Long fortnight

By Russ J Graham

At the start of broadcasting, the reporting of political matters was a cause for concern not only for the parties but also for the broadcaster and the newspapers.

The British Broadcasting Company had been forced, at first, to refrain from producing news programmes at all. In the eyes of the newspaper owners, a news programme available ‘free' over the air would immediately sound the death knell for their paid-for pages. But pressure for news on the BBC was great – not least from the BBC themselves – and a compromise where the BBC only played news after every listener had had the chance to purchase a newspaper first was agreed.

This system collapsed under the weight of the General Strike, where no newspapers appeared, save for editorial sheets put out by both sides in the dispute. The BBC soon began to shape itself into the world-class newsgathering organisation it was to become.

However, this lead to worries in the government that parliament – at that point the only place where matters of the day could be debated with any true conclusion – could find itself coming a poor second to selected debates on issues of import broadcast over the air.

At the same time, the BBC was concerned that the power of radio could be misused, as politicians turned up in studios to demand air time to espouse their party's view on the biggest stories of the day.

Therefore the BBC developed the 14-day rule and presented it to the Postmaster General – the BBC's regulator in parliament. The essence of the rule was to forbid the BBC from broadcasting about any matter debated in parliament in the last fortnight. This would prevent rent-a-quote broadcasters turning up at the BBC to propagandise the airwaves, and help the BBC maintain its independence from government.

To the government, the rule was presented as a way of maintaining the premier position of parliament in any national debate, and a method of allowing parties to decide on and implement a particular line before they were called on to defend it on-air.

As the years passed, successive governments remained pleased with the implementation of the rule and the protection it gave them. Post-war, the rule protected governments of both colour from having to defend there actions as they started and maintained the Cold War. The people could be kept distant from the true decisions of government over matters like The Bomb, the Iron Curtain and the Marshall Plan – all names familiar enough to us now from the part they played in the immediate aftermath of the war.

For the BBC, however, the rule soon became something of a straitjacket. Although free from the pressures of government and opposition spokesmen, they were left with a first-class (radio) news service that could not truly compete with the newspapers. Subjects that the entire country – or at least the middle and upper classes in the Home Counties – were talking about could not be illustrated on-air. The BBC had to maintain a silence that sounded odd, or censorious, when no other organisation was so required.

The birth of Independent Television – and the rival ITN – spurred the BBC into action against the rule. They lobbied hard on the basis that the rule was outdated and amounted to censorship. But the Conservative government under Anthony Eden was of the old school of politics, where the media was to be controlled and directed and where power rested in the hands of those who deserved it most, not those who sought to usurp it from them.

ITN and the ITA joined in the battle, arguing, with some success, that the rule applied to the BBC – it was their idea, after all – and therefore did not apply to the new channel. The Television Act 1954 made no reference to the rule. But this argument also boosted the BBC's argument – if the rule didn't apply to the ITA's services, it was somewhat ludicrous for it to apply to the BBC alone.

By 1956, both broadcasters were testing the water by bending the rule as far as it would go prior to breaking it and simply leaving it behind. But suddenly the major test of the rule was to come.

A coup d'etat in Egypt has brought Colonel Nasser to power in 1953. In June 1956 he held a general election, where he become – unopposed - President Nasser of Egypt. Nasser soon found his former supporters in Nato were unwilling to fund his ‘new socialist' government. Having had a lot of trouble getting much needed money from the west, he naturally started to turn to the Soviet bloc for help. This caused the west to tighten the screw further, and Nasser responded by nationalising the Suez Canal – Europe's only economical link with colonies in the Far East and oil in the middle east.

Britain and France responded by engineering an invasion of Egypt by Israel, in order to step in as ‘policemen' – co-incidentally taking control of the canal. But the entire plan was executed without the involvement of the Americans, who leapt to condemn the "imperialism" of the old powers in Europe.

On television in Britain, very little could be said about the huge split the war had opened up in parliament. The 14-day rule left the BBC and ITN impotent on reporting a war that a majority in the Commons appeared to be against and the country as a whole, tired now of war, were unhappy with.

With both Eden as prime minister and Hugh Gaitskell as leader of the opposition making television appearances under a different rule that allowed politicians access to the air in times of national crisis, the rule was clearly at breaking point. The rule therefore disappeared under the pressure and finally broadcasting became as free as the press in news production terms.

The ITA and the BBC had weighed up the pros and cons of complete freedom to broadcast news versus the need to prevent politicians treating them as mouthpieces and chose a middle course that has given the UK two news services that the rest of the world looks on with envy.

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Article ©2001 Russ J Graham

Compilation ©2001 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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