1 Dec 2004 0 comments. tbs.pm/2051
The Hutton Report, which began as an inquiry into the circumstances of the sad death of a reputable scientist and ended up as the rock that the BBC might have foundered upon, had a precedent over half a century before.
The 1950s were a different age, so far removed from now as to be in medieval times for most younger people. At the time, they were seen as a time of recovery and hopefulness. The war was over and won. The country had installed the first majority Labour government a few years before, which had delivered the social and economic reforms, if not the prosperity, that the people had craved.
The National Health Service provided free health care for all, replacing a system that had condemned the poor to die of treatable illnesses. Nationalisation had brought the commanding heights of the economy – the railways, electricity, gas and much more – under state control, ending decades of exploitation, if not exactly improving the lot of the majority.
But changing demographics, mostly inspired by the flexible, happy workforce the government had created, was to doom the Labour party to lose any election held in the 1950s, despite the fact they would hold a majority of votes nationally at the first two elections of the decade.
As the return of Churchill loomed, the Labour party, like all dying governments, became concerned about media bias. Their Royal Commission on the press broadly agreed that the newspapers were too pro-Tory, and also that there was little or nothing to be done about it. They managed – just – to avoid attempts to control the BBC, leaving a clause in the licence that left the development of television under government control, though this was never enforced and was subsequently deleted.
Then, on Sunday, 1 October 1950, the BBC Television Service showed a live play scripted by Val Gielgud, Head of Television Drama and brother of actor John. The play, ‘Party Manners’, had been a fairly successful West End production, and had subsequently been performed on BBC Radio. The play was based on the idea, highly topical at the time, that a government would be forced to reveal state secrets in order to win a coming election. The state secrets in question were Atomic in nature and the party depicted in power was Labour.
No objections had been heard to the West End and radio productions. But bringing the play to the small screen was dynamite.
The Labour party’s backbenchers started asking questions about the play on the Monday morning. The Daily Herald, with a banner headline reading “We Don’t Want Any More of This, Mr. Gielgud”, soon joined them. A day later and the Herald was screaming on the front page about class snobbery at the BBC and “anti-Labour prejudice”. The “crude, silly and insulting” production should not get its scheduled repeat on Thursday, the paper declared.
History does not now record the reasons for the reaction of Lord Simon of Wythenshawe, the chairman of the BBC governors. Perhaps he reacted on party lines, as Marmaduke Hussey was accused of doing a generation or so later. Perhaps he believed he acted to preserve the integrity of the BBC. But unlike Hussey, he immediately and publicly regretted what he did next.
Based largely on the press reports of the play, and despite having read the script before the radio production, he stepped in and, without a full meeting of the governors, cancelled the Thursday repeat.
Lord Simon was previously a Labour party member, although like most reputable BBC governors he had left the party and been politically neutral after his appointment. That didn’t stop attacks from the right-wing papers, accusing him of acting as a Labourite or giving in to government pressure. Nothing changes in political reporting, despite the passage of time, and Simon was damned either way – just as he would be today.
But he gave a robust – for the time – response and reiterated the BBC’s pre-existing policy. The prime duty of BBC governors, he said, was to “ensure that the BBC shall be impartial in all matters of political controversy.” He followed this statement with a big ‘but’ concerning “subjects about which the mass of opinion in this country is agreed [to not be subject to being impartial]… is the need of upholding democracy”.
As the play was, in essence, about a government – any British government – choosing between integrity resulting in the loss of an election, and treason but another five years in power, Simon said that the play was “capable of being misunderstood and it seemed to me that if that came about it could not be in the public interest”.
Needless to say, this response pleased no one. The papers insisted that politics, rather than artistry, were the judge of the programme. Some pundits started to call for a parliamentary investigation into the whole affair.
The Postmaster General tried, but failed, to end the discussion by saying that government traditionally left “the governors of the corporation completely free in day-to-day management, including programme policy”.
This didn’t help either. The entire (largely Tory) press, save for the loyal Herald, deplored Simon’s decision. The Telegraph called Simon a coward. The Times was more direct, accusing Simon of being politically motivated, and stating that his ‘apology’, whilst being accepted as the word of a gentleman, “is to be deeply regretted”.
Speaking later in the House of Lords, Simon offered a mea culpa, stating that he hadn’t expected “the hurricane which arose. I think it clear that I made a serious underestimate – I made a mistake – in taking that action, in view of what happened afterwards”.
Nevertheless, the decision was not reversed and the BBC didn’t show the play again.
Later in life, Lord Simon wrote that he felt that “no chairman will ever dream of doing anything of the sort again.”
Fifty-four years on, that hope hasn’t been borne out. But now the BBC is in far worse trouble. Perhaps we need Lord Simon of Wythenshawe back.
Or maybe just more reasonable politicians.