The BBC and MI5

 

The BBC has always claimed "political neutrality" and independence from the state, but we doubt many people were surprised when Stuart Hood (ex-Controller at the BBC) was quoted by Channel 4 as saying "there was traffic between the security services and the BBC on appointments and matters of that kind." Apparently MI5 held lists of people it didn't want appointing to senior positions in the BBC, and had final say on vetting. (C4, The History of Surveillance, 12/8/2001)

MI5 secretly vets thousands of BBC employees. In 1983, for example, 5,728 BBC jobs were subjected to "counter-subversion vetting" by MI5. Senior BBC figures "covered up" the link with the intelligence agency - leaked documents refer to a strategy of "categorical denial". (Daily Telegraph, 2/7/06)
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/07/02/nspy02.xml

Also from a Guardian article:

BBC officials asked for help from the intelligence services to carry out political vetting of all journalistic and engineering staff from as early as the 1930s, according to an MI5 file on relations with the corporation.

Employees with communist or fascist sympathies were initially targeted but from the onset of the second world war BBC management tried to terminate the jobs of those with "pacifist or defeatist views".

The climate of political suspicion which emerges from notes taken of many private meetings reveals that pressure for general vetting came as much from the corporation as from the security services.

"I lunched today with Mr Pym, director of staff administration at the BBC," records an MI5 officer in November 1937.

"With regard to the general question of vetting BBC personnel, Mr Pym said it would be of great assistance if we could, in addition to giving definite views [on] persons whom we considered unsuitable, let him have a private word regarding others of whom we had record but insufficient reason for giving a definite opinion."

A secret code was devised to ensure that suspects could be vetoed. "For purposes of easy reference on the telephone," the MI5 officer explained, "it was agreed that if we said that a certain person qualified for inclusion in category A it would mean we had definite views as to his unsuitability, and if category B, that we had insufficient material to say definitely that we considered the person concerned unsuitable."

The BBC's political vetting of journalists was first exposed by the Observer newspaper in the 1980s. The corporation defended the practice as being a hangover from the cold war which was later discontinued.

The latest files, covering the years from 1933-1940, released to the public record office demonstrate the longstanding liaison between the security services and BBC managers.

One of those who was most eager to develop close contacts was Colonel Alan Dawnay, controller of programmes at the BBC between 1933 and 1935.

In 1933 another MI5 officer recorded a conversation he had with Col Dawnay. "[He] gave me a very clear indication of the line the BBC were anxious to pursue to maintain a reputation for reasonable impartiality on political subjects...anything that goes outside the ballot box - such as communism or fascism - is considered subversive, if not seditious."

At another lunch, Col Dawnay and MI5 "came to the conclusion that nothing short of a general vetting would be satisfactory (leaving out personnel such as charwomen etc who could never be in any position to do anything against the interests of the BBC)."

The MI5 files contain intriguing references to one "William Farrie, whose broadcast had to be stopped" and later, during wartime, to an electrician who was "very left-wing in his views and is defeatist and unpatriotic". [Owen Bowcott, Guardian 2001]