- The series is available to listen to here: Battle for the Airways
The eight 15 minute programs each look in turn at particular incidences of conflict since the founding of the corporation, taking in Suez and the Falklands, up until the present day.
There is a lot of value in it. Some great archive footage and interviews with key players. And it doesn’t tell a simplistic story of nasty politicians attempting to censor and restrict the freedom of courageous journalists either. It is noticeable that often the conflicts are caused or fuelled by poor journalistic judgement.
Also, given the potential for interference, I was struck by how restrained politicians in the past have often been.
One of the more formidable early opponents of the BBC’s independence was Winston Churchill. Episode 2 includes a wonderfully caustic and sarcasm laden recorded extract from a critical speech he made. But Churchill had a point. It was the case that in the Thirties his anti-appeasement views, and those of other critics of the foreign policy of the time, were being deliberately kept off the airways.
I noticed in Episode 6 that even Margaret Thatcher, who you might imagine being the most combative critic, goes some way to moderate her criticism –- “some of the programs, I don’t say all” –- of aspects of the BBC’s reporting of the Falklands conflict.
Robinson’s emphasis in this series is on conflict. It is essentially a collection of snapshots of “battles”. Yet despite this it left me feeling optimistic.
I think you have to accept that to a certain extent the BBC will always work within broad parameters set by an essentially establishment outlook. It is after all the British Broadcasting Corporation established by Royal Charter. It is also true that the BBC’s independence seems to have been as often preserved by skilfully bending to pressure as it has been by resisting it.
Yet in accepting those things, and after listening to the story of these rows and clashes, I can’t help but conclude that the relationship overall between the Government and politicians and the BBC has been one that has worked and been healthy. The really damaging conflicts have occurred mostly at times of war, particularly the more controversial wars, when the stakes have been so much higher.
Outside of those times it has been less a battle for the airways — more taking pot-shots and the occasional skirmish. The boundaries between broadcasters and politicians have largely been established and accepted by all sides, and seems to have largely worked in the public interest. I am not convinced the same be said of the print media.
Robinson’s series highlights the conflicts – but for me the story is one of success. Indeed, it could have been so much worse.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.