Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The BBC As Auntie

On 8 April 1943 there was a debate in Parliament in which the BBC came in for some criticism – not an unusual occurrence particularly early in the conflict. But this was not the normal kind of condemnation of the broadcaster’s output. It was from some Independent Labour Party (ILP) members that seemed to be motivated along doctrinaire lines.

John McGovern had been a member of the Anti Parliamentary Communist Federation before becoming the Independent Labour Party MP from Glasgow, Shettleston; he had been expelled from the Labour Party proper. He like his colleagues in the ILP consistently opposed the war, they refused to recognize the coalition of all parties that were fighting the Axis powers and generally made a nuisance of themselves. McGovern put forward the motion. "That this House is gravely concerned at the partiality of the propaganda and choice of propagandists by the BBC, and the way in which it is being directed on totalitarian lines; and is of the opinion that the Government should take the necessary steps to secure that more opportunity should be given for the propagation of the different shades of opinion on political, social, religious and medical questions, so that the Corporation should be used as an instrument of democracy, instead of one for the creation of an authoritarian regime in this country.” War clearly was not going to get in the way of this man’s fight for justice in broadcasting. When the debate opened McGovern accused Churchill of “dictatorship" and “complete authority over the BBC and the Press.”

John McGovern went on to say, "We get a one-sided hash all the time. It shows a complete lack of faith in democratic institutions." He pleaded that the BBC should provide expression for even extreme points of view. He had no objection to a Fascist speaking over the radio, if he was answered by a representative speaker in reply. “I do claim that this is a totalitarian instrument wielded for the benefit of the Government and particularly at the dictation of the Prime Minister. Everybody seems to be afraid to face up to this individual and he appoints in every phase of public life those who can be depended on to carry out his own wishes.” One of McGovern’s colleagues in the ILP, Campbell Stephen the MP for Camlachie, who seconded the motion spoke about an outrage against the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. According to him his fellow Scots were still suffering a certain amount of victimization because of the anti-war views of its conductor, The Reverend Dr. Macleod of Glasgow. “A man of great influence in the Church of Scotland, (who) was very often at the microphone, but evidently the BBC decided that he was unsafe when he became a disciple of Dick Sheppard, who took an anti-war point of view. “ It meant that Dr MacLeod was “no longer a welcome visitor to the microphone.” In finishing his speech he accused the BBC of using propaganda to “ create a nation of robots, instead of a nation of thinking people.”

A Liberal member for the University of Wales seat, Professor Gruffydd (he had formerly been in Plaid Cymru) making his maiden speech in the House said. “The B.B.C. was becoming the great cock-shy or Ye Old Aunt Sally…it gives the nation a service such as no other broadcasting corporation gives in the world.” Lord Hinchinbrooke for the Conservatives suggested, “that proceedings in the House should be broadcast. After the war the BBC should be further divorced from Government control and associated more intimately with the people, or an alternative network should be set up.”

In both these comments there is perhaps the first talk of what have become old chestnuts. Was this the first time the BBC was called “Auntie”? I can find no earler reference to the BBC being called Auntie. The idea of broadcasting parliament would be hotly debated for the next thirty of so years. It was not until 1975 that Parliament was first broadcast live. The first commercial radio stations in the UK, and the first legal alternative to the BBC beat the broadcasting of Parliament by just two years.


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