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Arguing with Auntie

 

MT had long had a strained relationship with the BBC - a.k.a. 'Auntie' or 'the Beeb' - and it is no surprise to find that hostilities broke out early when she became Prime Minister. But as the files are released we are learning some extraordinary details about her collision with this centrepiece of the British establishment, and the BBC's response to her.

first big tv interview as pm: waiting for walden

Performing for the press: 18 Apr 1979

Within days of the General Election on 3 May 1979 the Conservative Party's chief media adviser, Gordon Reece, was urging MT to schedule her first major interview for British television as Prime Minister. Remarkably this event did not take place until January 1980, more than eight months later. And yet this was an age in which politics was dominated by television, perhaps to a degree even greater than now. The PM's absence from British screens - at least in arm-chair interview mode - needs explaining. It almost certainly came at some political cost.

It has been suggested that there was a conscious effort on the part of MT's advisers to achieve a kind of "scarcity value" for the new PM in the aftermath of the massive exposure she had been subject to during the General Election. But while over-exposure would certainly have been something they sought to avoid, the files show that this is not the full story. A large part of the answer is that MT was determined not to give her first big interview to the BBC, such was her suspicion of the institution. But there was a problem with the only alternative outlet: a strike of ITV technicians forced independent television off air for no less than 75 days (10 Aug - 24 Oct). So her absence from the screen was partly, though not wholly, self-imposed.

Not merely was ITV the chosen outlet, things were complicated further by the fact that MT seems to have made a commitment to give her first interview to a particular ITV presenter, Brian Walden of Weekend World, a Sunday lunchtime interview programme that he first hosted in September 1977, with her as his debut interviewee. The programme was naturally eager to get her, its editor writing a bidding letter the day she became PM asking for a full scale interview only two days later. Unsurprisingly such an early date was rebuffed, but a deal for an autumn slot, possibly 7 October (just before the Conservative Party Conference), seems to have been struck by MT's Press Secretary in a phone call on 17 August. The strike put paid to that date, and several later dates slipped for reasons that are obscure.

Brian Walden was a former Labour MP who had become one of the most effective political interviewers on British television, using his hour long slot to grill leading figures in a very distinctive, quasi-forensic style. It was to Walden that she gave the crucial interview in January 1979 which toughened her line on the trade unions during the Winter of Discontent. And she will not have forgotten his secret approach to her in late September or early October 1976 to discuss the possibility that he and a dozen or so like-minded Labour colleagues might back a Conservative confidence motion, an event revealed in Lord Hailsham's coded diary (available on this site). If that had happened it would have brought down the Callaghan government and forced an early General Election.

At the end of August, three weeks into the ITV strike, Gordon Reece sent a fascinating note to Richard Ryder, passed on to MT. Its contents suggest just how difficult the interview issue had become. He began by appraising, in strictly televisual terms, her visit two days earlier to Northern Ireland following the murder of Mountbatten and the death of 18 soliders in a bomb blast at Warrenpoint, a perspective that may well have raised Prime Ministerial hackles, or eyebrows at least: "I cannot imagine a better day for any Prime Minister in my memory than last Tuesday". She had gone to the people, rather than had them brought to her, spoken naturally and easily on walkabout. "So we are not looking for television coverage in the normal sense of the word", he went on, shifting a little awkwardly to the point at issue, the big TV interview. "This would seem to be the time to do one. It obviates any criticism that she is reluctant to face interlocutors and would keep her in practice - which is an important factor". The BBC had invited her to appear on Panorama the day after the October slot pencilled in for Walden. Reece said he leaned towards refusal, but in raising it as he did there was surely the notion in his mind that if the strike was not resolved a major interview for Conference week would at least be in the frame.

If that was the aim, he got nowhere, MT bluntly annotating: "No". She dismissed too the very idea of an interview with the Political Editor of BBC News, also floated. Knowing her mind as well as he did, Reece plainly feared she was in danger of boxing herself in, and it is striking that he explicitly advised her to leave herself more room for manoeuvre - "we must remain flexible so that we can include the BBC if it suits us at the time" - while fully acknowledging the case against the corporation, as he (and very probably she) saw it: "Their interviewers are hostile. They are more than reluctant to meet us halfway in our requests for such things as OBs [Outside Broadcasts] etc" (required if she was to be filmed against the Prime Ministerial backdrops of Downing Street or Chequers). He neatly encapsulates the motive behind her stance in his final line: promising the first big interview to ITV "would serve notice on the BBC that they are one of the broadcasting services and not the self-appointed tribunes of the people".

In the end, of course, the Prime Minister had her way. She gave her first big interview as PM to Weekend World on Sunday 6 January 1980. The BBC had to wait till 25 February, when Panorama did the honours.

BBc bias? the argument about panorama

Alongside and underlying the internal debate about MT's first interview was a gathering storm arising from Conservative perceptions of left-wing bias on the part of the BBC. MT's feelings in this matter were of long standing.

Trouble began in July when the BBC's Tonight programme broadcast an interview with a representative of the Irish terrorist group that had murdered her close colleague, Airey Neave, three months earlier. MT saw a transcript and told the Commons on 12 July: "I am appalled that it was ever transmitted. I believe that it reflects gravely upon the judgment of the BBC and those responsible for the decision". (BBC senior management later accepted it had been a mistake to show it.) In early August MT's Political Secretary at No.10, Richard Ryder, wrote to Conservative Central Office to determine BBC complaints procedures, anticipating an avalanche of them from party and public. And on 19 September Ian Gow, MT's powerful PPS, wrote a note enclosing a transcript of a BBC Panorama programme two days earlier, examining reactions in Cheshire to spending cuts introduced by the Conservative-controlled county council. "Much of it reads like the text of a Labour Party Political Broadcast", he wrote. "Would you contact Lord Thorneycroft" [Party Chairman], she replied. "I really think we should protest officially". Annotations on the transcript show that the Prime Minister read all fifteen pages, taking particular offence at a striking and odd feature of the programme, that brief texts from the scriptures were voiced-over in running commentary on the policies of Cheshire County Council: "Ask and it shall be given to you ..." (Matthew 7:7), "If your son asked you for bread, should he be given a stone?" (Luke 11:11).

But Panorama irked her much more deeply in early November. Reports appeared in the press that a crew from the programme had filmed IRA men in balaclavas staging a road-block in South Armagh. At PM's Questions in the Commons on 8 November the Leader of the Opposition, Jim Callaghan, condemned the BBC for manufacturing rather than reporting the news, while MT stated that the matter was for the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions. The print press was uniformly hostile to the broadcaster: the earliest surviving copy of Bernard Ingham's "Press Summary for the PM" - which became a No.10 institution - details Fleet Street's appalled response ("Blunderama" was one headline, "treason", "outrage", "dupes" among the others). The cabinet held a discussion of "Presentation of News & Current Events" that morning in which the BBC was clearly a target of criticism, though the minutes are suspiciously bland. It has been claimed that an infuriated Prime Minister sent the Home Secretary out of the meeting to phone the BBC and demand an explanation (Michael Cockerell Live from No.10 (1988), p256). The corporation swiftly announced an internal enquiry and vowed never to show the film, while the editor of the programme was sacked, only to be reinstated a few days later following staff protests. At the Lobby on 9 Nov the files show the BBC Political Editor sought to draw out more information as to the government's position, but was given nothing. Notes on these briefings are being released on this site for the first time, along with the Press Summaries: their like seems not to have survived, or been released before.

cuts to bbc external services: an appeal to the americans

A third front soon opened up in the battle between government and BBC. Spending cuts agreed by the new cabinet forced reductions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office grant to cover the cost of BBC External Services, an arm of the corporation funded directly by government rather than through the license fee. Ministers determined that the well-respected English-language BBC World Service should suffer no cuts, so "vernacular services" (i.e. those in foreign languages) should bear the brunt. And here again there were to be protected areas: services to the Eastern bloc were not to be cut. Capital spending was also to be maintained, to improve the audibility of broadcasts.

The BBC worked hard to block or at least modify the cuts, and one cannot question the corporation's tactical skill and effectiveness. In fact the newly-released Foreign Office file on the topic provides abudant evidence that the corporation successfully administered a beating to the government. In July 1979 Ministers finalised their plans, requiring a reduction of 8.5 per cent for the coming financial year, 1980/81, some £4m. Although the sum was not immediately announced the BBC "have chosen to act as if the figure ... were public knowledge and have orchestrated a campaign in both Houses of Parliament, in the media, and by means of letters from the public", an official wrote. Political pressure was intense. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary were soon offering private clarification and reassurance, pointing out that services to Western Europe were the focus of the exercise.

But British opinion was not the only target of the BBC's campaign. Papers at the Carter Library in Atlanta record on 4 October that the "BBC has approached our Embassy in London for help resisting the cuts, and Ambassador Brewster agrees that we should help". Apparently Brewster had already informally lobbied the FCO, but the suggestion now was of a direct approach at head of government level ("the cut is primarily a political decision and cannot be blunted by the FCO without the Prime Minister's approval"). The Americans were told that "the 10 per cent cut" [sic] would require a 25 per cent cut in services, an assertion some in the White House questioned ("why does the BBC not make the needed cuts in other areas?") Nevertheless a draft presidential letter was sent from the State Department to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security Adviser. "Although I certainly do not want to interfere ..." it began, "I would like, as a long-term friend and ally of Great Britain, to express to you privately and informally my personal concern about the foreign policy implications ... of the prospects of severe cuts in the BBC's foreign language service ... one of the oldest and one of the most essential instruments to get all the truth to those who need it and cannot get it so well elsewhere".

Brzezinski thought better of it: "His reaction was not to involve the President but let Vance [US Secretary of State] take up the issue with Lord Carrington". This was wise perhaps: such a letter would not have gone down well in Downing Street, particularly if the recipient had received any hint that the BBC had solicited it.

Whether the Secretary of State weighed in or not, by late October the BBC had got its way. The FCO reduced the cut from £4m to £2.7m by finding savings elsewhere, while the capital budget was subject to 'rephasing' in order to protect vernacular services. Even then MT worried that there would be trouble in the Commons, asking Ian Gow to monitor the FCO's handling of a three hour debate on 13 November in which ministers meekly accepted a cross-party motion "that there should be no cuts in the spending of the External Services of the BBC". It was, unambiguously, a defeat for the government.

Some six weeks later a middle-ranking Foreign Office official went to lunch with the BBC's Controller of Overseas Services at Bush House for a post mortem. After a "no-holds-barred discussion" the two foresaw that the search for cuts would probably resume at some stage. "We were able to agree in the end", the Foreign Office man recorded, "that it was vital for the BBC and the FCO to fight as far as possible on the same side next time round". They looked forward to a higher level meeting, for which the BBC promised it "would lay on a suitable claret".

MT was almost as suspicious of the FCO as she was of the BBC, so chumminess of this kind between the two would simultaneously have confirmed her instincts and appalled her. In fact some FCO officials were inclined to doubt the BBC's arguments (and the audience figures quoted in support). And the files certainly do not suggest the FCO had any inkling of the BBC's transatlantic initiative, or that they would have endorsed it if they had. But such subtleties would have been lost in the explosion if MT had found out even half the story.

BBC documents