Whatever colour the Government, it and the BBC have always been uneasy bedfellows. As Chancellor of the Exchequer during the 1926 General Strike, Winston Churchill wanted to take the BBC over and turn it into a propaganda mouthpiece for the Government; Stanley Baldwin’s Tory administration had already attempted to prevent the BBC practising impartiality by broadcasting the viewpoints of all sides during the crisis, and when Opposition leader Ramsay MacDonald was denied the opportunity to speak on the airwaves, the Beeb found itself for the first time (though not the last) accused of bias towards both Labour and the Conservatives. However, the wheels were already in motion to turn the company into a corporation, bringing it into public ownership and, in theory at least, making it more independent from Government control. The year after the General Strike, the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation.
That Churchill had looked upon it with such envious eyes in 1926 highlighted how a service that had only been in operation for four years at that point had rapidly established itself as a powerful force in British life, one that the indomitable John (later Lord) Reith, first Director General, famously declared existed to inform, educate and entertain. Reith’s refusal to surrender the organisation’s independence and kowtow to Churchill resulted in a lifelong enmity between the two large personalities whilst also making the BBC walk a delicate tightrope, determined not to have policy dictated by Government yet dependent on whoever happened to be Home Secretary to issue its broadcasting licence under the terms of its Royal Charter’s ten-year renewal process.
The BBC Board of Governors emphasised the unique nature of the relationship between the nation’s Government and the nation’s public service broadcaster, with board members nominally chosen by the Sovereign on the ‘advice’ of Government Ministers; the Governors were also accountable to Parliament. Whilst striving to be free from political interference in its programming, the BBC nevertheless sometimes found itself bowing to political pressure. ‘The War Game’, a ground-breaking 1965 drama-documentary depicting the possible effects of an unnervingly realistic nuclear attack on Britain, was infamously pulled from transmission following an intense debate between the BBC and Harold Wilson’s Government; at a time when the likes of Mary Whitehouse was attracting media attention over her criticisms of BBC television’s risk-taking, the Beeb bottled it. Peter Watkins, director of ‘The War Game’, quit the country in disgust, never making another film in Britain again.
Five years later, the BBC found itself in hot water when ‘Yesterday’s Men’, a documentary profiling the impact on Government Ministers following a General Election defeat (in this case Harold Wilson’s administration) provoked a huge row between the deposed PM and the programme makers; the documentary was perceived as a character assassination of Wilson, and the Labour leader was so incensed by the questions put to him by David Dimbleby during its filming that he made a personal approach to the-then Head of the BBC Governors, Lord Hill (a man he had appointed) to view the programme before transmission, effectively pressurising the board to exercise editorial control at the behest of politicians. Neither emerged from the wreckage with much credit, and the debacle was to be echoed down the years in subsequent heated clashes with both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
The incestuous relationship between Government and Rupert Murdoch has accelerated from the Blair era onwards, and Murdoch’s anti-BBC stance, in tandem with the similar vitriolic antipathy of the likes of the Daily Mail, has often brought threats to clip the BBC’s wings on the part of Ministers into question on grounds of conflicting interests. The replacement of the Board of Governors with the BBC Trust in 2007 was an attempt to put the Beeb’s house in order following the unedifying fall-out from the Hutton Inquiry, though this body itself fared no better in its relations with Government and it has been announced the Trust will be replaced by Governors again, while OfCom will become the Corporation’s external regulator.
The build-up to the latest charter renewal has been accompanied by all kinds of rumours and threats emanating from current Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, yet it would appear these have been softened via an intervention from the Prime Minister, perhaps mindful of the ongoing unpopular battle with Junior Doctors as well as the struggling fortunes of the Remain campaign in the EU Referendum; any unnecessarily brutal assault on the BBC could be received badly by the public, and Mr Cameron needs the public on his side at the moment. The news that the BBC will be given free rein to appoint its own new Governors and not have them selected by Ministers is an unexpected development few saw coming when so much doom and gloom was being forecasted. For once, it would seem timing has favoured the BBC in its perennial squaring-up to Westminster and Whitehall, though history has taught us not to take any cessation of hostilities for granted.
© The Editor