12 May 2013

Margaret Thatcher and the BBC

Where she [Margaret Thatcher] did not think she was among friends … she scarcely made the effort to convert anyone. Most Leaders of the Opposition take great pains to woo the BBC: not so Mrs Thatcher. In her demonology, the BBC was the very heart of the pinko-liberal conspiracy which was dragging Britain down. The Director-General, Ian Trethowan – a good friend of Ted Heath – insists that the broadcasters were not ill-disposed towards her. But she certainly believed she was venturing into hostile territory: ‘the lady arrived with all guns firing, she showed scant interest in, let alone tolerance of, the editors’ problems and berated them on their failings over a wide area, particularly their coverage of Northern Ireland.’ Mrs Thatcher came into office in May 1979 already determined to bring the BBC to heel. (John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: The Grocer’s Daughter, Jonathan Cape, 2000, p.408)
Margaret Thatcher
John Campbell seems to suggest that Margaret Thatcher was mistaken in her attitude to the BBC. Actually she was right in identifying it as a central element in the ‘pinko-liberal’ movement that was ‘dragging Britain down’. The use of the word ‘conspiracy’ is unhelpful, as it deflects attention from what was clearly going on, to insoluble questions about who originated these tendencies, who said what explicitly to whom, and so on.

Communists knew that in taking over a country it was important to infiltrate its centres of influence. Marxist ideas were in evidence when Margaret Thatcher was at Oxford in the 1940s; and active exponents of them at the BBC interacted with like-minded Oxford academics.

Dame Janet Vaughan was already Principal of Somerville College, and Mary Adams was Head of Television Talks at the BBC, both of them committed Fellow Travellers, as communist sympathisers were then called.

A decade later, when I was at Somerville, the ideological revolution had progressed; the Labour landslide and Education Act of 1945 signalled the onset of the Welfare State.

From the start, the forces of collectivism and egalitarianism scarcely even hinted at their real objectives. One needed extensive experience of what results were being brought about in practice to see that a far more extreme and well worked out agenda was being acted upon, overriding previous principles of respect for factual objectivity, for an individual’s right to make decisions about his own affairs, or for individual differences in ability, and so on. This, however, happened without the previously accepted set of principles having been explicitly rejected.

Mary Adams
Mary Adams of the BBC was the mother of a friend of mine at Somerville, so that I often visited her house. On one such occasion, hearing my father's voice on the telephone when he came to pick me up, Mary Adams said dismissively, ‘He sounds very common’. She did not invite him in to hear his interesting views on education in East London, of which as headmaster of a primary school he had direct experience. The only times she spoke to people with accents as common (or commoner) than my father's was when they were members of the Labour Cabinet and hence freely welcome at her tea parties.

Of course, the people I have described as ‘communists’ were usually careful not to identify themselves as such. Like the Fabians, radical socialists in sympathy with communist ideology had to proceed slowly and cautiously. They might agree with every element of the Marxist perspective, but being described as a communist has typically been controversial, and was therefore to be avoided. Rejecting innate ability, inheritance, private capital, inequality of outcome (at least for others), and the idea of anyone having servants, people such as Mary Adams nevertheless had to call themselves ‘socialists’ and wait patiently until the things they believed in came to be regarded as harmless and normal, indeed barely ‘socialist’ at all – which they duly did.