Did Thatcher and Campbell make editors scared of whoever was in power?
After refraining from entering the “biased BBC” debate I’ve decided to write two pieces covering the two elements which I think are behind the concerns. One is that I believe that the BBC is scared of government – whoever is in power and secondly there is my old cliche – the media narrative.
I should explain that from 1971 to 1984 I was a journalist with the BBC – firstly as an editor in the national radio newsroom and then as head of a unit whose job was to make the political and public case for the TV licence fee.
The single event that undermined the corporation’s editorial independence most was the Falklands war in May/June 1982. An edition of Newsnight, I recall used the phrase “..Argentinians CLAIM this and the British CLAIM that..” when trying to explain what was going on – something that was quite reasonable given that at times of conflict the default assumption must be that all sides are not telling the truth.
Alas that was not how it seemed at Downing Street or amongst the bellicose sections parts of the Tory party. The Director-General and others were summoned to appear before a commons committee and were given a roasting. The job of the BBC, it was made clear, was to support the war effort. I remember on that day a colleague, who had been part of the BBC delegation, telling me that nothing would be same for the corporation ever again. He was right.
Fast forward to the Blair years and the way that Alistair Campbell operated as the government’s top spinner. This was information management based on menace and bullying as evidenced in the correspondence between in 2003 between him and the then Director-General, Greg Dyke at the time of the Iraq invasion. This makes chilling reading and sadly this was to lead to Dyke’s departure.
No doubt that if and when the Tories come back to power then they will treat the BBC in the same way.