BBC Myth of Magic? Part 1


The Rabbit took a watch out of its waistcoat pocket and saw it was 1922.

Broadcasting, “is ultimately a persuasive art” said Hilda Matheson, former MI5 officer and the BBC’s first Head of Talks. Her remark made in the wake of the creation of the BBC in the early 1920s is interesting on two grounds – that broadcasting’s role is to influence and it was the voice of British Intelligence that was invited to set the tone of the BBC.  

Tom Mills in his book, The BBC : Myth of a Public Service, dismantles the claim repeated ad nauseam by the British Broadcasting Corporation that it is an honest and impartial national broadcaster. Presumably their claim is repeated so often because it is challenged so often, with very good reason.

The BBC likes to present itself a bit like the NHS, as a British institution held in high regard by the public. Arguably that was true once upon a time but today it is a spurious assertion.

Broadcasting emerged as an alternative source of news and entertainment to that dished up by newspapers which were all biased in one direction or another and reflected the cultural and political views of their owners; wealthy individuals and corporations. The BBC would be different – as a public service it would report news in an impartial manner. That’s a bit like an historian claiming to be objective in recording events – it never happens. The storyteller’s role is a powerful one where what is not said distorts the message as much as what is selected for inclusion.

In 1926 the new BBC was regarded by the UK government as an ideal medium to inform Britain’s “politically uneducated electorate” an observation I suspect was as untrue then as it is now. Back in the 1920s in the wake of the Great War the majority of Britons would have been pretty clued up on politics – and active – women were still battling to get equal voting rights with men and both sexes had spent the 19th century fighting for employment and political rights a struggle that continued throughout the 20th century.

Of course it wasn’t a politically committed left-leaning electorate the BBC was looking to bring on-board (unless to re-educate) but to counter leftist views and disseminate information provided to the BBC by the government and its associated arms – intelligence, police, military, royalty with the expectation the public would swallow it hook, line and sinker. The BBC became an adjunct of the British state reinforcing its small c (sometimes big C) conservative message – a function is has proved to be well able to fulfil.

The question is,‘ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words means so many different things.’

1926 year of the General Strike with the horror of fighting for King and country in the Great War still fresh in memories and the echo of shelling and promise that returning soldiers would find  a land fit for heroes ringing in their ears Britain’s workers instead found they were being screwed into the ground for a second time in a decade and expected to accept pay cuts to their rock bottom wages and having to work longer hours for less pay. When they resisted the King and government did not come rushing to their defence as workers had for them in 1914 and 1915 – they were no longer heroes but demonised by the press, including the BBC .


Then conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, said:

“The general strike is a challenge to the parliament and is the road to anarchy.”

His chancellor, Winston Churchill, said:

“I do not agree that the TUC have as much right as the Government to publish their side of the case and to exhort their followers to continue action. It is a very much more difficult task to feed the nation than it is to wreck it.”

And BBC management agreed. If it was not exactly happy to oblige, oblige it did and allowed its airwaves to be used to undermine workers and defeat their strike. Far from being impartial the BBC only aired anti-strike opinions and propaganda, co-operating with government to read out its press statements in news bulletins verbatim while deliberately omitting pro-worker views.

Stonehaven man, John Reith, who helped establish the BBC was by 1927 its first Director General . The story goes that Reith made sure all voices involved in the General Strike were heard on the BBC but that wasn’t true. It’s a claim that is still made today. Reith asked the government to decide whether he should allow the Archbishop of Canterbury to go on the air to ask for a compromise between the unions and the government. The government  said no and that was that.  Does that make the BBC a government mouthpiece?  Surely there is no more appropriate term for it.

It was almost as if the British Establishment had discovered a great wheeze whereby it set up its own propaganda machine that could reach out to all four countries in the UK – and soon abroad – get the public to pay for it and claim it represented them.

And so impoverished workers and their families struggling to prevent being pushed into greater poverty were forced to abandon their protest. Many lost their jobs altogether and in the Depression of the thirties, the hungry thirties, these same people had to endure unbelievable squalor and anguish.  

Meanwhile Reith and his BBC colleagues were chummily office-sharing with government personnel in the Admiralty (UK government building) where news bulletins were jointly drafted by the BBC and the government’s press officer. That’s how impartial the BBC was. BBC/Westminster government/military/secret services = one body with tentacles.

Mills teases out an entrenched system of collusion between the BBC and successive governments since its inception in the twenties. Management of the BBC and its overseeing body, the Board of Governors, were and still are government appointees who inhabit the same social circles, attend the same schools, often private, and universities – mainly Oxbridge and, unsurprisingly, they share similar cultural and political outlooks. Basically, they are all the same chaps and gels.


Mills tells us that in 2014 26% of BBC executives attended private schools compared with 7% in the UK as a whole. 33% were Oxbridge educated compared with 0.8% of the population. 62% attended Russell group universities (Wiki – 24 self-selected research universities in the UK. Set up 1994 to represent members’ interests, principally to government and parliament. And receive two-thirds of all university research grants and contract income.) It is their job to represent the British public.

There is no need for any audacious conspiracy to try to link the BBC with the British establishment’s view of the world for their top personnel come from the establishment pool of contacts, friends and families recruited for their dependable attitudes or ability to adopt them to ‘get on’ within the organisation. Just in case any reprobate tried to squeeze in appointments to the BBC used to be vetted by MI5. Not now, of course. No, of course not. Mills tells us this vetting process was known as ‘formalities’ and the BBC pet name for MI5 was ‘The College’, in the spirit of George Smiley.

Why such tight vetting? What were they on the lookout for down at the BBC? Commies or lefties are the easy answers. To give them credit, extreme right-wingers were mostly excluded, too. In the parlance of the BBC those with ‘political reliability’ were the sort of chaps they were happy to recruit. It is just a pity the BBC’s intense vetting failed to uncover an inordinate number of sex fiends and paedophiles employed by the Corporation – all presumably of the ‘right sort.’

In the Alice in Wonderland world of the BBC, Lord Green – if they weren’t Lords when they got the job as Director General then most became one after – Lord Green was keen on upping MI5’s vetting of recruits to prevent the BBC’s reputation for impartiality from being compromised. And that, folks, is a line that Lewis Carroll should have written for the Mad Hatter.  

One of the shadowy figures who features in Mill’s exposure of the BBC was the Corporation’s special little helper Ronnie Stonham also known as Bongo. Stonham was a handy sort of chap with a background in post office communications, the military and the secret services that found him operating in all sorts of shadowy theatres of conflict: Cyprus, Malaya, Vietnam, Northern Ireland. He worked out of Room 105 at the BBC where careers were enhanced or broken and he had the power to prevent programmes being transmitted according to how embarrassing they might become to the government. 

It is said any staffers not quite BBC/establishment enough had their files marked with a triangular green tag or Christmas tree to show they weren’t trustworthy sorts.

Typical of the BBC first it denied any such vetting took place then it reluctantly admitted it. Some things never change. Even when the truth was dragged kicking and screaming out of it  BBC management prevaricated and hid as much as it revealed. – claiming that only around 8 people had been positively vetted when in fact the number was close – well not that close – over 6000.

Back in 1969 a young film maker asked to make a film for the BBC about a sit-in at Hornsey Art College in London realised he was being watched by the police and soon his film was cancelled. Fast forward two years and he was again taken on to make a different film for the BBC and provided with a room to work from until thrown out by a member of BBC management. His crime? Travelling to Czechoslovakia as a student. He was far from alone. Read more examples about BBC housekeeping here:

Leftwing and communist were indivisible categories of the unclean to BBC management and not the sort encouraged to share their opinions with the public which gives the lie to BBC’s assertion of impartiality and fair representation of all opinions. Never has been and never will be. That is just not its function in the UK – it works for the British state to preserve it as it is, elitist and conservative; the BBC and the British state work hand-in-glove in pursuit of the ‘national interest’ which, of course, they define.

While a function of the BBC was to reinforce status quo in Britain its much vaunted World Service was established to influence political opinion abroad and disseminate British culture and ‘standards’ to a wider audience. This service nearly doubled post 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, according to Mills, who highlighted input from the BBC’s security correspondent, former army captain in the Royal Green Jackets, Frank Gardner, who, according to Mills, admits close contact with MI5 and MI6. Mills described the BBC World Service as ‘an instrument of “soft power”‘ and it is difficult to disagree when in 2015 the Conservative government announced in its National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review of all places investment of £85 million annually in the World Service in order to, in the words of the World Service –

“further enhance our position as the world’s leading soft power promoting our values and interests globally'”

No iffs, no doubts, BBC working for the British state. And, of course, the DG of the BBC, Tony Hall was grateful, acknowledging the World Service as,

“one of our best sources of global influence”

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out

… to be continued

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service
By Tom Mills
Verso, 272pp, £16.99 and £14.99
ISBN 9781784784829 and 4850 (e-book)

7 Responses to “BBC Myth of Magic? Part 1”

  1. I should. like to.mention someone who, like. Reith was from the. North East and went. on to be ‘something’ in the. BBC but. did. not exactly fit the mould of the establishment ‘controllers’ described in this. article about the BBC. That is Stuart. Hood who was born. in. Edzell, the. son of the then dominie of the public school.
    Here. is. his. Guardian. obituary:
    The obituary suggests that he was a far. left sympathiser/member. f the workers revolutionary. party. and when a. professor at. RCA. was forced to resign due to his sympathy with dissenting. students,. so maybe. he. had a christmas tree sticker. on hs file. He was apparently. instrumental in That Was the Week that Was-a rather. abrupt. move. into. political satire for the BBC. My father went to school with Stuart Hood. He recounted the story. of being. rather. mercilessly. thrashed by. dominie Hood , (and inducing a. lifelong. loathing for. him), on the say. so. of. the local lady of the. manor who was. offended. by my father’s failure to. doff his cap one morning. Word was sent to the school of this transgression and the dominie duly obliged.

    • Thanks for taking time to read the blog and commenting. Yes, I agree that Stuart Hood was somewhat different to the general run of controllers at the BBC but that difference doesn’t seem to have made him fit the job very easily. He did introduce some quality programmes which are pretty well a thing of the past now – except for costume drama and I’ve had a lifetime’s fill of that. Your father sounds like an admirable character. L

      • Not sure about how admirable he was. I think, with the. benefit. of much reflection that. he was certainly badly damaged by his childhood. experiences. I. noticed that. one. of the articles about Hood said that. hs father was an ‘infant’ school headmaster.this was. of. course. not the case as the school catered for all up to the age of fourteen.At this age, either a bursary was found for a poor but promising scholars to attend the nearest highschool or they. found a job-in country districts almost always agricultural. For a poor household, having a scholar. in the. home was a major commitment as it meant foregoing the income from the son(it was vanishingly rarely ever a girl).In the event. The early death of my grandfather closed off the option of the ‘high’ as he was the eldest and was expected to provide some income despite the fact that. he was the dux, and traditionally the dux was. provided with a place at the. ‘high’.
        At the time, Hood was considered rather progressive, and introduced curricular materials and initiatives that seemed highly desirable, such as having woodwork lessons.
        The depth and extent of the poverty of those. times is rather forgotten now. Every penny was a prisoner. only released. under absolute necessity.To supplement the family income, my. father worked as a caddy. on the golf. course. It. is. probably. forgotten now, but Edzell then (20’s and early 30’s ) was quite an upmarket ‘resort’ for the very.wealthy and leisured classes, providing golf and hunting shooting and fishing. On at least. one occasion. my. father remembered the arrival. of a maharaja on a chartered train, complete with his extensive entourage, for the grouse season and on another occasion receiving a threepenny tip from J.P. Morgan.
        Re the. BBC. I. look forward to the 2nd. part. One. of the most. revealing elements of the BBC’s role, relatively recently, in shaping the ideas and impressions of the population was of course the run up to the Iraq war and the affairs relating to the decision to go to war and the Andrew Gilligan revelations/affair. I am sure this was a. key. moment. in the. final. falling. of the. scales. from the eyes. of so. many re the. BBC.
        Speaking recently to someone who tried to attend the. march. held. in. London at that tim, they recounted how they never really got to the march. because the. numbers were so huge, and there was such a. press. of. people everywhere that they barely got off their bus, and the bus was a very considerable distance from the rallying point. The numbers were always ‘played’. down by the. BBC although they. had to acknowledge that it was a ‘big. protest.

      • Enjoyed reading your reminiscences. Lovely story about JP Morgan’s threepenny tip.

        Your reference to the inequality of education is one I’m familiar with – my own late father was unfortunate to being the second son and he, too, missed out on the education provided for his elder brother who went on to become a doctor and consultant while my father, a talented artist, served his apprenticeship as a house painter. The older brother became an officer during WW2 while my father was in the ordinary ranks. The difference in formal education opened and closed opportunities to both throughout their lives and they were both very aware of the luck/misfortune that came from order of birth in aspiring working class families.

  2. Ah, yes, the impartial BBC. It’s propaganda has been ramped up in recent years with the same tired old faces spouting the same one-sided, carefully selected items of ‘news’. Don’t expect it ever to change, but hopefully more people will have their eyes and ears opened to what it actually does.

  3. It will be interesting to see if John Reith is featured in the new Provost Skene museum in Abdn – pull out in last night’s Eve Express lists loads of possibles.


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