(en)old news but interesting

Ilan shalif (gshalif@netvision.net.il)
Mon, 17 Nov 1997 00:52:33 +0200

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Tony Gosling is an ex BBC reporter now working as a volunteer landrights campaigner with 'The Land Is Ours' movement in Britain.

Report of Top Level BBC Meeting attended by me on Thursday 10th July 1997

Zircon Revisited

by Tony Gosling

It's not every day you get a call from the top echelons of the BBC inviting you to begin a review of news values. I'm sure you can understand my cynicism... would my views really make an iota of difference... but I was getting my travel paid and a free meal so I took them up on the offer.

The overture came from the office of Richard Ayre, deputy head of News and Current Affairs. Ostensibly the review was called to get news priorities right for the new government. There would be six top editors from the BBC there who would discuss all aspects of news coverage with six of us from outside.

When I arrived at Oxford Circus on a hot July evening at about seven I was gearing myself up to speak for everyone who understands the power of the mass media and is genuinely frightened by the concentration of its control into fewer and fewer hands.

I arrived at Broadcasting House reception, passing through the 'hallowed portals' I'd got to know several years ago as a radio reporter and researcher.

The facilities in this building beggar belief... I remember being awe struck by 'News Information' department, with its thousands of neat files of newspaper clippings on every subject from Headingly Cricket to Heads of State. Everything that had ever made the news was here to peruse.

They were waiting for me on the third floor so I stepped into one of the magnificent art-deco lifts. There were no signs to the third floor suite so I set off down the corridor knowing that as all floors in B.H. are laid out round a circular corridor I'd find 'the suite' eventually.

After passing through several sets of swing doors I was confronted by an intimidating sign: Radio Newsroom, no entry to visitors. Luckily, being so used to going in and out of B.H. with my own ID card, I had forgotten to register as a 'visitor', so I pushed the doors open and crossed the newsroom with a purposeful air.

As a cub reporter the buzz in this room had fascinated me... it was homely and familiar... this room has the power to lay the foundations for the changes we so desperately need. The crippling debt and trade in weapons that so weigh the world down could be challenged from here. I reflected on the worn-out institutions that supposedly decide our fate then on the power over public opinion that these folk at the BBC have. As I looked at the faces around me whose voices would be instantly recognisable, I wondered how we allowed it to happen that none of us have a say in deciding who makes all those crucial decisions.

Out the other side of the newsroom the corridor continued further round eventually passing the Director General's suite... could this be it? I knocked on a nearby door and a helpful woman confirmed that this was the only dinner suite on the third floor.

Sure enough they were expecting me and Richard Ayre introduced me to a rapid succession of top editors... the hidden faces behind the news: The World Tonight... Breakfast News... The BBC Social Affairs Editor was there as was Sian Kevill, deputy head of political programmes. I worked my way around the BBC people until I found some smarm-free conversation. More with ITV it's true- but media people take sycophancy to nightmarish depths.

Sian seemed an exception and was particularly clued up on The Land Is Ours campaign as well as the history of land enclosure and the Levellers and the Diggers. As we were talking about the Civil War she mentioned that the BBC would be covering the 350th anniversary of the Putney Debates to be organised by the Quakers later in the year. As it turned out although I was in Putney Church as an 'Agitator' the BBC were not. She began to press me closely on what I wanted The Land Is Ours to achieve. I made it clear that I would consider the campaign a failure if we couldn't manage to achieve what the Diggers did, by occupying land to live on for at least a year. We managed it at Wandsworth for just under six months but the year was the aim. I had to politely refuse to answer when she insisted on knowing where exactly we planned to do this!

By now other guests from outside the BBC were arriving and I was introduced to them. There was an Italian woman from the Consumers' Association who seemed to think the BBC was the world's perfect broadcaster, well it could seem that way to someone brought up on Italian TV. Another of the guests was from the T.U.C., the dinner was taking place at the height of the British Airways dispute with cabin staff so she was ready to call the BBC to account for never explaining the context of industrial disputes. Other guests included a jovial top police officer from Thames Valley and a woman from the Human Embryology and fertility clinic.

When we all sat down around the DG's dining table Richard Ayre was at the head. He kicked off the discussions and the meal by explaining he wanted us all to tell it how it was. That this meal was the first step in a comprehensive review of news and current affairs programmes that would proceed to a set of new programmes to be prepared in the Autumn and Winter.

When Richard kicked off discussions I was the first to speak, throwing down the gauntlet immediately by challenging the BBC's right to charge a licence fee. There were several nods from the guests so I explained that Channel 4, particularly with its Dispatches strain were doing far more public service programming than the BBC. And they are a commercial channel. Richard defended the BBC stoutly but the only example of public service programming where they were sticking their neck out he gave was the Panorama Diana interview.

We criticised the BBC's use of 'experts' which each of us in our fields knew were far from objective, we discussed coverage of Northern Ireland and I questioned the fact that none of the locally produced and insightful material is shown on BBC networks. Maybe surprisingly there was universal support amongst the guests for interviews to be shown with all sides including armed groups in the Troubles.

In all our discussions there was not a mention of the only meaningful change in recent months, the wonderful idea of 'super-editors' a handful of whom will control what the public are allowed to know and think.

I insisted on putting forward the point that young people that I knew increasingly see the BBC as State broadcasting, and with some pretty substantial justification. That the corporation was far too controlled, particularly in its news and documentary coverage, by the Foreign Office and by Downing Street. I know this because a friend worked as a temp for several months in the TV newsroom and explained to my horror that she was putting calls through regularly from top government officials and passing messages on to the editors about the best angle to take on sensitive news stories.

Richard Ayre dismissed my comments about political interference with the BBC as alarmist and assured us all that they guarded their independence fiercely. I know they dismiss left-leaning staff under the secret 'Christmas Tree' scheme (Tannenbaum = The Red Flag) because so many people independently testified to me about it. He was lying through his teeth, so I decided to throw the most reprehensible example of political censorship at the BBC I knew of at them.

Alisdair Milne, the last Director General to stand up for independence and the public interest at the BBC was sacked, I said, for supporting a politically embarrassing programme.

A programme in Duncan Campbell's Secret Society series revealed that 500 million of public money had been spent by UK Military Intelligence on a spy satellite without the knowledge of parliament. This was the Zircon programme and as the transmission date approached, I explained, pressure from many angles was brought to bear on Alisdair to drop it. He felt, quite rightly, that the programme did not compromise national security and refused to cover up for the ineptitude of the intelligence services.

Special Branch turned up at one stage at the offices of BBC Scotland and emptied the contents of an entire production office into several transit vans as part of the Political pressure on the BBC. Meanwhile Alisdair, who'd had a hand in such ground-breaking programmes as Tonight and That Was The Week That Was, refused to budge. So, I explained, he was sacked.

After a short uncomfortable silence Richard Ayre challenged me; he reminded us all that at the time newspapers reported he had resigned of his own accord. "Oh come on Richard", and he looked more than a little crestfallen as I recalled, "I have read his Autobiography and Alisdair explains quite clearly that he was called into the Chairman's office and told he had no choice but to sign a pre-prepared resignation".

There was another short silence before Richard made light of his deception. "Actually Tony I have to tell you", he sounded slightly more human now, "The events you refer to happened right here around this table, and I was there at the time."

There was another pause, "Alisdair was sitting right where you are now Tony, and he'd just finished his soup". I looked down and staring up at me was an empty soup bowl looking like some eerily upturned flying saucer from the Twighlight Zone. Richard went on to illustrate how much of a choice Alisdair's resignation had been and how, when Alisdair returned from his audience with BBC Chairman (politically appointed) Marmaduke Hussey in the adjoining office, his chair was gone and his place had been cleared away.

That whole obscene episode in the winter of 1986 not only illustrates to what extent the BBC is no longer 'ours' but raises serious questions about the influence of entirely unaccountable military intelligence groups over our perceptions.

Ever since that particular travesty of 'Public Service' at the BBC the British press has been in decline. From my 3 year stint at 'Auntie' I have seen corporate ideology creeping, bit-by-bit, into every corner of the corporation.

So if the top editors at the BBC are denying political interference to our faces God only knows what goes on when there's no concerned members of the public around to prick their consciences.

And it is more than a little worrying that the editor of the editors should deceive so effortlessly.

Alisdair Milne on the Zircon programme scandal: http://www.tlio.demon.co.uk/milne.htm

Tony Gosling personal internet site: http://www.tlio.demon.co.uk/index.htm

Tony Gosling

tonyg@tlio.demon.co.uk The Land Is Ours http://www.oneworld.org/tlio Personal web pages http://www.tlio.demon.co.uk/index.htm PGP Public Key http://www.tlio.demon.co.uk/tonyhom.htm 31 Exmoor Street, Bedminster, BRISTOL, BS3 1HD. Tel. +44 (0)117 908 0047

"Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business" John Dewey

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