Watching the BBC

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Frances Stonor Saunders, writing about the left-wing academic Eric Hobsbawm, also provides new insights on the vetting of BBC staff in the 1980s: ‘Vetting of sensitive posts was presented as a perfectly sensible policy, a national security matter, and insofar as the practice was discussed at all, it was not controversial. Yet it provided legitimacy and cover for a far wider programme of top secret political screening whose details are only now beginning to emerge. At the BBC, for example, upwards of 50 per cent of all staff were vetted without their knowledge. This programme, whose existence was officially denied until late last year, was co-ordinated by MI5 and the BBC’s chief assistant to the director of personnel, later retitled manager special duties. Working out of Room 105 (the numeral ‘5’ always denotes the mothership) this assistant, in liaison with a designated MI5 handler, arranged for the top jobs and those that involved access to classified material to be given the full sheep dip. All other positions – current staff as well as new applicants – were processed through ‘normal vetting’, of which the subjects were unaware. Here there was no pass or fail, but if MI5 (cryptically referred to in Room 105 as the College) uncovered anything in the subject’s background to suggest unreliability, a red symbol resembling a Christmas tree was stamped on the subject’s file. Only in exceptional cases was the BBC required to submit to MI5’s veto; generally, the corporation was allowed to use its own discretion, but many employees have testified over the years that their careers were unexpectedly interrupted or impeded by the Christmas tree. When the programme began to be wound down in the late 1980s, between six and eight thousand posts out of twelve thousand at the BBC were being vetted. This included engineers (might pull the plug), cleaners (might rummage through a desk or plant a bomb), producers (might seek to hold people to a particular view), and anybody who was put in front of a microphone (ditto, with knobs on). MI6 was also involved in the screening, but no details of this have ever been disclosed, nor is it possible to confirm the arrangements by which both MI5 and MI6 allegedly obtained BBC cover for its operatives. Additionally, every BBC employee was required to sign the Official Secrets Act...Click here, London Review of Books, 9th April 2015