Harold Wilson complained about BBC spending in 1970s

The BBC was attacked in the Seventies by prime minister Harold Wilson for letting its ‘over-lavish’ spending get out of hand, documents made public for the first time today reveal.

Mr Wilson, who was prime minister in 1974, criticised the corporation for demanding licence fee rises while failing to cut its spending.

The BBC was locked in conflict with the Government over money again four years later when James Callaghan was in power, the documents – released this week under the 30-year rule – reveal.

In private exchanges with home secretary Roy Jenkins, Wilson singled out television coverage of the election campaign for particular attack.

He also labelled the licence fee an “unsatisfactory” and “regressive form of taxation”.

On 30 October 1974, Wilson wrote: “The system in which the fee is increased on infrequent occasions by relatively large amounts means that immediately after an increase the BBC is flush with money and increases its expenditure commitments.

“This can only encourage the BBC’s tendency to over-lavish expenditure.”

Wilson said that, during the election campaign, he was “followed around the country by a large BBC television crew” who “stayed in the best hotels and ate the best food”.

The election night programme, “which I am told cost £500,000”, had got “out of hand”, he said.

According to the documents released by the National Archives at Kew, west London, Callaghan also had strong views on the BBC in 1978 and questioned the corporation’s calls for more money from the public.

On 19 June 1978, home secretary Merlyn Rees set out the case for increasing the licence fee again following a previous increase in 1977.

They were eventually put up by £4 to £25 for colour sets and by £1 to £10 for black and white, but the prime minister made his feelings clear early on.

The documents also offer an insight into life in the BBC in the 1970s and tensions between management and “hippies”.

Wilson discussed the state of the BBC and its spending during a dinner on 23 January 1975, at which BBC chairman Sir Michael Swann was also a guest

The notes of the meeting in the official files state: “Talking about ‘hippie’ influences in the BBC, Sir Michael Swann said that, while he would not pretend that the BBC was completely clear of problems of this kind, it was a picnic compared with Edinburgh University.

“Nonetheless he thought that too many young producers approached every programme they did from the starting point of an attitude which could be summed up as: ‘you are a s**t’.

The question of the chairman’s salary also featured among the prime minister’s personal papers.

In a memo ahead of the dinner, Robert Armstrong – principal private secretary to Wilson – warned him that Sir Michael might mention his £8,000 salary in light of the fact he had been told when he took on the role that it would be increased to £10,000.

“Sir Michael Swann also touched upon this in passing last week; and Lady Swann spoke about it at considerable length and with much feeling,” Armstrong wrote. “I am not sure if she realised how embarrassing I found this conversation; I hope not.”

According to Armstrong, Lady Swann said her husband had given up a £13,000 salary at Edinburgh University to take on the chairmanship, which she said “was a considerable sacrifice for someone with four children”.

“But it was not just a personal complaint: she felt strongly that the state ought not to try to get public service of this kind on the cheap, and would not get good enough people if they went on trying to do so,” he said.

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