BBC - willing propagandist 1950s – 1980s

From the outset of its creation in 1948, the Information Research Department (IRD) [HYPERLINK] in the Foreign Office set out to manipulate the BBC. Ralph Murray, the first head of the IRD is quoted as saying “our situation is now such that it seems essential that we should approach the BBC and cause them, by persuasion if possible, to undertake such programme developments as might help us”.

Michael Nelson, who was allowed access to the BBC archives notes, “The Foreign Office regarded the BBC as by far the most important propaganda weapon it had in Eastern Europe”. He disclosed that BBC correspondents in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, including the veteran broadcaster Charles Wheeler, were fed classified material gleaned from covert intercepts of Soviet bloc communications to generate anti-communist propaganda broadcasts during the cold war. In another private arrangement between the BBC and the Foreign Office, confidential letters written to BBC correspondents by people living in the communist bloc at the start of the cold war were passed on to the MI6.

Some of the BBC’s senior management was unabashed with this propaganda role, notwithstanding public statements of impartiality and objectivity. In the 1950s, shortly before he became Director General of the BBC, Sir Hugh Green devoted much of an address to the NATO Defence College in Paris on psychological warfare to a description of the BBC and propaganda. He did not hesitate to use the word propaganda repeatedly.

The BBC’s covert links with the intelligence community has continued in a variety of forms. In July 1985 the Special Branch used the roof of Bush House to film and photograph people taking part in a demonstration protesting against the plan to abolish the Greater London Authority and introduce rate capping.

It was also reported to be established practice for the MI5 to send three-monthly security surveys to the BBC and that it had been the job of the Chief Assistant to the Director General to receive these secret briefings and also to liaise with MI5 on behalf of the Director General. The Chief Assistant to Alisdair Milne at the time was Margaret Douglas, who denied this role. The job position was later renamed ‘political assistant’ to the Director General.

Security vetting of BBC staff

In August 1985 the BBC admitted that MI5 vetted its senior staff. The British press carried a report that an applicant, Isabel Hilton, had been denied a job as a reporter in Scotland in 1976. This block was linked to her membership of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. At the time, being ‘pro-Maoist’ was considered a security risk! The Guardian also named Brigadier Ronnie Stoneham, formerly of the Signals Regiment and now an MI5 officer, as responsible for vetting job applicants and appointments to senior posts. Professor Alastair Hetherington, former controller of BBC Scotland confirmed the existence of the vetting system, adding “I did not like it and was unhappy about it”.

Arabic broadcasting

In the 1950s British Intelligence secretly ran an influential Arabic radio station, Sharq al-Adna, under the cover of a commercial station. It transmitted anti-Israeli commentary, readings from the Qur’an and music. During the Suez Crisis (1956) it became the ‘Voice of Britain’, broadcasting propaganda with sanitised BBC news bulletins. When some BBC staff complained, the government threatened deep cuts in BBC grants.

(Sources: Overt and Covert: The Voice of Britain and Black Radio Broadcasting in the Suez Crisis, by Gary D Rawnsley, 1956.
Intelligence and National Security, 11:3 (July 1996), pp. 497-522
MI6. Fifty Years of Special Operations by Stephen Dorril, Fourth Estate)


(Sources: MI6 : Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service
by Stephen Dorril, Touchstone Books, 2002
War of the Black Heavens: The Batles of Western Broadcasting in the Cold War by Michael Nelson, Brassey’s, 1997
The Guardian, 28 July 1985
The Guardian 19 August 1985
The Observer, 1 September 1985
The Times, 20 October 1997)

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