Credibility Hurt : BBC Rocked by Threats to Autonomy

Times Staff Writer

After his surrender to British forces in the Falkland Islands three years ago, Argentine Gen. Mario Benjamin Menendez explained to a surprised group of reporters one reason for his decision to give up. In addition to his personal assessment, he explained, the British Broadcasting Corp.'s accounts of the conflict had persuaded him that his position was hopeless.

The enemy general’s admission is one of the more unusual testimonials to the credibility of the BBC’s radio news programming, beamed daily in 37 languages to an estimated 120 million the world over.

At home, the corporation’s consistently high-quality television offerings have established standards that give Britons what is arguably the best TV anywhere.

The success of such series as “The Forsyte Saga” and the “Ascent of Man” have made BBC the world’s largest exporter of television programs and has elevated the quality of programming in other countries, including the United States.

‘Auntie Beeb’

Known familiarly in Britain as “the Beeb” or “Auntie Beeb,” the BBC has helped to define the limits of excellence in electronic media. Today, however, forces of change are rocking the BBC, threatening to destroy the uniquely British formula that has enabled such excellence to flourish.


Under attack are the restraint and tolerance that have enabled the BBC to operate free from political bias despite its position as a state-owned, state-funded organization. Most basically, the value of maintaining a network free from commercial pressures is being questioned.

The first major crisis erupted early last month.

In an unprecedented action, the BBC’s Board of Governors wilted under government criticism and did not broadcast a controversial television documentary portraying political extremism in Northern Ireland. The program had drawn fire because one of the people profiled was widely believed to be a leader of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.

Credibility Damaged

Although the corporation’s editorial management was eventually able to rescue the documentary and now plans to show it in October with only minor changes, the affair badly damaged the BBC’s credibility and shook confidence in a system that had worked well despite periods of crisis.

A few weeks later the BBC suffered a second major blow to its image with reports that Britain’s internal security service, MI-5, played a role in approving the hiring and promoting of a large number of the corporation’s 30,000 employes.

Communist Bloc nations, which spend millions of dollars jamming the BBC’s popular news and current events programs, gleefully declared that the “myth of the BBC’s independence” was destroyed. Commentators in neutral countries such as Sweden and Finland questioned the extent of the BBC’s freedom.

Together, the two incidents added strength to the arguments of those pressing the BBC to support itself with advertising, a development that one senior corporation executive maintained would mean littering its programming with the mediocre quiz shows and the canned laughter of situation comedies similar to those of commercial television.

To the argument that commercial advertising would ease the tax burden needed to support the BBC was added the insistence that such a course was necessary to preserve the corporation’s editorial integrity.

“The gentlemen’s agreements of the past have broken down, and its relationship with the government is out of date,” maintained Paul Johnson, a well-known political commentator, during a recent television debate on the subject. “The role of the media today is opposition to power. You can’t be a kept woman without rendering at least some services.”

Call for Change

Added the Times of London, which turned out a series of editorials, “The BBC should not survive this Parliament at its present size, in its present form and with its present terms of reference intact.”

Inside the BBC’s bustling London headquarters, senior executives make no attempt to hide the severity of their difficulties.

“It is without doubt the biggest crisis the BBC has ever gone through,” said Alan Protheroe, the corporation’s assistant director general and the person directly responsible for BBC journalism. “There is no point in trying to conceal that.”

The implications of the BBC’s crisis, however, extend far beyond Britain’s borders.

For other Western countries such as the United States and Canada, which are key export markets for BBC television, there is the threat that commercial pressures, and the necessary effort to achieve high ratings, could change this prime source of quality programming for the worse.

For state-owned news organizations in Third World countries, struggling for their own editorial freedom against strong governments, any perceived weakening of the BBC’s editorial independence could destroy the corporation’s value as a role model. Especially in former British colonial areas such as India and Pakistan, the BBC has long served as a reference point in arguments for greater freedom for the governments’ radio and television authorities.

Certainly, government pressure is nothing new to the BBC.

Accused of Treason

At the time of the Suez crisis of 1956, then-Prime Minister Anthony Eden accused the corporation of treason and attempted to place it under his direct control after it broadcast accounts of deeply divided British public opinion to troops about to enter battle.

Eventually persuaded to pursue a milder course, Eden placed his own emissary at the BBC headquarters. However, the BBC quickly isolated him from its important decisions and he was eventually withdrawn.

Anthony Parsons, British ambassador to Iran before the Khomeini revolution, accused the BBC of undermining the shaky regime of the Shah of Iran--and British interests along with it--by broadcasting speeches of the then-exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

And, during the Falklands War, a BBC executive triggered cries of outrage with a comment that portraying the grief of an Argentine widow was as important to coverage of the war as depicting the suffering of a British widow.

But dogged, successful resistence to pressure, even in times of war, has over the years built a reputation that has set the BBC in a class by itself, making world leaders as well as enemy generals value its reports.

Kissinger a BBC Fan

A few years ago, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger told how, during the height of his Middle East shuttle diplomacy in the 1970s, he ordered special communications for his aircraft so he could receive BBC news bulletins.

In Islamic Pakistan, the BBC is said to rank second only to the Koran as a source of undisputed truth. And in Zambia, President Kenneth Kaunda is reported to routinely interrupt Cabinet meetings to catch the latest BBC news.

Compared with the great issues of war and peace that have tested the BBC’s relationship with the government in the past, the August incident was relatively minor, involving profiles of two Ulster extremists, one Protestant and one Catholic, both elected representatives in the Northern Ireland provincial assembly.

However, the suspected dual role of one as a leader of the outlawed IRA apparently caused then-Home Minister Leon Brittan to launch a frontal assault on the BBC governors, charging in a strongly worded letter to them that to air such a program would be damaging to security and contrary to the public interest.

The intensity of government pressure was unprecedented, according to BBC executives who felt it. “The tanks were on the front lawn, really, when that letter came to the BBC,” Protheroe said.

A Threat to Resign

The governors’ decision to withdraw the program triggered an immediate confrontation with the corporation’s senior editorial management. Director General Alasdair Milne, effectively the corporation’s editor in chief, threatened to resign if he were not assured of unfettered control and given a commitment to air the disputed program in some form.

Milne won the confrontation and the documentary is scheduled to be shown with three minor additions and no cuts, but the BBC’s reputation remains scarred.

The affair has also raised questions about the entire unique structure, including the Board of Governors, that has protected the BBC from interference since its inception 58 years ago.

The board, made up of 12 distinguished laymen who serve five-year terms, carries the ultimate responsibility for the BBC’s content. Traditionally, both the governors and those who recommend them for appointment by the queen have remained above party politics.

In recent years, however, there have been accusations that Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has broken this tradition of bipartisanship by stacking the board with Conservative appointees. Some argue that the governors’ decision to withdraw the Ulster documentary marks the logical conclusion of her policy.

‘People of Her Own Ilk’

“She’s the only prime minister in history who has packed the Board of Governors with people of her own ilk,” said Hugh Greene, BBC director general in the 1960s and a governor from 1969-71. “It brings the potential for long-term damage. If (opposition Labor leader Neil) Kinnock becomes prime minister, he’ll think he can do the same thing.”

Reacting to disclosures of MI-5 involvement in personnel selection, BBC executives say that security checks have been conducted on applicants for sensitive jobs at the corporation since 1937 because of its emergency wartime role in operating up to 20 broadcasting centers. They admit, however, that in recent years, it had gotten out of hand.

Reports of extensive, overzealous MI-5 screening, first published in the London Observer, deeply embarrassed the corporation. One applicant for a reporting job was disqualified, for example, because an MI-5 clerical error confused an innocent student society to which she had belonged with a Communist-front organization.

Milne recently announced plans to reduce the number of jobs for which applicants would be investigated by up to 80% and to make known the positions that are subject to screening.

An appeals procedure is also being established to prevent candidates from being unfairly disqualified. However, Milne said, limited investigations would continue, both for security-sensitive jobs and for workers in the BBC’s foreign language services, where East Bloc emigre employees are eager to have it confirmed that none of their colleagues are agents of foreign governments.

Morale, Confidence Undercut

BBC executives admit that staff morale and confidence have been undermined by the two incidents, but they say that no key staff members have left. A commitment to screen the Ulster documentary and steps to curtail the MI-5 security checks are both seen as major steps in restoring the the corporation’s battered image. And Protheroe believes that the worst of the trouble is over.

But doubts about the BBC’s ability to remain aloof from government interference have added to the strength of the arguments of those who believe that the corporation is an obsolete, arrogant remnant from an age of public service broadcasting that has no place in the competitive, aggressive world of 1980s broadcasting.

Even though viewers’ annual color television tax has tripled in the past decade to more than $80 per year and is fast rising beyond the reach of Britain’s poor, they point out, it is insufficient to fund the BBC at the levels of its rival, the Independent Television Network.

The rising number of Britons evading the television tax--now about 1.5 million--shows a breakdown of the national consensus that once buttressed the BBC, they say.

With further increases in this tax politically limited, the critics believe that the BBC could descend into gradual, inexorable decline, dragging the level of the country’s commercial television down with it unless new funding is found.

‘Magnificent Dinosaur’

The only alternative, they insist, is for the BBC to earn its keep from the marketplace. One advertising industry study suggested that commercials could generate as much as $800 million in additional revenue annually by 1996. Such funding would be the best possible guarantee for the BBC’s vitality and its independence, proponents of advertising maintain.

“The BBC is a magnificent dinosaur from the 1930s,” said Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute, a London-based economics think tank. “It must either adapt or die.”

Opponents of any BBC move to the marketplace claim that the campaign is motivated by greed on the part of the country’s major advertising agencies, who dream of great prime-time television confrontations and the money they would bring.

They question whether the volume of advertising would be big enough to support such a move, asserting that it could severely damage the country’s existing commercial radio and television broadcasters as well as destroy the BBC in its present form.

What Freedom Would Mean

“If the BBC were made to accept advertising, it would mean the destruction of the best television in the world,” said John Mortimer, one of Britain’s most respected screenwriters. “Freedom in this case means freedom to give what American television gives the American viewer--36 stations of identical rubbish.”

Apparently intrigued by the prospect of commercial funding, the Thatcher government earlier this year appointed a high-level committee under the leadership of Edinburgh University economist Alan Peacock to study new ways of financing the BBC. The committee’s report, due next year, could play a major role in shaping a future BBC.

BBC officials admit that financing the corporation has become a headache that is likely to get worse. They are studying alternative means of support, including subscription, corporate sponsorship and installment plans for the tax payments; but they steadfastly reject advertising.

Despite all of the BBC’s problems and all the talk of major change, Parliament member Austin Michell of the Labor Party spoke for many Britons, as well as those who have come to know the BBC worldwide, when he said:

“In the BBC, we have one of the very few things in this country that we can be proud of. Let’s leave it alone.”