Czechoslovakia – a distraction? 

9 April 2018

From the BBC Handbook for 1969, published at the end of 1968

The invasion of Czechoslovakia is in the historic tradition of Communist error, based on a failure to understand the human spirit. These errors have been repeated at intervals of about ten years since the war – first, the Berlin blockade; then the Hungarian bloodbath; and now this latest blunder. It has proved once more that easy assumptions about the speed of convergence between the two halves of Europe ought not to be made. But the attempt to suppress the first movement towards freedom in Czechoslovakia could be a distraction to those who are concerned with East-West communication.

It may seem perverse – or even callous – to speak of the most traumatic event of the decade in Europe in such terms, and the mere suggestion calls for explanation, especially when one recalls that the immediate demand was for the BBC to respond to the events in Czechoslovakia by an extension of its services to that country. That response was limited. Primarily, the limits were established by the extent of the resources which could be made available. But it was more than a question of resources.

The BBC’s reaction to the situation has to be seen as part of the total role of the External Services. There could have been at least three kinds of error in the tactical response to the situation as it presented itself in August. We could have adopted a policy of encouraging revolt. We could have concentrated entirely on the situation in Czechoslovakia itself, at the expense of other activities. We could have assumed that the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia signalled a permanent return to a state of cold war. None of these responses would have been right for the long run. We chose to follow our traditional role of offering objective news, without the exhortation to resistance, which might have been attractive to some. The choice was dictated by our post-war history – one of conveying honest information and honest explanation, leaving judgements on action to those who knew the facts on the spot. It was also dictated by the fact that our listeners were likely to be in situations of hazard. In such circumstances short and accurate accounts of the state of the world were more important to the Czechs than dissertations on the wickedness of the Soviet Union. The Czech and Slovak peoples needed no persuasion that what the Soviet forces and those of the other Warsaw Pact countries were doing in their country was wrong. What they needed most from us was to know the thoughts and actions of the rest of the world.

Prague, 21 August 1968. Picture from Československá Televize.

We chose too, not to limit ourselves to specific concentration on an extension of service to Czechoslovakia. The situation was one which affected the whole of Eastern Europe. The intensification of our activities was, therefore, to the whole area. The continuing Soviet attempt to keep the news and the facts from their people by jamming was sufficient proof for us that this assessment was correct. And in addressing these audiences we did not fail to underline the enormity of the Soviet-dictated invasion.

Prague, 21 August 1968. Picture from Československá Televize.

Finally, we did not make the assumption that there was to be a permanent return to the cold war. The ‘Iron Curtain’ was breached years ago by ideas and by the broadcast word. Nothing that the Soviet forces can now do can reverse that fact. The debate about justice in society has already begun in the Soviet Union and in the rest of Eastern Europe, and Western broadcasts have contributed to it. The Soviet mass media have themselves responded to that debate by attacking the BBC and other voices from the West. The Soviet people are no longer in ignorance of the outlines of the debate because they have heard them, even if in hostile form, from their own sources of information, as well as from the West in more objective terms. That trend is bound to continue, because it exists in the minds of men and cannot be erased by the actions of obscurantist Governments.

Prague, 21 August 1968. Picture from Československá Televize.

Alexander Dubcek. Picture: CIA

Throughout these climactic events, the BBC had to remember its role in speaking for Britain. That role is on a world scale. The BBC must seek to interpret Europe to itself; Europe to the world; and Britain, as part of Europe and as part of the world, to both. It is the duty of the BBC too, when opportunity offers, to interpret the attitudes of the two super-powers to listeners everywhere. Their very power is, in itself, the first ground for suspicion of their self-explanations – at least, in the minds of radio listeners. It is for this reason that the BBC has achieved a special success among the Vietnamese as a source of Western news.

What must occupy our minds is not the events of the moment, important though these may be, but the long-term task. It is the BBC’s traditional approach, and it has given us the power to present ideas and to ensure their acceptance by those who hear them. When it comes to the distribution of resources the BBC must think in terms, not of particular targets, but of the general demand over the longer future. Attractive though it might have been to divert technical resources to concentrate on Czechoslovakia, or even on Eastern Europe, it could only have been at the expense of audiences elsewhere, and therefore, of this long-term wider role.

Československá Televize clock.

The main preoccupation must still be to secure adequate technical means of transmitting our programmes to every part of the world. The BBC’s installations in the United Kingdom are being continuously modernised – a process which has been in train since 1957. In the Mediterranean, the BBC has particularly effective means of broadcasting to the whole of the Arab World east of Tunis. Soon we shall have at our disposal a high-power medium-wave station covering the Eastern part of the Arab World, Iran and large areas of Pakistan and Northern India. We hope soon to be able to start on the modernisation of our Far Eastern relay facilities. These, together with the Ascension relay already in operation, will give us adequate access to the greater part of the under-developed world, though there will still be some gaps.

That is the world picture as it is seen by the programme makers and the engineers of the BBC’s External Services. They would like to see an improvement of medium-wave access to the continent of Europe, which would enable us to respond more decisively to the needs so clearly re-emphasised by the events in Czechoslovakia. But it would not be right to press this at the expense of any of the projects which are already in hand. There are technical questions to be settled, but it is common ground between all those who have looked at this possibility that the object must be to plan for the next decade, and not for the next two years. On that time scale Czechoslovakia has been an incident serving to accelerate action. It is important as a general indication of the situation into which the BBC will be broadcasting in the next decade. It is also an element – but only one element – in a political picture which may still continue to develop in the direction of East-West convergence, despite the deep shock of the invasion.

Those in Bush House who provide the services for Europe are convinced that the long-term trend is for the two halves of Europe, as we have thought of them so far, to continue in the process of convergence on which they had already embarked, and that it is their function as broadcasters to explain and promote that common spirit which seemed to be developing before the August tragedy, and which despite that setback, must continue if there is to be a constructive future for all Europeans. The events in Czechoslovakia should serve to prompt, not to a specific and temporary response, but a consideration of the wider and more permanent factors which should determine broadcasting policy towards Europe.

It is always a debatable policy to allow one such incident to dictate long-term thinking. The doubts which arose over the operation from Francistown in response to the very special situation in Rhodesia were an illustration of the hazards of short-term responses. The BBC’s object must be to press for consistency in external broadcasting policy. Audiences can only continue to build when the listeners know that a service can be relied upon to be on the air every day at a set time in reasonable strength over a long period. Switches of policy are not helpful. If the BBC is silent, or is heard only with difficulty, listeners will turn to others who are more reliable – at least in terms of technical adequacy and predictability.

Charles Curran (1921-1980) was BBC Director of External Broadcasting and Director-General designate at the time of writing.

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