Thirty years ago this week the BBC was embroiled in a political confrontation that threatened to “destroy the corporation”, according to confidential minutes released under the Freedom of Information Act.
That was the stark warning delivered by Bill Cotton, then in charge of BBC television, after thousands of journalists, technicians and other staff walked out in protest at the banning of a TV documentary about Northern Ireland.
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At the heart of the 1985 dispute over the programme – Real Lives: At The Edge Of The Union – was a threat to the BBC’s independence, echoing the later Hutton crisis as well as the recent row over paying over-75s’ licence fees and, no doubt, forthcoming battles over charter renewal.
Margaret Thatcher’s government wanted the programme banned largely on the grounds that it gave a platform to Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. The way BBC governors swiftly gave in to pressure from home secretary Leon Brittan to pull Real Lives has already been revealed by Lisa O’Carroll of The Guardian, who used an FoI to obtain minutes of the controversial Board of Governors’ meetings.
But we have now obtained confidential minutes of a parallel series of crisis meetings of the BBC’s Board of Management which lay bare the depth of outrage felt among all ranks of BBC employees from the newsroom floor up to senior managers and executives.
Minutes of the Board of Management meeting on 5 August 1985 record a warning from Austen Kark, then in charge of the World Service, about “the grave international consequences for the BBC of any decision not to show the documentary”.
The minutes record Kark reporting that “there were particular grievances in the language services, where staff from overseas, who had experience of heavy government censorship in their own countries, were affronted at the accusation that they were now pawns of the British government… At a series of meetings with senior editorial staff the point had been made repeatedly that it would now be very difficult to convince staff and audience that the BBC was a straightforward, reputable journalistic organisation broadcasting straightforward, accurate, truthful and responsible programmes".
On 7 August 1985, the day Real Lives had been scheduled for transmission, the World Service carried no news for the first time in its history. It was silenced along with all other BBC news services during the most effective 24-hour strike ever called by the National Union of Journalists. That strike against censorship made headlines around the world, with key organiser Vincent Hanna telling a US TV crew: “Nothing like this has ever happened in Britain before.”
The following day BBC chairman Stuart Young was invited to attend a Board of Management meeting, during which director general Alasdair Milne counselled him not to read that day’s press cuttings because everyone present “knew from experience that the press consistently misrepresented BBC affairs”.
Minutes of that meeting on 8 August 1985 were labelled “Confidential – restricted circulation” and, now released following an FoI request, it is not hard to see why. The strongest attack on the governors’ pulling of Real Lives came from an unexpected quarter: Bill Cotton (managing director of Television), a man more usually associated with light entertainment. Cotton told Young that “damage had been done by banning a programme which fundamentally told what was happening in Northern Ireland… No-one in the television service thought the governors’ decision correct.”
Cotton went on to tell the meeting that programme makers knew that, while executives believed Real Lives to be “a good programme”, BBC governors “thought it evil and wicked”. He warned that if the Board of Management “tried to say the Board [of Governors] had been right, there would be a confrontation with staff which would destroy the Corporation”.
Alasdair Milne told the meeting “a breach had occurred and it must be healed”. He insisted this could only be done by transmitting the programme “as a means of recovering the confidence of staff”. He and BBC staff got their way when Real Lives was broadcast virtually unaltered several weeks later.
In their book Journalists (Profile, 2007), Tim Gopsill and Greg Neale suggest that 7 August should henceforth be known as Journalists’ Pride Day because “on that date in 1985 NUJ members made the strongest single affirmation of principled, independent journalism in the union’s history”.
Milne was later forced to stand down as director general, Cotton and Kark both left the BBC within a few years of the Real Lives crisis, and chairman Young died in office in 1986. McGuinness is today deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Tony Harcup teaches journalism at the University of Sheffield and is the author of Journalism: Principles and Practice (Sage, 2015) and the Oxford Dictionary of Journalism (OUP, 2014)