Margaret Thatcher’s Culture War

pinkoes-and-traitorsIn legendary Churchillian wit, the inspiration for the title of the book embodies both the satirical humor of Monty Python and the very serious views of Denis Thatcher, who thought that the management of the BBC were Trotskyites. The British magazine Private Eye “Dear Bill” letter was said to be a letter from Denis: “I keep telling the Boss, if ever there was a state-owned industry ripe for privatization, it is that nest of Pinkoes and Traitors at Shepard’s Bush” – the name of the main BBC television station.

The known stormy relationship between Mrs. Thatcher and the BBC is indeed worthy of a book, which is thoroughly examined by Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster and BBC Historian. If the reader doesn’t have a general grasp of British history in the 1970s and 1980s one could get quite lost in the narratives.

Hence, Seaton takes on the colossal task of condensing the turbulent history between the BBC and the British government from 1974-1987. There is no easy way to approach the multi-tasking of a media company, dotted all over the world, capturing the art, emotion, or details of an issue. The BBC’s internal turmoil (including industrial disputes, unions, budgeting, etc.) is woven in between its public and private rows with the British government, Thatcher’s “perpetual skirmishes with the BBC,” and trying to find the right balance with their audience.

In that sense, the stories can come across as disjointed, particularly in the introduction. However, once deep into the book, the discoveries in the chapter begin to connect with the previous chapter, albeit slightly delayed. It does have a purpose. In fact, Seaton quotes John Birt who became director-general in 1989 “that the BBC got into so much trouble because it had no capacity to think ahead.” The media content could have been an historic landmark but more fascinating was what the government or audience did with the broadcast — the response to the information, which was often completely unpredictable.

The BBC has evolved incessantly as the borders of political geography were being redrawn in Europe and beyond, particularly in the British Commonwealth, for instance the UK joined the EU in 1973. Seaton includes stories that offer glimpses of the evolution between a plethora of juxtapositions, too numerous to name, but is best summarized as the crucible of media innovation. The balance needed to be met with the precision of responsibilities to the licence fee (public funding) and the creativity to survive.

The process of ingenuity was a challenging enterprise and involved a coveted but essential privilege: freedom. Reflecting on The Downing Street Years Mrs. Thatcher believed that:

Artistic talent – let alone artistic genius – is unplanned, unpredictable, eccentrically individual. Regimented, subsidised, owned and determined by the state, it withers. Moreover the ‘state’ in these cases comes to mean the vested interests of the arts lobby. I wanted to see the private sector raising more money and bringing business acumen and efficiency to bear on the administration of cultural institutions.

In other words, where there is freedom there is creativity. Mrs. Thatcher was cognizant she was fighting a cultural war, in fact the worst cultural battlefront in the UK, which cascaded into Commonwealth nations and beyond.

But that philosophy was translated as contradictory when the BBC, funded by a licence fee paid by the viewers in the United Kingdom, claimed to be broadcasting news independently. Seaton claims that Mrs. Thatcher wanted more regulation to contain the BBC, but that’s not how Mrs. Thatcher described it. Nor was that the reasoning behind Mrs. Thatcher commissioning The Peacock Committee to produce a report to comment on replacing the licence fee with advertising revenue. How could the BBC carry so many responsibilities while being so dependent on the funding of the British viewer? Mrs. Thatcher wanted to weaken “the monopolistic grip of the broadcasting establishment” to ensure the freedom of speech. It was a difficult task facing so many battles.

The most riveting stories involved domestic and international security: the terrorism in Northern Ireland, the Iranian takeover in 1979, the Falklands War, and intelligence gathering.

Great Expectations

In The Downing Street Years on broadcasting, Mrs. Thatcher wrote, “The irony that a Reithian rhetoric should be used to defend a moral neutrality between terrorism and the forces of law and order, as well as programmes that seemed to many to be scurrilous and offensive, was quite lost.” Reithian views, which Mrs. Thatcher referenced denotes the philosophical approach to Sir John Reith who was the first director-general of the BBC, founded in 1922.

But from Seaton’s viewpoint, “John Reith had said that the BBC should bring to the public ‘not the printable scheme of government but its living and doing.’ The problem for the Corporation in Northern Ireland was that the reality of political life was so disputed.” That dichotomy created the rift between BBC and Mrs. Thatcher, planting seeds of discontent. Sir Kenneth Bloomfield explained the temporal problem, “One of the tragedies of the Province [Northern Ireland] was that of butterfly ministers: good ministers were promoted out of it and almost no one stayed in post long enough to actually understand the place, [but] the BBC was there all through.”

Television transformed opinions when in October 1968 the Royal Ulster Constabulary were viewed beating civil rights marchers in Londonderry for protesting the discrimination against Catholics and the gerrymandering that secured Protestant political power. Almost four years later, the bloodshed would intensify to a level never before seen for the next two years. Bloody Sunday was 30 January 1972, and the BBC forbade a reporter to call it a ‘massacre.’ The BBC Broadcasting House in Belfast was bombed later that same year and although sixty-five windows were destroyed, the staff took on the typical British calmness as though nothing had happened, not a single program was interrupted. Future bomb scares in the building was not an acceptable excuse to delay or halt news programs, bomb scares weren’t even reported in the news. The staff was impressively brave, and possibly even impervious to the constant threats. As Seaton cleverly put it, “Language was [itself] combustible,” while poets were hard at work, transforming a tragic struggle into an art form.

Willie Whitelaw took on the responsibilities of Secretary of State in Northern Ireland in 1972, which would serve Mrs. Thatcher well both politically and diplomatically with the BBC after she secured conservative party leadership.

Back in London, Whitehall and politicians perceived it as controversial to put terrorists on television, they “saw broadcasting as giving legitimacy to men of violence and many ordinary people objected to the dignity it afforded them…The uneasy feeling that the IRA was ‘winning’ a propaganda battle was translated into fury at the BBC.” The intersection of the BBC and Secretaries of State in Northern Ireland (including Shadow Secretary) was essential to understanding Northern Ireland all the way to the hunger strikes of 1982. Laborite Roy Mason was Secretary of State from 1976 to 1979 and formed an unexpectedly close relationship with Conservative Airey Neave, Shadow Secretary, close friend and confidant of Mrs. Thatcher. Seaton highlights that for both MPs:

The BBC was an instrument of state power they could harness in a bitter struggle to impose order in the public interest. After secret talks with the IRA had shown it unwilling to make any concessions, Mason had a new policy: criminalization. This policy stripped away the political status of prisoners and led to the hunger strikes of 1982. Denying legitimacy to paramilitaries, a policy pursued by Mason and the subsequent Conservative government, put BBC reporting in the firing line. Mason [a former coal miner] cracked down on the Provisional IRA so effectively that they were forced to reorganise.

An obscure young reporter, Jeremy Paxman, had put together a program that Shadow Secretary Neave warned would have negative consequences between the BBC and MPs on both sides. Another battle ensued against the BBC governors, threatening to deny any increase in BBC licence fees. Neave told a full house in Parliament “that the propaganda war was as deadly as any military campaign and it was being lost by the media.”

Mason’s policies created a chasm with Irish nationalist MPs, which played a role in the March 1979 vote of no confidence. On the last day of the month, the Conservatives were preparing for the general election campaign when Neave was murdered by an explosion. Several months later, the Irish National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the murder and it was aired on BBC. Neave’s widow was informed as a BBC viewer. This underscored the challenges of dealing with the tragic news and diplomacy – the BBC behaved irresponsibly and insensitively.

Less than five months later Lord Mountbatten and three others were murdered on a fishing boat by an IRA bomb, and others seriously injured. Another bomb on the other side of the island detonated almost simultaneously, killed 18 British paratroopers, followed by more murders to those who attempted to assist the wounded. The BBC televised the funeral and Seaton explained, “the propriety of delicate decisions about how to capture grief but not intrude on a private dignity at the heart of a public event was part of public service broadcasting’s role in collective national life.”

Debates continued, the BBC believed “that interrogating the motives and actions of the ‘enemy’ in public helped hold them to account. ‘The public must have the evidence to make up its own mind’…an informed public is realistic, and such intelligent realism is the basis of democracy.”

Tribulations and Triumphs

The imagery of the enduring British monarchy was captured in a BBC series during the Jubilee year of 1977, Royal Heritage: The Story of Royal Builders and Collectors, shown in thirteen-parts. A growing suspicion had emerged between the Palace and the BBC and Seaton emphasized that they “were deeply distrustful of each other along the way, with some reason.” If the BBC series suggested that there were blurred lines between the “national heritage and personal fortunes, and proposed the idea of public service monarchy,” viewers might well have perceived it differently.

It seemed to be more fashionable among BBC royal correspondents to be “sharp-minded sceptics.” While the wedding between Prince Charles and Lady Diana was a great landmark during this time in July 1981 and captured viewers from all over the world, unpleasant scenes were to follow. The model royal family was changing in the subsequent generation “very publicly in a series of collapsed marriages, vulgar behavior and the deep unhappiness of Princess Diana. The BBC could have been more thoughtful, more enquiring, more intelligent.”

Mrs. Thatcher was not so concerned about the quality and content of the news as much as she was the perception of the content, the persuasion, and the subtlety. And if she thought the nuances were misplaced she reacted vehemently. The way the BBC covered the Falklands War in 1982 was one such example, where the direction of the UK depended on Mrs. Thatcher’s success in defending British territory and reputation. In fact, Downing Street discovered and confirmed the invasion of the Falkland Islands through BBC. Mrs. Thatcher bravely shook off the historical shadows of the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 and redefined a great public concern: How does a government balance a military operation with free speech, all without revealing anything to the enemy? The chapter covering the Falklands War is riveting.

The BBC World Service was a powerful cultural tool of self-reflection for the British. Seaton writes that it “helped us see our place in the world better.”

Seaton, the official Historian of the BBC, understandably defends people in the BBC, yet also points out where grave errors and misunderstandings were committed. The archival research is fascinating, but equally interesting were the verbal stories from witnesses, and the missing or thin files on rather important subjects.

Seaton’s meticulous descriptions of many of the BBC adventures are captivating, but her most impressive work is the impeccable strength in which she concluded almost every chapter, recalling some core themes with her signature optimism. She writes, “What mattered was [the BBC’s] place in British lives.” Her intellectual collection of the subject adds a depth of understanding to the complexities of a broadcasting institution, especially during the Thatcher years, and what drove their feuds or necessitated their cooperation.

Monica Morrill is a Geographer focusing on government regulation and policies. She co-authored the book BETRAYED: The Shocking True Story of Extortion 17 as told by a Navy SEAL’s Father. Ms. Morrill is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.