The British Broadcasting Corp. enjoys a worldwide reputation for fair and balanced reporting, but at home the government of the day has frequently criticized it for lack of objectivity. Since the Second World War both Labour and Conservative ministers have accused it of antigovernment bias. But rarely in the 60-year history of the BBC have the strains between the corporation and Downing Street been as obvious as they are under Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. After weeks of controversy surrounding a banned BBC documentary about the government’s plans to launch a spy satellite, detectives from Britain’s Special Branch staged an unprecedented 28-hour raid last week on the BBC’s offices in Glasgow, carting away more than 30 boxes of film, videotape and documents. Protested Labour MP Gerald Kaufman: “This is a major menace to civil liberties and freedom of speech in Britain.” The uproar over the police raid was the latest in a series of highly publicized clashes between Thatcher’s government and the BBC. According to most observers, relations between the Prime Minister and the BBC have been particularly frosty since July, 1985, when Thatcher persuaded the organiza-
tion’s 12-member board of governors to cancel a television documentary on Northern Ireland because it included excerpts from an interview with an alleged leader of the Irish Republican Army. Then, last October the chairman of the Conservative party, Norman Tebbit, launched a scathing attack on the network’s news coverage, accusing it of left-wing bias, incompetence and sloppy reporting. Those incidents led many Britons to conclude that the BBC’s independence was at risk.
The latest controversy erupted last month when the BBC’s director-general, Alasdair Milne, bowed to government pressure on a sensitive issue. He agreed to cancel a 30-minute documentary about a proposed top-secret British spy satellite called Zircon, designed to eavesdrop on telecommunications in the Soviet Union and large areas of Europe and the Middle East. The program, produced by journalist Duncan Campbell, was one of a series of six about official secrecy in Britain. Part of the series—which has yet to be shown—examined the impact of Britain’s 76-year-old Official Secrets Act, which experts say is one of the most restrictive secrecy laws in force in a Western democracy.
Shortly after Milne banned the Zir-
con program, police conducted two searches of the London offices of the New Statesman, a leftist weekly for which Campbell had written an article about the spy satellite. They also raided Campbell’s home and seized documents related to the program. But the most dramatic raid was last week’s search of the BBC’s Glasgow offices, where Campbell had made the series. According to journalists who witnessed the raid, at least 10 Special Branch detectives took part. And in an attempt to determine the source of the leaked information, police seized every availc able piece of film and § videotape related to the 8 series as well as hunÍ dreds of pages of docu£ ments and notes. At week’s end, they had returned three films.
Opposition politicians and civil libertarians quickly denounced the seizures as a blatant attack on press freedom. Social Democratic Party MP Roy Jenkins, for one, said that the government’s handling of the affair made it appear to be running “a second-rate police state.” During a rare emergency debate in the House of Commons, the Labour Party’s Kaufman said that the incident had given rise to fears “that Britain may be going down a road already travelled in Eastern Europe and South Africa.” And the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) called on its 33,000 members to stop work for two hours on Feb. 17 as a sign of protest. “This government has a history of trying to silence journalists who embarrass them,” said Jacob Ecclestone, deputy general secretary of the NUJ. “It has launched a sustained invidious assault on the independence of the BBC.” For the BBC, last week’s furore came at a critical time. Only three days before the raid, Milne, 56, had resigned “for personal reasons.” In fact, insiders said he was almost certainly forced to quit by the chairman of the board of governors, Marmaduke Hussey, whom Thatcher appointed last October. According to some reports, Hussey took action against Milne because he believed the director-general was not strong enough to stand up to the government. In the midst of controversy, the board now faces a difficult choice— to find a replacement for Milne who will have credibility within the BBC.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.