Monday, 1st February, 2016
On 20th October, 1947, the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) opened its hearings concerning communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. This began what was later to be called McCarthyism (named after the most anti-communist member of Congress, Joseph McCarthy).
Waldron Smithers, the Conservative MP for Orpington, asked Clement Attlee, the prime minister, if he intended to create a similar House of Commons committee to investigate communist sympathizers working for the BBC. Attlee understandably rejected the idea.
This is all in the public record. However, a recent Freedom of Information request has revealed that Smithers continued with his campaign. The story is contained in a file released recently by the National Archives. On the front of the brown card cover is a note that the file must be closed "indefinitely".
Inside the file is papers that show that in June 1952, Smithers wrote to Winston Churchill, the prime minister at the time, about the possible infiltration of left-wing elements working for the BBC. Smithers told Churchill "we have traitors in our midst" and that he suggested he set up a "committee presided over by an English judge or QC… who could make an extensive enquiry into communist activities and report to you".
Smithers was particularly worried about communist sympathizers in the BBC: "In the event of war or a major crisis… these fellow travelers, with their intimate knowledge of the mechanisms of broadcasting, could in half an hour cut wires and damage equipment seriously to hamper broadcasting." He included a list of BBC employees who he understood were communists, or sympathizers, including Anatol Goldberg, the head of the BBC Russian service.
Apparently, Smithers did not like the tone of Goldberg. Peter Fraenkel, who worked with Goldberg at the BBC, claims that Goldberg's approach was more subtle - to listen to people, and then ask them questions like: "The revolution was supposed to deliver this and this this… has it done so?" As a propaganda technique this was very successful, as BBC Russian service was believed to be more popular and more trusted than its US-sponsored rivals.
Churchill was concerned enough to send Smithers's letter to MI5. They wrote back saying the prime minister should not be worried. "In the considered view of the Security Service, communist influence in the BBC is very slight and does not constitute a serious security danger." It was pointed out that MI5 had been monitoring the staff of the BBC for many years. They believed there were only 147 left-wingers out of a staff of 12,200. It was argued that a major inquiry, like that suggested by Smithers, "might cause much embarrassment without serving any useful purpose".
The file includes other letters concerning the possible left-wing infiltration of the BBC. In 1953 it was reported that there had been a sharp drop in the number of "communist sympathizers" on the BBC staff. There were now less than a 100 and most of those were in junior positions. The Director General Sir Ian Jacob was aware of the "risks" that they'd try to influence the content of broadcasts, but that "he is certainly on the watch for any signs of this - he is of course helped by knowing precisely who the suspects are and what positions they hold". Jacob was a former political adviser to Churchill and was later a Tory councillor in Suffolk.
Jacob does not appear to have been asked to keep a watch out for "right-wing" Conservatives who might be trying to influence the political content of BBC programmes. Of course that does not appear to be a problem at the BBC. Otherwise, why would they have employed Nick Robinson as chief political correspondent. In 1985 he was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association and caused considerable embarrassment with his right-wing extremist views.
Robinson's senior editor, Thea Rogers, was also a strong supporter of the Conservative Party. In 2012 she left the BBC to become special advisor to the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne. In July, 2015 the chancellor told thousands of teachers, nurses, police, firefighters and civil servants that they would face another four years of having pay rises limited to 1% a year. At the same time he gave Rogers a 42% pay increase and she now receives £98,000 a year.
Then there is Robbie Gibb, the current editor of all BBC TV’s political programmes. Before he joined the BBC he was a vice-chairman of the extreme right wing Federation of Conservative Students and went on to become chief of staff to the senior Tory MP Francis Maude.
Andrew Neil, is the presenter of five hours of television a week including This Week, the Daily Politics and Sunday Politics. He is another with a right-wing background. He is a former Rupert Murdoch editor, was a researcher for the Conservative party and is chairman of the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine. He also argued his free market views at the Hayek lecture at the rightwing Institute of Economic Affairs in November 2005.
It is interesting to note that David Cameron replaced his previous press secretary, Andy Coulson, with the then editor of BBC News, Craig Oliver. Soon afterwards, London mayor Boris Johnson recruited BBC political correspondent Guto Harri, to head his media team. When Harri moved on to work for the Murdoch empire he was replaced by Will Walden, a BBC news editor at Westminster.
For over twenty-five years Jeremy Paxman presented Newsnight. It was only after he left the show that he admitted that he had been a long-time supporter of the Conservative Party and in the past had been approached to become the Tory candidate as London mayor. He was replaced by Evan Davis, who in 1998, published a book, Public Spending, where he argued for the privatization of public services.
Although the BBC only seems to employ Conservative supporting presenters. As soon as Melvyn Bragg became a Labour peer, he was immediately banned from appearing on any BBC programmes that might have any political content.
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