The Good Fight 

1 July 2001

On Thursday 27 July 1967, the newspapers were full of the ‘shock news’ that Prime Minister Harold Wilson had been exercising his political muscle by moving Lord Hill of Luton from the chairmanship of the ITA to the same position at the BBC. This incident – with many potential ramifications for the independence of the BBC – was one of many skirmishes through history between broadcasters and both Wilson and his successors.

When Wilson became leader of the Labour Party in February 1963 after the death of Hugh Gaitskell, he was intensely aware that since Labour had last been in power in 1951, television had evolved from a tiny, small-scale interest, into a medium of huge national importance. He was also aware that the British press was overwhelmingly, institutionally anti-Labour, and he seems to have perceived television as a medium which could be more easily converted to his worldview, as long as he worked with it successfully.

The Rediffusion Adastral

Wilson first slipped into this mode in the summer of 1963, when he had a long series of intricate, heavily-detailed phone conversations with Milton Shulman, producer at Associated-Rediffusion of the political programme “Decision”, about the exact makeup of the panel discussing his early months as leader. Wilson initially told Shulman that he would never appear on any programme also involving the journalist Bernard Levin, then shifted his objection to the fact that the programme featured no pro-Labour journalists, and finally claimed that the left-wing Labour MP Barbara Castle should not appear debating with the Tory MP Charles Curran.

The eventual broadcast had the discussion between Castle and Curran replaced with a conversation between the political correspondents of The Observer and The Sunday Times (newspapers broadly identified, respectively, with the centre-left and centre-right), but Wilson had suggested several MPs on the centre and right of the Labour Party to replace Castle. It seems curious that he should have worked so intensely with such a relatively obscure programme, but such was his desire to disassociate himself from the Labour left and present himself as a centrist, modernising figure, pioneering a path which would be trod so successively by Tony Blair in the mid-1990s.

After Labour had been elected with a tiny majority of 4 in October 1964, Wilson was still more concerned that those on the left of his party should not appear on television as “representatives” of Labour opinion, especially on contentious issues such as incomes policy, nuclear disarmament and Vietnam. Independent Television was generally more willing to cave in than the BBC and in the summer of 1965 a debate on Vietnam between the Tory MP Lord Lambton and the left-wing Labour MP J. J. Mendelson was dropped by ITV after the Labour leadership objected to Mendelson’s involvement. At the same time, the left-wing Labour MP Ian Mikardo was dropped from a discussion on nuclear disarmament in favour of the more moderate Maurice Edelman.

The government’s suspicious relationship with the BBC would come to a head at the October 1965 Labour Party Conference in Blackpool, when five differences of opinion between the BBC and Transport House (the party’s headquarters of the time) were reported, and Wilson found himself in an awkward position when he denied press accounts that he had argued aggressively with a BBC employee during the conference.

Famously, as Wilson travelled by train from his Liverpool constituency to London on the morning after his massive election victory in the spring of 1966, he refused to talk at all to the BBC, who had gone to the trouble of converting a special coach of the train into a mobile studio, while granting an interview to an ITV reporter on the same train. It was an act of deliberate, on-the-spot humiliation, possibly rooted in an instinctive, deep-rooted suspicion of the BBC as an old-fashioned middle-class institution, socially and culturally very different from the old Labour Party.

The highly controversial decision made by Wilson to appoint Lord Hill as chairman of the BBC’s Board of Governors in July 1967, after the death of Lord Normanbrook, caused outrage in both the BBC and the Labour Party. Many in the party had been outraged when Hill, a former Tory Cabinet Minister, had been appointed chairman of the ITA in 1963, claiming that it was “jobs for the boys” and that this was the first appointment of a party political man to such an important position in British broadcasting. Of course, this level of manipulation seems tiny now, when compared to what happened during the Thatcher administration in the 1980s, but many were deeply concerned that Wilson had, apparently, gone back on his party’s widely-accepted line on Hill four years before, and the appointment almost certainly accelerated Sir Hugh Greene’s departure as Director General. The rumours the appointment caused – that the BBC and ITA were to be merged to give greater government control to broadcasting – of course failed to have any substance in the longer term.

In the 60s, the government minister with responsibility for broadcasting was still the Postmaster General, and there were suspicions that Wilson did not regard this post as particularly important. During his tenure, Tony Benn famously denounced the offshore pirate radio stations, which from a simplistic present-day perspective seem like symbols of Wilsonian “modernism”, and the government’s subsequent banning of the stations created deep resentment among teenagers, who perceived it as excessively regulatory and officious, and formed the Campaign for Free Radio in response. Edward Short, who authorised the banning of the pirate stations and the introduction of colour television, was hardly the most auspicious man to hold the post, and nor were his successors, Roy Mason and John Stonehouse.

Harold Wilson was personally more socially conservative than he may have seemed – he had been rattled by the sight of London dockers (supposedly “natural Labour voters”) marching to Number 10 in support of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in April 1968, and during the election campaign two years later he was privately very angry at Tony Benn for saying on television that the flag flying over Wolverhampton (Powell’s constituency) was comparable to that which had flown over Nazi Germany 30 years earlier. He would come to believe that this comment had alienated those Labour supporters who had sympathised with Powell and had contributed to the party’s shock election defeat to the Tories.

After Edward Heath’s Conservative government took office in June 1970, Wilson’s paranoia about the media worsened. When the BBC made a programme called “Yesterday’s Men” to mark the first anniversary of Labour’s defeat, its veneer of early 70s cynicism and disillusionment sent him into an apoplexy not justified by the content of the programme itself. As the world itself became more cynical in the 70s, Wilson’s attitude to the media in the previous decade could be seen as prophetic, and in the 1980s a Conservative administration would take government intervention into the BBC’s activities to a level previously unthinkable.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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