Goodbye to SOGAT

John Crawley

  • Broadcasting in a Free Society by Lord Windlesham
    Blackwell, 172 pp, £7.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 631 11371 1
  • Goodbye Gutenberg by Anthony Smith
    Oxford, 367 pp, £8.50, August 1980, ISBN 0 19 215953 4

Broadcasting began as entertainment and only later took education and information into its scope. But by 1925 the General Strike brought the BBC up against the Government, or rather against Winston Churchill, since Baldwin did not support him in his attempt to take over the Company (which is what it then was) as an extension of the British Gazette, the sole medium of communication between the Government and the people. The independence that Reith won on that occasion has remained, but broadcasting in the United Kingdom has had to work hard to keep the Government at arm’s length ever since. The spectacular clashes came into public view only occasionally – at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956, and of the Question of Ulster and Yesterday’s Men programmes in the 1970s. But the process was continuous, and Chairmen, Directors-General, editors and producers were always conscious of it. Despite the greatly different system in the UnitedStates, the pressures and battles occurred there too, only occasionally surfacing as in 1969 when Vice-President Agnew, acting as catspaw for President Nixon, attacked the television networks in a series of speeches (televised!) for failing to give his master fair coverage on Vietnam. The American networks proved vulnerable to political pressure, but in any case the pass was sold when politicians realised that they could buy time on television, thus creating a situation in which anybody could run for President so long as he was a millionaire.

The American experience goes some way towards reconciling one to the system of Party Political Broadcasts, Ministerial Broadcasts, and stopwatch news during general election campaigns, by which the politicians are contained. The system works fairly well now, but it is worth reminding ourselves that until ITV came on the scene the BBC had imposed on itself the rule of non-political news bulletins during general election campaigns (and of course no political current-affairs programmes either), and the pusillanimous 14-Day Rule which forbade broadcast discussion of forthcoming legislation for a fortnight before Parliamentary debate on the subject. One has only to talk to foreign broadcasters – and not only those from the Communist world – to realise that the politicians are in control in the vast majority of countries, and that to most of the world our freedom is surprising.

Even the keenest devotee of freedom must sometimes feel sympathy with a government embarrassed in its foreign relations by a controversial programme. Think of poor Lord Carrington mending fences with Saudi Arabia after Death of a Princess. The programme undoubtedly caused offence, yet it was worth making, and with all its faults it did something to broaden our understanding of Saudi Arabian ways. Diplomats understand that the Government does not control our programmes, but the opinion-formers in foreign countries simply will not believe it. Lord Carrington could not even forbid a repeat: the most he could do was to ask the IBA not to make life more difficult for him by showing it again. The freedom must remain, and it must include freedom to make mistakes, but we have to accept the fact that it can lead to disproportionate reprisals from foreign governments. In the 1950s, the BBC showed journalists a preview of an interview in which Lord Attlee, in free-speaking retirement, ruminatively dismissed ‘Master Jinnah’, as he called him, as a man who had not even been very serious about his religion, and the news was of course splashed in the Pakistan newspapers the day before the interview was due to be shown. The outrage felt in Pakistan was extreme, and the British government did its best to get the BBC to cut the film. It failed, but the fuss led to a total ban on previews of controversial programmes so that trouble would at least be delayed until the screening.

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