Thatcher censorship of BBC / Robin Cook undermining Intel Services

#1
In the release of 1981 Government files yesterday, is one document about a BBC Panorama programme on the intelligence services and attempts by the Government to have it cancelled or at least censored.

Below is a transcript of one of the memos in the document. The underling was done by Mrs. Thatcher. The exchange between a civil servant and the DG of the BBC is quite interesting and shows how the Government tried to influence the BBC but with limited success. Ultimately it also shows how the media is better placed at controlling the agenda than the Government.

It also mentions that the Government believed Robin Cook MP was involved in a campaign to undermine the intelligence services.

www.arcre.com said:
In 1980 the British Broadcasting Corporation commissioned its flagship Panorama news and current affairs programme to produce a documentary on Britain's intelligence services. Although the documentary nominally purported to tackle the issue from the viewpoint of accountability of the intelligence services, the Government was concerned that the BBC was being embroiled in a campaign led by journalist Duncan Campbell and opposition MP Robin Cook to undermine Britain's intelligence services.

The following memorandum is a report on a meeting between civil servant Robert Armstrong and the then Director-General of the BBC Sir Ian Trethowan where the Government tries to prevent, or at least censor, the broadcast of the programme.

TOP SECRET AND PERSONAL
Ref. A02749
Copy No. 1 of 15 Copies
MR. WHITEMORE
BBC Panorama: Proposed Programme on Intelligence Services

I saw Sir Ian Trethowan this morning [Director General of the BBC].

2. I said that I was speaking to him with the knowledge and approval of the Prime Minister [Mrs. Thatcher].

3. I spoke on the lines of paragraph13(a) of my minute of 21st July [1980]. I said that the activities of Duncan Campbell and those associated with him were doing the effectiveness of the intelligence services no good. The damage was containable so long as the activities were confined to the columns of the New Statesman, Time Out and other papers of that kind; but a BBC Panorama programme would reach a very large audience, and could run the risk of very much greater damage to the effectiveness of the services. That of course was what Campbell and his associates were aiming at. I said that I recognised that there would be some aspects of the matter – particularly accountability – which could be regarded as matters of legitimate public interest; but, even if the programme was confined to that, it would not be possible for any present or former member of the intelligence services or of the public service to take any part, and I doubted whether present Ministers could do so either. It seemed to me that in the circumstances it would be very difficult to produce a balanced programme. I said that all that I had heard about the activities of the Panorama team preparing the programme suggested that they were aiming for something going much wider than accountability, and looking at the functions and operation of the intelligence services, and I instanced a number of examples of the activities of Tom Mangold and his team to illustrate this point. I felt bound to draw Sir Ian Trethowan’s attention to this, and to the risks it entailed for the work of the intelligence services.

4. Sir Ian Trethowan said that the BBC would produce nothing that was not authoritative and balanced. He recognised, and the Panorama team now recognised, that there was no possibility of cooperation from within the services or within the public service on the functions and operations of the intelligence services, and that it would not therefore be possible to produce a programme on that subject which would be authoritative and balanced. I should rest assured that nothing on those lines would be shown. It was already clear and accepted that there would not be two programmes. There remained the question of accountability. This was a matter which was being pursued by a Member of Parliament (Mr. Robert Cook [aka Robin Cook]), who was proposing to introduce a Bill. It was difficult to argue that this was not a matter of public interest which could be presented on the BBC. He recognised the difficulties which prevented anybody form inside the services or Government from taking part, but he hoped that it would be possible to provide a measure of balance by inviting former Ministers to take part: he referred to Mr. Merlyn Rees, Lord Carr, Lord Butler and "former Prime Ministers, but not Sir Harold Wilson".

5. I reiterated that the activities of the team, as I was hearing of them from a number of sources, were by no means consistent with a programme confined to the question of accountability, and were not merely disagreeable but in some cases positively discreditable. My fear was that the preparation of the programmes would go forward, that the Director General would find himself, near the time for broadcasting, with programmes on which there had been a considerable investment and which it would be difficult then to cancel and replace. Sir Ian Trethowan assured me that considerations of cost would not prevent him from disallowing a programme which in his view ought not to be shown, as he had done on previous occasions. I said that this seemed a cavalier approach to costs from an institution which was complaining of being very short of money.

6. I then reverted to the question of accountability. I said that I could understand why he might think that it was difficult to object to a programme confined to that issue. But he should have regard to the motives of those who were promoting the interest in this subject. It was not a matter of widespread public interest, and the arrangements for accountability, both on expenditure and on activities, were good. Parliament had always accepted that parliamentary control in these areas was entrusted to Ministers, and there were no indications of general dissatisfaction with that position. Mr. Cook was exploiting this issue as a vehicle for promoting the campaign, in which he was associated with Duncan Campbell, to discredit the intelligence services and damage their effectiveness. The BBC had to consider very seriously whether it should lend its authority to this campaign. The BBC should guard against the possibility that it was being exploited by Mr. Campbell and others. This did not mean that I regarded Tom Mangold as anything other than an over-enthusiastic investigative journalist, though there were contacts between Tom Mangold and Campbell and his associates which were worrying, and it was possible that Mangold might be being unconsciously exploited. But that was not the point: the point for the Director General was whether the BBC should lend its authority, even by putting out a programme on accountability, to a campaign whose motivation was to discredit and damage the intelligence services.

7. Sir Ian Trethowan promised to reflect on what I said and to be in touch again later.

8. Sir Ian Trethowan said that he had informed the new Chairman of the BBC about the preparation of this programme, and Mr. Howard had discussed the matter with the Panorama team in the course of a visit to Lime Grove [former BBC premises in Shepherds Bush, London]. Sir Ian Trethowan did not tell me what Mr. Howard’s view was.

9. I am sending copies of this minute to Mr. Halliday (Home Office), Mr. Walden (FCO), Mr. Norbury (MOD) and Mr. Harrington (NIO).

[signed] Robert Armstrong
29th July, 1980

[Underlining by Prime Minister Margret Thatcher]
Handwritten comment by the Prime Minister: "…the matter has been put to the BBC in no uncertain terms".
Source TNA document PREM 19/587, released to the public on 30 December 2011.
From: Arcre - Government Censorship of BBC Panorama Documentary
 
#3
I'm not reading all that, just cut to the headline I should be getting outraged about!
Depending on your particular point of view, there's potential for outrage from a couple of angles.

Lefty BBC with lefty future Foreign Secretary trying to bring down MI6;
or perhaps right wing Government trying to censor the media.

Personally I think it worth a read regardless of faux outrage. The interesting point that despite the BBC apparently being the most controllable part of the British media from the Government's perspective, it is actually rather difficult for it to implement that control even in a fairly clear cut case of trying to protect national security.
 
#5
According to the link, the BBC were reporting the same material that other organisations, including The New Statesman, were publishing or were about to publish yet the government was going after the BBC because they believed the larger audience made for more of a security breach. That shows a fundamental misconception of the way public information disseminates, IMO. The people that were interested would find it our from those other smaller media while the majority who didn't care wouldn't have bothered anyway.
 
#6
Depending on your particular point of view, there's potential for outrage from a couple of angles.

Lefty BBC with lefty future Foreign Secretary trying to bring down MI6;
or perhaps right wing Government trying to censor the media.

Personally I think it worth a read regardless of faux outrage. The interesting point that despite the BBC apparently being the most controllable part of the British media from the Government's perspective, it is actually rather difficult for it to implement that control even in a fairly clear cut case of trying to protect national security.
Is there not a ministerial veto for the broadcast of any BBC programme?
 
#7
If there was, I suspect Blair would have used it over the 'sexing up' report. Particularly at the point where the BBC was the only news organisation going after the government about it.
 
#8
If there was, I suspect Blair would have used it over the 'sexing up' report. Particularly at the point where the BBC was the only news organisation going after the government about it.
"The government considered - but rejected - the idea of using a "veto" it had in the BBC charter to ban any programme from being broadcast, recognising such a move would be highly controversial and that the contents would almost certainly be leaked anyway."

BBC News - Secret service pressed BBC to censor Panorama - papers

Not sure if it still exists. As I remember the 'sexed up' comment had its genesis in an off-hand comment during a live Radio 4 broadcast.
 
#9
Is there not a ministerial veto for the broadcast of any BBC programme?
Yes there is/was and it was a considered option in this particular case. However, the Government decided that a veto would cause even more public/media controversy and thus was a too risking solution.
 
#10
"The government considered - but rejected - the idea of using a "veto" it had in the BBC charter to ban any programme from being broadcast, recognising such a move would be highly controversial and that the contents would almost certainly be leaked anyway."

BBC News - Secret service pressed BBC to censor Panorama - papers

Not sure if it still exists. As I remember the 'sexed up' comment had its genesis in an off-hand comment during a live Radio 4 broadcast.
That's very interesting. D'you know, I had no idea the government had that specific a degree of control over the Beeb.
 
#11
That's very interesting. D'you know, I had no idea the government had that specific a degree of control over the Beeb.
I was amazed (when I looked into it) the number of vetoes minsters have over a wide range of issues - media, broadcasting and even judicial.

Basically it would be near enough impossible to have a Watergate here as the defence of "executive privilege" is insurmountable in Britain.
 
#12
According to the link, the BBC were reporting the same material that other organisations, including The New Statesman, were publishing or were about to publish yet the government was going after the BBC because they believed the larger audience made for more of a security breach. That shows a fundamental misconception of the way public information disseminates, IMO. The people that were interested would find it our from those other smaller media while the majority who didn't care wouldn't have bothered anyway.
But it wasn't just about audience size but credibility as well. Many people would not have been interested in the ramblings of Time Out but certainly would take note if broadcast by Panorama, especially in 1980.
 
#13
I was amazed (when I looked into it) the number of vetoes minsters have over a wide range of issues - media, broadcasting and even judicial.

Basically it would be near enough impossible to have a Watergate here as the defence of "executive privilege" is insurmountable in Britain.
Although the Government has a veto on the BBC, it can be almost impossible to exercise that power without resulting in political suicide. This was the very real concern with this example and the reason why the Government decided it couldn't resort to a veto. Look at the later problems the Government got itself into as regards the publication of Spy Catcher.
 
#14
Although the Government has a veto on the BBC, it can be almost impossible to exercise that power without resulting in political suicide. This was the very real concern with this example and the reason why the Government decided it couldn't resort to a veto. Look at the later problems the Government got itself into as regards the publication of Spy Catcher.
Spy Catcher was not a publishing veto but an attempt to secure an utterly pointless injunction through the courts both here and in Australia.

With a book it's not such a big deal as it can just be published elsewhere but when it is a product of journalism such as Panorama which can easily be contained prior to broadcast then that is a different matter.

Government have considerable powers to ignore court orders for the publication of documents etc.
 
#15
Basically it would be near enough impossible to have a Watergate here as the defence of "executive privilege" is insurmountable in Britain.
Have a google for "Matrix Churchill".

Directors of a UK engineering firm were prosecuted for supplying precision machine tools to Iraq, in breach of sanctions. At trial, they claimed they were working for MI6 and were encouraged to breach sanctions so they could obtain information about the Iraqi ballistic missile programme.

The government laughed at their claims.

The defence tried to subpoena government documents that would exonerate the defendants. Ministers signed public interest immunity certificates to overrule the court and stop the documents being disclosed.

Three innocent men would have gone to prison to spare ministers including Alan "economical with the truth" Clarke from personal embarrassment.
 
#16
Spy Catcher was not a publishing veto but an attempt to secure an utterly pointless injunction through the courts both here and in Australia.

With a book it's not such a big deal as it can just be published elsewhere but when it is a product of journalism such as Panorama which can easily be contained prior to broadcast then that is a different matter.

Government have considerable powers to ignore court orders for the publication of documents etc.

My reference to Spy Catcher was meant to illustrate how attempts at suppression by the Government can backfire by causing even more controversy, rather than to illustrate the effectiveness of that suppression.

It was the Government's attempt to stop publication of Spy Catcher which guaranteed it to be a best seller. And to be fair Peter Wright's accusations against Roger Hollis did prove to be totally unfounded - but that's another debate.

The reason the veto was not used in the Panorama case was because the Government believed that details of the programme and the Government's veto of it would ultimately be leaked by the press and thereby make the situation even worse. They should have used the same reasoning in regard to Spy Catcher but chose not to.
 
#17
Have a google for "Matrix Churchill".

Directors of a UK engineering firm were prosecuted for supplying precision machine tools to Iraq, in breach of sanctions. At trial, they claimed they were working for MI6 and were encouraged to breach sanctions so they could obtain information about the Iraqi ballistic missile programme.

The government laughed at their claims.

The defence tried to subpoena government documents that would exonerate the defendants. Ministers signed public interest immunity certificates to overrule the court and stop the documents being disclosed.

Three innocent men would have gone to prison to spare ministers including Alan "economical with the truth" Clarke from personal embarrassment.
Yes I am fairly familiar with the case. It was not a ministerial veto which caused the trial to collapse but Alan Clark's being questioned under oath.

Nixon attempted to apply a defence of executive privilege to prevent his having to release the audio recordings of his conversations in the Oval Office relating to the Watergate break in. The Supreme Court ruled that executive privilege did not apply in criminal cases. Were it not for Ford's subsequent unconditional pardon, he would almost certainly have been convicted for obstruction of justice.

He could still have been impeached even though he resigned, but the unconditional pardon put an end to this too.

Some interesting info on the subject in England here.

My point was that something like Watergate would be highly unlikely to happen here. If a committee of Lords/MPs was set up to investigate it could not force the disclosure of evidence or the attendance of witnesses. No special prosecutor could be appointed. The Supreme Court would have little power to intervene and it would be years before a hearing was ever brought before it.

I do hate to admit it, but the US is so much better governed than we are.
 
#18
Panorama is a shadow of its former self. The programme has been effectively neutralised with anodyne content with its length cut from 1 hour to a mere thirty minutes. Government sometimes intervene directly to seize material before it can be broadcast, as they did with the intended broadcast of the Zircon project. The government also exercises control over the 'independent' broadcasters through the use of the franchise. Thatcher refused to renew Thames Television's licence to broadcast as a result of its investigative journalism which resulted in its programme: "Death on the Rock". As far as the Security and Intelligence Services are concerned, David Shaylor and his partner exposed the illegal funding by MI6 of an Al Qaeda group which it sponsored to assassinate a foreign head of state which resulted in the death of innocent civilians when it went wrong. His trial for breach of the Official Secrets Act was a complete travesty in that he was not allowed by the judge to state the reason for his unauthorised disclosure, neither was he allowed to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses, and the jury was instructed by the judge to convict, which they duly did. Injunctions were then issued to prevent the Guardian Newspaper from reporting various aspects of the trial which would have informed the public of the extent to which Shaylor was deprived of a fair trial.

There is nothing like the critical, analytical reporting of government policy that there used to be, particularly in areas which relate to social policy. The press, with perhaps the possible exception of the Guardian, is largely supine and if anything, their relationship with government differs little from that which once existed between the Politburo during the Brezhnev era and Pravda and Isvetzia. I would go so far as to suggest that some newspaper reporting would not be out of place on the pages of Psywar as examples of the way in which successive governments in this country seek, through the media to shape and manipulate public opinion.
 
#19
At the time there was a Deputy DG at the BBC who was a Lt Col (TA) Int Corps.

I thought Spycatcher and subsequent legal actions were a very well implemented deception operation to protect Godievsky.
 
#20
The Deputy DG was actually the Assististant DG to Alasdair Milne, who was the DG. He was a Lt.Col. T.A. but with 3RRW as part of HQLF, Wilton and left as a Colonel with a CBE (military) and DL. I am not the font of all knowledge, just wanted to put the facts right as he is my dad.
 

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