From the NS archive: Thought control at the BBC

British journalist and television executive Hugh Carleton Green (1910 - 1987) at a press conference following his retirement as Director-General of the BBC, London, UK, 17th July 1968.

15 November 1958: Command and bias dog the institution.

There is nothing new about the politics of the BBC. In 1958, the colourful Labour MP Tom Driberg examined the appointment of Hugh Carleton Greene (Graham Greene’s brother) as the director of news and current affairs. The newly created position allowed Greene to vet and veto every aspect of the corporation’s output. Driberg was not a fan of such centralised control: not only did it leave creative producers hamstrung, but it could also take on a political aspect, too. When bias was shown, said Driberg, it tended to favour the right, “almost as invariably as an error in a restaurant bill is against the customer”. The BBC, he reckoned, needed less bias and less stuffiness.


“It was felt that an editorial mind was needed.” These are the significantly impersonal words used by a senior executive of the BBC to explain a major recent change in BBC policy.

On 18 August Mr Hugh Carleton Greene took office as director of news and current affairs. This post has no precedent in the history of the BBC. Its holder (with his staff) has, perhaps, more power over the content of the most important BBC programmes than any other single man. Even the director-general himself, though his power may be thought absolute, exercises it intermittently and, often, retrospectively. Surveillance by the new functionary is continuous, covers both television and sound-radio, and (I am informed officially by the BBC) “any script relating to current affairs must be cleared in advance with his office”. There are, of course, a number of unscripted interviews and discussion programmes: in such cases, transcripts do not have to be submitted after the broadcasts (unless there are complaints to be investigated), but the director of news and current affairs must know who are on the various panels, who is being interviewed, and who is doing the interviewing.

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BBC spokesmen say frankly that the object of this change is to unify and centralise (“to secure more effective central control of”) such programmes. Apparently, as a faint glimmer of reassurance, they add that “the planning functions of directors and controllers remain unchanged”. But this merely means that Mr Kenneth Adam is still allowed to decide that Who Goes Home? is to be broadcast at 10.15 on a Friday. Main control over the content of these programmes passes to Mr Greene’s office.

One serious aspect of this reform is that it must diminish the freedom and initiative of the creative man in charge of a programme – the producer. A number of BBC producers (whom I naturally cannot name) are disturbed and enraged both by the general implications of the change and by the actual interference to which they have been subjected. In such an atmosphere no creative workers can do his best; and this may be one explanation of a tendency to stodginess, in programmes that had formerly been lively and enterprising, that puzzled me when the autumn schedule began. (The significance of the appointment probably passed without …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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