account of the record of ITV is also self-serving. All broadcasters in that period were part of a public service ecology, competing to make programmes as well as attract audiences. Elstein never mentions this shared framework of public service values, because he is not in favour of it.

But while Elstein has an agenda he does not have a vision. He does not tell us what a world without the BBC would look like. There is one glimpse of it in his denial of my claim that Reagan’s abolition of the Fairness Doctrine ‘wrecked’ US networks. But they are a shadow of their former selves, smaller and dumber at home and abroad. Even on stories in the US, the BBC frequently fields larger reporting teams than they do. The best illustration of this is to compare the two news networks owned by Murdoch companies. Sky News is a trusted and valued part of a British system that demands fairness and impartiality in news; but its US counterpart Fox News is full of ignorant and rather dangerous distortions, as it pursues its deeply biased worldview.  

Elstein has a particular blind spot on Rupert Murdoch. He accuses me of sharing a 'misapprehension' with many other media academics that ‘Sky had legislation written later to help it launch its service’. Murdoch took a major gamble at the start in investing in satellite broadcasting in the UK – but there is no doubt that the law subsequently helped him. Perhaps on this occasion ‘many other media academics’, and respected industry analysts, are right. Murdoch’s influence at the centre was exposed in the revelation made in Pinkoes and Traitors that he was consulted by Mrs Thatcher before she appointed a new Chairman of the Governors for the BBC – and that everybody at the time who knew about it just accepted it. Elstein does not mention this. 

The contempt in his review begins early, comparing how long my work took with that of Lord Briggs. Briggs’s last volume took 11 years from commission to completion; mine took not much more. I had some compelling personal and professional reasons for delay. But when the BBC asked me to write the book it was less clear how I was to do it. In the end I put together a new model supporting the research through research council funding. Applying for this funding took considerable time. And the funding produced another kind of team from Briggs’, as each member had to develop their own academic careers, not just write a draft of history for my use (the Briggs model). The research projects associated with my book produced three PhDs, two books, numerous articles in journals and scholarly books and four full-time academic post holders – all of whom continue to carry out research on the BBC. This is clearly the new model of work on broadcasting. 

Elstein does point to a number of inaccuracies in my book; they are my responsibility, and deeply regretted. A programme made by ITV was wrongly attributed to the BBC, another ITV programme to Channel 4, and there are too many spelling mistakes of names.  Independently, I owe Stewart Purvis an apology. Just after Lady Diana’s engagement, tabloid papers were blazoned with pictures of her in a low-cut dress which they said exposed a nipple. ITN, edited by him, ran a story showing that it was the shadow of her bouquet falling on her chest – not a nipple. In the last edit of the book I garbled the story and the key word ‘not’ was cut. I welcome the opportunity to correct these errors, and others, in a revised edition of the book this autumn. 

The errors arose in the context of a complex history, in a process involving interviewing 300 people, using BBC oral histories, natural history film archives, conducting ‘witness seminars’ and searching archives well beyond the immediate period, in a large organisation that employed more people directly in 1987 than it does now – covering many thousands of hours of broadcasting. And I attempted to match the BBC’s view against that of politicians and civil servants by analysing government papers. 

Of course I leave things out. But Elstein’s differences with the book are a product of his agenda. He ignores the criticisms of the BBC that the book contains – but then it is interested in understanding how bad (and good) decisions are made in difficult times. As many of the players are still alive, and I am an outsider, it is hard not to infuriate some of them. Each chapter could easily have become a book in itself. The book is of course selective in being a history of what mattered, rather than a plodding trudge through the years. And I have ranged well beyond my period on occasions - for example telling the story of MI5’s relationship to the BBC - and the controversial issue of security vetting for the first time, and why the BBC wanted more vetting, not less. I also show how badly people like Isabel Hilton were treated after an improper ‘failed’ vetting resulted in them being excluded from jobs (Hilton never received an apology from anyone at the BBC until this year, at a party). 

Security concerns extended to commercial television, as I demonstrate with the revelation that a member of the Annan Committee, Phillip Whitehead, recommended that the new Chair of Channel 4 should be a privy councillor in order to be able to deal with security. I do not say, as Elstein alleges, that Whitehead then ‘secured this demand in the appointment of Edmund Dell’. Security also played a role in the state’s relationship with ITV over Northern Ireland, as I show below.

The book attempts to explain the sinews and guts of broadcasting to people beyond a narrow circle of ex-broadcasters, old warhorses still battling over yesterday’s slights and grudges. It explores the forging of programmes out of money, competition, rows, intelligence, politics and structures in a period that could be especially bitter. I try and show why these battles matter. The book is fair to the larger picture and scrupulously attempts to see how power is exercised. It does show both sides of political negotiation. Quite often it shows that politicians and broadcasters are both trying quite hard to get a grip on difficult problems, where compromise appears impossible. The book makes clear why you only get content you like or loathe out of something larger than any one programme, and why understanding that can be fascinating.

Elstein accuses me of being ‘biased’ in favour of the BBC. I never disguise my belief that the BBC is a vital national institution, and the most valuable tool abroad in the British soft power locker. As a consequence of my ‘bias’ he says that I fail to notice the world ‘outside’ the BBC. But he never acknowledges his bias against the BBC. His definition of ‘outside’ is not the world of politics, the unions, the economy, customs, international affairs, what was happening to children, Northern Ireland or the Falklands, Ethiopia or Poland, let alone the thinking of civil servants and politicians and prime ministers, who often came into conflict with broadcasters in a period when most broadcasters felt pressured. Elstein’s definition of ‘outside’ is ITV.

By contrast I try and put broadcasting in the context of national politics, everyday lives, celebrations, international affairs, and global events - famines, wars, revolutions. 

He wrongly accuses me of ignoring ITV’s coverage of the wedding of Charles and Diana, when I report BBC soul-searching at how ITV ate into the BBC audience on the big day. This was my account of the debate from BBC papers: 

But the event had been treated as if it were a feature programme when in reality the faster, less reverential approach of News would have been better – ITV’s version had been ‘livelier’. Some BBC insiders thought that Alastair Burnet’s ‘capable and intelligent commentary’ on ITV had been sharper and more newsy than the BBC’s. Unease was expressed at the way in which ‘ITN was moving in on important public events’, and using them to win the new-technology arms race against the Corporation.

 

Elstein even claims that there were no Trots in ITV. This is risible. There were Trots everywhere in broadcasting then, and some of them grew up into distinguished broadcasters. I show that the government considered applying commercial pressure on ITV over its reporting of Northern Ireland. This seemed interesting. Elstein contests it, but it is in the archives. He may not have known about the pressure that he could not see. Incidentally he then accuses me of saying that Peter Taylor was sacked. This is not in the book. Like several accusations in Elstein’s review, this was his version of a private conversation. 

In attacking my account of the reporting on Northern Ireland, Elstein once again emphasises ITV material, in this case about torture – citing the time in 1978 when the Thames TV programme This Week was banned from using footage uncovering torture, and promptly handed it over to the BBC to show it instead. He challenges my account of ‘the BBC’s persistent reporting of official use of force in interrogations’ before this time. But for example, in 1977 Chris Capron’s BBC Tonight carried an interview with Bernard O’ Conner who claimed to have been roughed up over seven days of interrogation by the RUC. It was a complex case, and the DG ordered a ‘balancing’ programme on the casualties suffered by the RUC. Sam Silkin, the Labour Attorney General, was aghast at the programme’s evidence – he had genuinely believed that he had stopped the roughing up of suspects, and felt that the RUC had made a fool of him; he virtually dictated the case O’Conner might make against the RUC.

Elstein complains that I do not mention Carrickmore, where BBC journalists allegedly filmed an IRA roadblock. This is not a mistake, although it is perhaps an omission, given the impact that even an unbroadcast event had on relations between the BBC and government. But even today, it is hard to get to the truth of what happened, although it has been written about extensively. The archives on Carrickmore are venomous, and many of those involved will still not talk about it. 

Elstein is also oblivious to the particular constraints on the BBC in Northern Ireland at the time. Northern Ireland was different from the rest of the United Kingdom, and this affected its journalism. When I describe this, he accuses me of ‘a curious formulation for its inadequacies’. As Rex Cathcart’s book The Most Contrary Region, the BBC in Northern Ireland 1924–1984 shows, the BBC in Northern Ireland had a different relationship to the state from the start, and even to this day the BBC in Belfast necessarily has exemptions from some local constitutional requirements. 

He accuses me of making inaccurate claims for the unprecedented scale of Life on Earth, since it followed ITV’s mammoth World at War. Outstanding though that was, its innovative use of archive footage was very different to Life on Earth. I precisely explain that Kenneth Clark’s great series Civilisation was the precedent, but organising the filming and collection of data about animals for Life on Earth was a different task from sending film crews to get great pictures of museums. Things in museums sat still. Indeed, Natural History filming was closer to actual scientific work. It was not just Attenborough’s achievement; the chapter shows how dependent the programmes were on a team, on a regional bit of the BBC, on technological developments, and on scientific understanding. That is to say I deconstruct what is needed to make an Attenborough programme, and how an Attenborough gets made.

The book does repeatedly say how good ITV was, providing a battle for audiences and ideas in several ways, from the early superiority of the commercial Belfast station over its regional BBC opposition, to ITN as a great news machine competing head-to-head with the BBC and often winning. There was also the fear inspired by Granada in BBC drama; and throughout there was fierce competition for popular programmes, where ITV felt naturally at ease. I write that the lowest point in a dismal period for the BBC was ITV fielding a ‘public service’ quality drama – The Jewel in the Crown – against the BBC’s less defensible Thorn Birds (although the latter had more viewers). This competition was often ruthless, so the book also looks at the way in which ITV and the BBC related very differently to the trades unions in a period of agitation: being flush with money, ITV had a different attitude towards manning disputes, often buying them off. It is, however, a book about the BBC.

Elstein complains Yesterday’s Men is mentioned only in passing. This is rubbish. It is mentioned with the political weight needed. It was before my volume starts. And, as it happens, I wrote the key academic article on Yesterday’s Men that became part of the process that got it disinterred from its BBC vault for another airing, after it had been buried following the controversy when it was first shown. I am at a loss to see Elstein’s problem with my account of the BBC’s failed satellite venture in the 1980s. I say the venture was misconceived, and there was no plan for how it would be financed or programmed. I would add that it ended in a nasty legal case, the papers for which have mysteriously gone missing. For the first time I also reveal an Afghan connection in this. He says I ignore Stuart Young’s desire to fund the BBC by subscription, but, while it is true that the new Chairman arrived in 1983 with this and other non-licence fee schemes in his briefcase, he quickly changed his mind.

Elstein’s principal criticism is over the treatment in the book of two broadcasting inquiries, by Annan and Peacock, at the beginning and end of the period I cover. I made a factual error about the make-up of the Peacock Committee, which I regret. But his remaining comments about these inquiries are a matter of disputed interpretation. Again, Elstein’s argument is driven by his agenda of proposing subscription or advertising to fund all or part of the BBC. He accused me of ignoring the ‘seventeen stone of evidence’ considered by Annan before he concluded his report. I do not ignore the report, but give proper weight to its impact, not to the material that had no effect. 

There have been 11 public inquiries into broadcasting in Britain since 1923, and, like many public inquiries, Annan’s generated more heat than light, and much of its work made no difference. But it did result in the emergence of Channel 4, to which I give due weight. Labour did not act on the recommendation for a new channel when the report came out in 1977: in the chaotic and doom-laden atmosphere of the late 1970s, this is not surprising. And they were heeding Annan’s get-out clause that ‘the channel should not be allocated until the nation’s economy would permit the kind of service envisaged.’ 

But, as I make clear in the book, when the Tories came in, Whitelaw did act, fulfilling a long ambition by the visionary broadcaster Tony Smith (and others) to create Channel 4. I have no idea what Elstein is talking about when he claims that the new channel ‘closely followed a structure actually submitted to Annan, but explicitly rejected by him’. Annan’s recommendations (command paper 6753) were for an Open Broadcasting Authority, and included the following:

- The new channel should not be allowed to develop into another competitive channel or one that was predominantly ITV2.

- The channel should encourage programmes which say something new in new ways. It should include educational programmes…; programmes made by individual ITV companies including ITN; and programmes from a variety of independent producers.

- The authority should, unlike the BBC and IBA, operate more as a publisher of programme material provided by others than as a broadcasting authority.

All of these features are identifiable in the channel that emerged, and were recommended by Annan, not ‘explicitly rejected by him’. Later the relationship to advertising funding changed.

It is in Elstein’s treatment of Peacock where his bias against the BBC is most transparent. You can still hear the anger he must have felt in 1986, when the report came out and recommended against advertising on the BBC. He derides my contention that the BBC had ‘convinced the Committee’, citing an interview by Peacock, in which he said that a paper prepared by two economists as part of the BBC’s evidence was ‘interesting, but seemed to us not to be getting to the central issue’. If you read this interview in context (p. 347 of Paul Bonner’s official history of ITV), it is clear that this was all about process, not content: Peacock preferred the presentation style of ITV, ‘They were onto this much more quickly than the BBC.’ And I write at length about how concerned the BBC were that they had not convinced the committee, as in the following:

The Peacock Committee found Milne offhand, unconvincing and arrogant when he appeared before them. He was resistant to practising in advance, stumbled in the rehearsal, and when asked how much of the BBC’s output could be described as public service broadcasting gave what may have appeared to him the satisfyingly succinct answer: ‘All of it’. It was probably the worst answer he could have given. His colleagues were in despair. The first on a list of 27 questions the Committee wished the BBC to consider was an equally terse invitation for him to expand on this.

But as in Annan, the important detail is in the report itself and its effect, which was to see off the threat to the licence fee for many years. The economic arguments were what mattered to economists, not how quick people were in committee hearings. 

I am not an uncritical devotee of the licence fee and status quo for the BBC: on the contrary my book shows how disastrous it is when the BBC fails to think strategically about change. The period after the May 2015 election will be one of the most contested in the Corporation’s history as it negotiates a new way of funding and the renewal of the Royal Charter that gives it life, amid fluidity in its regulatory structures and an unpredictable digital environment. It is vital that there is proper open and informed debate on all this, and not a repeat of the mid-week mugging by the then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who forced the last licence fee settlement on the BBC. But in navigating these stormy waters, a proper understanding of the BBC’s relationship with power is essential, which is why history matters – and, why for all its flaws, Pinkoes and Traitors has a contemporary and significant relevance.

About the author

Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster in London. She is co-author (with James Curran) of the classic text Power Without Responsibility, (now in its fifth edition), and has recently been appointed as the official historian of the BBC in the 1980s.


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