Politics and public broadcasting: 1950s friction between government and the BBC
The 1956 Suez Crisis caused long-simmering tensions between the BBC and the government to boil over – and, as David Hendy explores in part nine of our 13-part series on the history of the BBC, marked the start of a shift in the relationship between politicians and the public
In November 1956, a 14-minute televised address to the nation by the British prime minister Anthony Eden triggered possibly the single biggest Cold War-era clash between government and the BBC. It stripped bare the intimate, if awkward, relationship between professional broadcasters and the worlds of Westminster and Whitehall. But behind the row lurked another battle between sharply different views on the proper role of television in reporting politics.
The broadcast, on the evening of Saturday 3 November, represented Eden’s hurried attempt to justify a botched and ill-judged military adventure of his own making. In the wake of Egypt’s recent nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Israeli forces had invaded the Sinai Peninsula at the end of October. Israel’s action had been secretly planned in collaboration with Britain and France, in order to justify a subsequent occupation of the Canal Zone by British and French paratroopers.
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Eden’s collusion had initially been a secret known only to a handful of close ministers and advisors. Yet there was disquiet about Britain’s whole response to Egypt’s nationalisation. Even before the first British paratroopers had landed, Eden felt compelled to go before the BBC’s cameras to explain what was happening. In his broadcast, he spoke of Britain’s military intervention as a form of “police action” and claimed that he had acted “rightly and wisely”. His words weren’t enough to assuage the UN, which condemned the use of force, nor the US, which pressed for an almost immediate ceasefire. Before long, British and French troops had been forced into a humiliating withdrawal.
The problem for the BBC was that the crisis had already divided public and political opinion. The Labour party, in particular, was vehemently opposed to Eden’s policy. Oliver Whitley, the assistant controller of the BBC’s Overseas Services, later explained the dilemma facing senior staff at the time.
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This is part nine in a 13-part series by David Hendy that charts how the BBC shaped the nation. Read more about the history of the BBC:
“We had all got used to the fact that there wasn’t a great deal of difference in foreign policy between the two main political parties,” he said, “and here suddenly the nation was split right down the middle, pro and against Suez, and the BBC felt it its duty to reflect accurately, as accurately as it could, the situation.” It meant news coverage both at home and abroad had to feature at least some commentary opposed to Eden. It also meant that, with Eden having defended himself on primetime TV, the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell demanded – and expected – the same treatment. The BBC thought this reasonable; the government did not.
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Throughout this unfolding drama, the director general, Ian Jacob, had been in Australia. In his absence, Norman Bottomley, the BBC’s director of administration, and Harman Grisewood, the director general’s chief assistant, were the two senior corporation officials summoned to Whitehall for a dressing down. Grisewood recalled “a lot of soldiers and some Air Force people” telling them that full wartime conditions applied – conditions that obliged the BBC to support the government of the day just as it had done during the Second World War.
Grisewood and Bottomley refused to accept these terms, and were warned privately that Eden had ordered a legal instrument to be drawn up allowing his government to take over the BBC. It was in the fractious aftermath of this ominous development that the BBC’s board of governors agreed to grant Gaitskell his request. On 4 November, just a day after Eden’s address, the Labour leader used his own broadcast to launch a blistering attack on the PM, describing the attack on Egypt as “a criminal folly” and calling on Eden to resign – which, not long after, he did.
Under the media spotlight
The government was reluctant to let the corporation go entirely unpunished over its impartial approach. In an attempt to exert greater control, the Foreign Office insisted on the appointment of a “liaison officer” in the Overseas Service, hoping the government line would thereby be given more prominence. It had the opposite effect. Oliver Whitley watched a succession of “usually rather young Foreign Office men” turn up at Bush House only to become “firm friends and often very useful advocates of the whole BBC External Broadcasting operation”.
On the domestic front, the BBC’s willingness to grant Gaitskell his turn before the cameras has often been seen as emblematic of a corporation proudly asserting its independence from government. The reality was more complex. In his memoirs, Grisewood suggested that the row arose not because the BBC had taken sides but because “Eden’s aim was secrecy and the BBC’s was enlightenment”.
Executives were warned privately that Anthony Eden had ordered a legal instrument to be drawn up allowing his government to take over the BBC
Yet in the 1950s, when TV was still finding its feet, broadcasters and politicians alike saw that the medium might not always be the ideal forum for hosting important debates. For a start, there seemed an element of artifice that was absent in radio. Among the BBC team responsible for organising Eden’s Suez broadcast was the young, freshly recruited producer David Attenborough, who recalled a bizarre scene unfolding inside Downing Street: the prime minister in bed, “looking dreadful, in his pyjamas”, pill bottles lined up next to him and his wife frantically dabbing mascara on to his moustache.
In the aftermath of his 1945 election defeat, Churchill had set out in no uncertain terms why he believed “the BBC must do no political broadcasting of any kind” when it came to television: “I’ve spent 50 years on my feet having to watch the effect of what I was saying as I was saying it,” he told the director general. “If I’d also had to worry about how I was looking, politics would have become intolerable.”
Some in the BBC might have agreed, at least in private. Grace Wyndham Goldie, who ran the BBC’s television current affairs, claimed afterwards that Eden’s appearances on screen “never did him justice”.
Nervousness, she said, drove him to adopt “a kind of self-conscious charm which… to my mind conveyed a kind of meretriciousness and an intention to deceive”. Goldie was among the fiercest advocates for television’s right to cover contemporary affairs – yet even she could recognise its distorting lens.
The decline of deference
Whatever the doubts, television could hardly be kept away from politics forever. Since no broadcasting from parliament was allowed, younger politicians in particular were ready to embrace the TV studio as a place from which they could reach their electorate directly. They saw, too, the necessity of not just looking the part, but also being quick on their feet.
By the end of the 1950s, not only was television overtaking radio in popularity, the launch of commercial broadcasting had also prompted a step-change in the way politicians were treated on air. ITN’s star interviewer, Robin Day, set the tone through his famously combative interviews. It was therefore a significant moment in the history of British TV journalism when he jumped to the BBC in 1959, and, during the 1960s, the corporation was nudged into an altogether less deferential approach by its new director general, Hugh Carleton Greene.
The cockpit of national debate was shifting: from the precincts of Westminster to Broadcasting House, Television Centre, and Lime Grove – the shabby but energetic base for the BBC’s ambitious and rapidly expanding TV current affairs team. A decade after Suez, viewers were able to watch politicians having to account for their actions on heavyweight series such as Panorama. Listeners to the Home Service could catch William Hardcastle’s quick-fire but authoritative probing of MPs on The World at One. A little over four years later, Day would host BBC radio’s first regular phone-in, It’s Your Line, in which politicians ranging from Enoch Powell to Barbara Castle would answer questions put to them directly by voters.
Politicians’ increasing willingness to enter the gladiatorial arena of the studio came at a cost. There had always been friction between government and the BBC. But the rise to prominence of current affairs in the 1950s and 1960s – and the abandonment of an older, deferential approach among programme-makers – raised the stakes.
The more fascinated the BBC became with politics, the more that politicians were going to take a close interest in the BBC.
Grace Wyndham Goldie: the executive who set the agenda for the BBC’s political programmes
Grace Wyndham Goldie has been described as sharp-witted and practical as well as quixotic and something of a bully. She was also profoundly influential in shaping BBC Television’s approach to the reporting of politics.
Her BBC career had begun in 1935, as a critic for The Listener magazine. But it was her wartime career as a civil servant that fired an interest in the worlds of Westminster and Whitehall. She had worked at the Board of Trade, organising food supplies to bomb-shattered cities. There, she had come to appreciate the “severe responsibilities” carried by politicians and civil servants.
When she later became head of BBC television’s Current Affairs Group, that appreciation forged a culture in which programmes under her control tended to view topical events almost entirely from the rarefied summit of the British political establishment. Panellists on a series such as In the News – the Labour MP Michael Foot and Tory MP Bob Boothby became regulars – were relied on to provide the wit and common sense she saw as vital programme ingredients. As for achieving “balance”, she trusted in her producers’ editorial sensibility, believing they would instinctively know what was right without having to be constantly monitored.
There had long been a natural affinity between senior BBC staff and those who controlled the levers of state: a shared faith in applying rational solutions to the problems of society. But under Grace Wyndham Goldie the relationship was more intimate than ever. Her protégés in the Current Affairs Group – insiders called them Grace’s “boys” – included not just bright young graduates but a cluster of ex- or future MPs: highly ambitious young men such as John Freeman, Christopher Mayhew, Michael Peacock, Alasdair Milne and Donald Baverstock. Their supreme self-confidence would eventually bring a heavyweight – and distinctly undeferential – energy to some of the BBC’s most successful TV series of the 1950s and '60s, including Panorama, Tonight, and That Was the Week That Was.
David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)
This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine