Reading "London Calling" by Alban Webb
Written by Broadcasting historian Alban Webb, London Calling: Britain, the BBC World Service and the Cold War is an eye-opening portrayal of the BBC's overseas radio broadcasting during the postwar era, leading up to the Suez crisis of 1956. It is a story focused primarily on the institutional dynamics in this period between the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom, particularly in relation to the BBC's "External Services", which broadcast in a diversity of languages to a myriad of countries, and which was often put in the service of British foreign policy objectives. What emerges is an account of a BBC caught between two forces - the impartiality and professionalism demanded by journalistic standards, and the persistent demands of a Foreign Office determined to weaponise it in its propaganda war against the Soviet Union.
I. The Postwar Compromise
II. Broadcasting Anti-Communism
III. An Effective Service
IV. An "Impartial" Service
I. The Postwar Compromise
The BBC was formed as a public service broadcaster in 1927, and in 1932, it started its first overseas endeavour - the English-language Empire Service - intended to unite Britain's worldwide territorial possessions under the airwaves. Its first foreign-language service was the Arabic Service (reflecting Britain's strong interest in the Middle East), launched in January 1938. This was followed by Spanish and Portuguese services intended for Latin America, and then, in September 1938, services in German, French and Italian, for transmission to Europe in a "deliberate attempt to counter the propaganda of Italian and German radio stations" (p.1).
The outbreak of war in September 1939 precipitated a massive expansion in the BBC's external activities. On September 7th, merely six days after German troops invaded Poland, the Empire Service launched a Polish section. That November, the Empire Service itself was renamed the Overseas Service - a name change befitting of the service's expanded ambition; throughout the war, it began broadcasting in almost every major language spoken all over the world - more than forty in total. This Overseas Service, combined with dedicated European Service launched in 1941, comprised the BBC's "External Services"*.
*The name "World Service" did not come into existence until 1965.
During the war, BBC overseas broadcasting was essentially a wartime propaganda tool of the British government, projecting to foreign audiences the "British interpretation of events" (p.1). From September 1941, the BBC's broadcasting to Europe - the epicentre of the war - was placed under the supervision of the "Political Warfare Executive" , an organisation established to "direct, co-ordinate and control political warfare and propaganda activities" (p.13). In contrast, the BBC's English-language services "effectively avoided such oversight arrangements" (p.14).
However, the end of the war raised "a series of important questions for policy-makers in terms of prescribing the appropriate balance between editorial independence and government direction in the future" (p.14). The predominant view in government seems to have that of Minister of Information Brendan Bracken, that regardless of the government's influence in home broadcasting, it would necessarily have to "exercise a much greater degree of control over overseas broadcasting than over home broadcasting" - after all, the External Services, developed over six years of war, had become an attractive tool for the fulfilment of British foreign policy objectives (p.15). Hence, in September 1945, foreign secretary Ernest Bevin asked the Cabinet for a "decision in principle that foreign publicity is an instrument for foreign policy, and that the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs [himself!] must be responsible for it". The motion was passed, and thus the Foreign Office (FO) "took control of the day-to-day relationship between Whitehall and the External Services of the BBC" (p.19).
At the same time, the BBC was developing its own vision of what its postwar external services would look like. In October 1946, the BBC's senior management penned a paper on The Principles and Purpose of the BBC's External Services, which described the purpose of such services as:
Acting as a prime source of fact and information for anyone who cares to take it,
Making the truth available in places where it might not be otherwise known (by its presence it "forces newspapers and broadcasting in authoritarian countries themselves to approximate closer and closer to the truth") and,
Within the Commonwealth, providing a "wider coverage of subject than those local broadcasting services would otherwise enjoy" and linking together parts of the Commonwealth.
The paper also maintained that "it is not the function of the BBC's external services to interfere in the domestic affairs of any other nation ... to throw out Governments or to change regimes"; rather its aim should be to "provide a means of displaying the British way of life"* (p.18).
*This principle would later be put to the ultimate test as the British government geared itself for war with Egypt (see Section IV).
The balance between the institutional visions of the BBC and the FO was captured in the renewed BBC Charter of 1947, which set out the terms of the Corporation's operation and existence. It enshrined the BBC's right to "remain independent in the preparation of programmes for overseas audiences", with the proviso that it should "obtain from Government Departments concerned such information about conditions in these countries and the policies of His Majesty's Government towards them as will permit it to plan its programmes in the national interest". In other words, the BBC should broadcast in the "national interest" within the context of British foreign policy (p.20).
However, perhaps unsurprisingly, there was often diverging interpretations of what was in the "national interest". The BBC's senior management upheld the principle that a BBC trusted by overseas audiences to be objective and independent was in itself a national interest. Hence, when Sir Ian Jacob* arrived at the BBC in July 1946 to head the European Services, he exhorted service directors, when visiting the FO, to "seek to learn all they can, [and] ... listen to the views expressed" but not "act on guidance received directly from the Foreign Office departmental officials without testing it by our long-term standards". This point was reinforced by BBC Director-General William Haley, who wrote in October 1946 that in Britain, "desire to suppress information, particularly news whose publication may be inconvenient from a short-term point of view is ... apparent". However, it was "precisely this kind of news which the overseas listener is inclined to attach great value, and by which the independence and integrity of the BBC's news services are judged" (pp.20,21).
*General Sir Ian Jacob exemplified the links between the BBC and other areas of British public life. During the Second World War, as an army officer, he served as the Military Assistant Secretary to Winston Churchill's war cabinet (1939-45). He then served as the BBC's director of European Services (1946-47) before being promoted to director of all overseas services (1947-52). He then briefly returned to government as Chief Staff Officer at the Ministry of Defence and deputy military secretary to the Cabinet (1952), before re-joining the BBC as its Director-General (1952-60). In late 1948, he was invited to join the Foreign Office's Committee on Russian Policy, set up to "study Soviet activities and co-ordinate counter-action", as well as its Colonial Information Policy Committee, whose purpose was to "give the world a true picture of Russia's conduct in Eastern Europe and its own territories" and present Britain's overseas information activities as an effective countermeasure (pp.27,37,40,103).
As such, whilst there was general agreement between the FO and the BBC on the principles of overseas broadcasting, there was often disagreement on its actual content. As Webb points out, the Charter of 1947 included two powers which offered government the "opportunity to apply political pressure" on BBC output (p.19). The first was a statement that "the Corporation shall whenever so requested by any Department of His Majesty's Government ... send ... any announcement or other matter which such Department may require to be broadcast"; the second enabled the government's Postmaster-General to "require the Corporation to refrain from sending any broadcast matter". Together, they essentially enabled the government to compel or silence the BBC when it came to particular content or material (p.20).
The government also possessed a third device: finance. Before the war, the BBC's activities were financed by a licence fee; however, after September 1939, these were covered by a Grant-in-Aid from the Treasury. After the war, the BBC's senior management had preferred to revert to the old system - however, the ballooning scope of the External Services throughout the war meant that their maintenance had to be financed by the Exchequer, independently of licence fee revenue. The consequences of this arrangement were apparent to the BBC: "subsidisation inevitably involves some degree of control" (pp.21,222).
The government's reading of this arrangement was summed up neatly by Foreign Service officer Ivone Kirkpatrick, who noted that "finance would be provided on the basis of an approved programme, and the Government would be fully entitled to bring pressure to bear on the BBC in order that the service should accord with the aims of Government policy. The ultimate sanction would be a financial one" (p.22).
Speaking on the matter, Lord President Herbert Morrison added that "clearly, it would be unthinkable for Broadcasting House [BBC headquarters] to be broadcasting to Europe, at the taxpayer's expense, doctrines hopelessly at variance with the foreign policy of His Majesty's Government". However, it still had to be the BBC - rather than the Foreign Office itself - who fulfilled this job, due to three reasons: "in the first place, the conduct of a broadcasting service requires a different sort of experience and imagination from the conduct of diplomacy ... Secondly, broadcasting is a fulltime job. Thirdly, and most important of all, we believe that the foreign services will better retain the respect of listeners abroad and of the public at home if, like the [BBC's] Home Services, they are removed as far as possible from the danger of being used to push the interests of political parties instead of the nation as a whole" (pp.23,24).
The correct balance could be struck if the BBC would "accept the guidance of the Foreign Office on the nature and scope of its foreign language services" and maintain "a very close liaison between them" - however, once the "general character and scope" of the programmes have been laid down, the BBC will have "complete discretion as to the content of the programmes themselves" (p.24).
This summarises the dynamic between the BBC and the British Government. Whitehall needed the BBC to project the "British" point of view in a way that capitalised on the BBC's professional skills and trustworthiness abroad. This tempered its impulses to impose control on the BBC's output. The result was what Webb describes as "an act of pragmatic politics between the BBC and the government", a balance between the BBC's "notions of editorial integrity and independence" and the desire on the part of the Foreign Office to "exert influence over programme-making to bring it in line with British geopolitical interests" (p.25). Before long, this dynamic would become intertwined with the geopolitical realities of the Cold War.
II. Broadcasting Anti-Communism
The late 1940s saw the imposition of Soviet control over much of Eastern Europe. As relations between the Soviets and their wartime allies worsened, it was decided that Soviet power in Europe must be undermined by any feasible means possible. Given the impracticality and obvious provocative nature of military action, propaganda was again under the spotlight.
In the spring of 1946, Britain's "Joint Intelligence Committee" - which co-ordinated all intelligence activities - concluded that Soviets would use "all weapons, short of major war ... to weaken foreign countries", including "the full use of propaganda" (p.37). In January 1948, Cabinet endorsed a memorandum on "Future Foreign Publicity Policy" which stated that in response to this threat, "we must be prepared to pass over to the offensive and not leave the initiative to the enemy, but make them defend themselves" - this should be achieved by "adopt[ing] a new line in our foreign publicity designed to oppose the inroads of Communism, by taking the offensive against it" (p.39). Thus, Britain's overseas publicity machinery had been tasked with embarking on a "non-shooting war" against the Soviet Union (p.39).
Foreign Secretary Bevin argued that "the most effective method of countering Soviet propaganda was to provide specific information refuting the misrepresentation made by the Soviet government". This necessitated the creation of a "small Section in the Foreign Office to collect information concerning Communist policy, tactics and propaganda and to provide material for our anti-Communist publicity through our Missions and Information Services abroad" (p.39). The first head of this new body - the blandly named "Information Research Department" - was Ralph Murray, a former regional director of the Political Warfare Executive, and future governor of the BBC (p.40).
Given the Soviet grip on information in Eastern Europe, the BBC and the British government both agreed that the purpose of overseas broadcasting there was in "letting in daylight from the whole of the outside world" and the "beaming-in of the Western, and particularly British, world-view". However, they did not always agree on the how best to present the 'British world-view'. After the Cabinet's decision on publicity policy in early 1948, Bevin asked Ian Jacob, now the director of overseas services, whether the BBC's output was reflecting the "changed international situation resulting from recent events on both sides of the Iron Curtain". Whereas Jacob thought so, given the BBC's emphasis on "a great and encouraging story of Western resurgence" paired with "an ever sharper criticism of Communist actions and Russian policy", the Foreign Office disagreed. After a review of BBC output to Central and Eastern Europe, it detected an "over-developed sense of objectivity" that resulted "not so much in a reputation for fairness ... but in pulled punches & obscured viewpoints". What was actually needed was for the BBC to "adopt a more aggressive attitude" (p.41).
An additional review of BBC output by British overseas missions (commissioned in April 1948) raised further concerns. When reporting on British opinion, the European services drew from a range of newspaper reports across the political spectrum, which, in a genuine attempt at impartiality, gave the impression "of complete bewilderment at the apparent conflict of opinion which conveys an atmosphere of indecision and confusion". On the other hand, news of events behind the Iron Curtain were presented in "too straight a way" and consequently "bore the imprint of Soviet propaganda" without corrective comment. As a consequence, the "Soviet point of view is presented in a clear-cut positive form, whereas the British view emerges as muddled and indecisive". A third criticism was that content should be oriented more towards political material (presumably, as opposed to "projection-of-Britain" material, which enlightened listeners about British culture and the British "way of life"). The last comment was that "content as a whole should be more tailored more towards local tastes in order to attract and keep the audience" (p.42).
With the except of this last point, Tangye Lean, now the BBC's Controller of European Services, felt the FO's criticism to be strikingly unreasonable "to anyone actually engaged in the broadcasts" (p.43). Despite this, after September 1948, Jacob agreed that a new balance had to be found to "avoid giving too much weight to minority views as regards the Soviet orbit and communism". However, he was reluctant to make the BBC's output too combative, noting that the emphasis on truth already did "broadly counter misrepresentations" and that a policy of answering back would hand to initiative to Soviet propagandists; which had been carefully avoided when dealing with the political warfare of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (p.44). Moreover, Jacob was adamant that "conflicting opinions which have serious backing in this country should be allowed expression in proportion to the weight of this backing", noting that "apparent contradictions that may arise from presenting these views helps to demonstrate the tolerance which is a cardinal feature of British democracy" (p.46).
Nevertheless, by January 1949, the Foreign Office found itself satisfied to a large measure by the BBC's alterations. Christopher Warner of the FO felt that "General Jacob has completely accepted the principle that the programmes to Eastern Europe should be almost entirely political, hard-hitting and designed to enlighten the BBC's listeners on the matters which their Communist masters conceal from them or distort". Barbara Ruthven-Murray of the FO added that she had observed a "radical improvement" in BBC services, reflecting the FO's publicity policy in "(a) attacking the principles and practices of Communism, representing it as a threat to Western Civilisation, and describing in some detail the Communists' control and exploitation of the Eastern European countries; (b) stressing the high standard of living, the civil liberties, social progress, and cultural development enjoyed in this and other western countries; and (c) supporting the development of Western Union* in all its manifestations". Patrick Ransome of the BBC's External Services noticed additionally that news content was now being prioritised over the projection of Britain: "time is certainly not wasted on descriptions of camping in Cornwall or recordings of noises at a wildfowl exhibition!" (pp.46,47). By the summer of 1949, Ransome could note that "Cautious methods ... have been abandoned, and have, it would seem, given place to undisguised political warfare" (p.61).
*On March 17th, 1948, Britain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed the Treaty of Brussels, forming the "Western Union", a military and economic alliance. Thereafter, the BBC expressed an interest in coordinating the efforts of the broadcasters of the Union, in order to "put programmes on the air designed to support the common purpose, economic, political and cultural, of Western Europe" (p.96). However, by 1950, the scheme was recognised to be a "complete failure" by the BBC - the issue being that there wasn't sufficient interest in Britain about the affairs of its neighbours (p.99). However, the Western Union experiment laid a precedent to be later developed by the European Broadcasting Union, which achieved great popular success in 1956 with the launch of its "Eurovision Song Contest" (p.100).
III: An Effective Service
The BBC was thus committed to projecting the anti-communist stance of the British government into territories under Soviet control, as well as into the Soviet Union itself. Its effectiveness in this task was indicated by three phenomena; the significant interest in BBC output among audiences behind the Iron Curtain, the attempts of the Soviets to jam BBC radio transmissions, and the tenacity with which the foreign office fought to protect the External Services against the pressures of austerity at home.
Across Central and Eastern Europe, the BBC was constantly relied upon by audiences to provide information not otherwise available in their home countries. Much of this trust was built by BBC External Services broadcasting into occupied Europe during the Second World War. One case in point was Czechoslovakia, where a Soviet-backed coup in February 1948 brought the local Communist Party to power. Before the coup, it was estimated by the Czechoslovak Ministry of Information that as much as one in five people listened to the BBC. During the coup, listeners were able to receive first-hand accounts of the course of events, as well as reports of the "international reaction and western condemnation"; in fact, as the
BBC Yearbook of 1948 confidently stated, "it is no exaggeration to say that in Czechoslovakia in February and March every set capable of receiving London was doing so day by day". After the coup, the United States Social Services Research Council calculated that in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, one out of every two owners of radios listened to the BBC, with the number jumping to every three in four when the popular Sir Robert Lockhart was presenting. In fact, the BBC itself assessed its audience in Czechoslovakia as being "far greater than that of the Czechoslovakian Broadcasting System" itself (p.36).
There was even a significant BBC audience within the Soviet Union itself. To conduct "listener research", the BBC relied on the British Embassy in Moscow, which collected no less than 130 letters from listeners in 1946-47 alone. This figure was to decrease drastically - presumably due to Cold War tensions - but nevertheless, BBC research continued to detect an audience composed of the Russian intelligentsia, disaffected Communist Party members (they were encouraged by reports of "Communist Party members being expelled for tuning into western broadcasts") and even Red Army units stationed in Europe, despite "strictures against this" (pp.58,60).
The wide reach of the BBC spurred its adversaries to begin jamming operations. On April 25th, 1949, the Soviets began jamming all Russian language broadcasts, both by the BBC and by the Voice of America (VOA), the public broadcaster of the United States (p.76). On December 1st, 1951, this was expanded to the BBC's Polish Service. This was followed in 1952 by broadcasts in Finnish (January), Czechoslovakian (February), Hungarian (March), Bulgarian and Romanian (April), and Albanian (May). The result was a comprehensive shutdown of BBC services to Central and Eastern Europe, requiring a concerted response by both the British and Americans to overcome* (p.73).
*This "radio arms race" pulled together the British Foreign Office and the US State Department to devise a broadcasting strategy to be jointly executed by the BBC and the Voice of America. By this time, the British and Americans had already collaborated closely on the communications front; perhaps the most prominent example is a 1948 agreement on joint signals monitoring between the BBC and the CIA, laying the foundation for an intelligence relationship that persists to the present day (pp.84,85).
The advent of jamming stirred discussion within the British government about whether or not it would be worth continuing to broadcast to the Soviet Union in Russian. It was decided that it should be maintained, for three reasons. Firstly, the "gain from redistributing the money and transmitter time saved" was "negligible" (presumably, there was no other cause as worthwhile). Second, one outcome of the jamming operation might in fact be to increase demand for BBC broadcasts; it was precisely in those countries "deprived of freedom of information by their own governments" in which the BBC was most listened to; it was felt that if transmissions were stopped, "minds which are being kept just open would be completely closed and cut off from the West". Finally, one other effect of the jamming operation was to tie up Soviet resources; jamming was estimated to be "ten or twenty times as expensive" as the broadcasting efforts it was deployed against (p.63).
Cost-effective as the BBC's overseas operations were, they still fell victim to the pressures of austerity as public budgets were stretched in the late 1940s-early '50s. In this period, the finances of the British government were stretched to breaking point by "the cost of domestic policy initiatives such as welfare reform and nationalization, the increasingly complex pressures arising from Imperial, Commonwealth and European responsibilities, the slow recovery from war and the effort of reconstruction both home and overseas", on top of the "crippling costs of the escalating conflict between East and West", manifesting themselves most acutely in the defence budget (p.101).
The resultant cost-cutting measures imposed on the External Services* opened a rift between the BBC and the Treasury, one in which the Foreign Office backed the side of the BBC. The main vehicle for doing this was a group at the FO known as the "Colonial Information Policy Committee" (CIPC), which included the ubiquitous Ian Jacob in its membership. In late 1949, the CIPC wrote up a paper that argued that "a broadcasting service is not something that can be turned on and off like a tap, since its audience and its reputation can only be built up slowly and laboriously"; moreover radio was "our only means of injecting anti-Communist publicity into the "iron-curtain" countries", therefore, "any reduction in the output of the BBC's foreign language services at this juncture would be a false economy and would result in a loss of British influence which would take many years to recover" (p.105).
*From April 1st, 1948, budget cuts reduced the External Services' overall transmission hours by 25 percent.
However, the CIPC was unable to prevent the imposition, for the budget of 1950/51, of an expenditure "ceiling" for the External Services of £10.82 million. Again, it fought back, this time in the form of a paper co-authored by Ian Jacob and Ralph Murray, head of the FO's Information Research Department. The paper argued that the External Services were important as "a means of political warfare to strengthen the forces of democracy wherever they are most threatened"; hence, weakening the services would prove detrimental to the struggle between East and West. Therefore, money spent on the services should be regarded as a "form of insurance" against even greater expenditure should that eventuality arise. The war of the airwaves must be treated as a military operation, being fought "as efficiently as possible, as in a military campaign"; it was thus "necessary for us to have the funds readily available, so as to seize each opportunity as it prevented itself, without being subject to long delays required to obtain Treasury approval for each item" (p.107).
As if to hammer home the military analogy, the British Chiefs of Staff testified to a ministerial committee in early 1951 that "it was most important to maintain to the fullest possible extent the Overseas Services of the BBC on account of their value in the prosecution of the Cold War". The Minister of Defence added that cutting the overseas service budget "could not fail to cripple the BBC's efficiency as a Cold War instrument". Arrayed against them was a Treasury proposal to slash the External Services budget to a figure £1.55 million below the BBC's estimate of requirements (p.108).
The war of attrition continued; on April 2nd, 1952, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Anthony Nutting, announced the establishment of an interdepartmental committee of officials to consider the issue of overseas broadcasting expenditure. On July 14th, the committee, which was chaired by Jack Nicholls of the FO, concluded that "the international situation, the Communist ideological onslaught on the free world, the need to right the balance of payments and the necessity of maintaining Commonwealth relationships, all demand an intensification of overseas information work and a measure of continuity in its financing, in order to permit operations to be so planned as to produce their full cumulative effect" (p.112).
The battles over the budget did not end there, but this brief sketch already shows the extent to which the Foreign Office was, in the late-1940s/early-'50s, willing to fight to preserve the budget of the External Services on account of their usefulness in helping Britain fight the Cold War.
IV: An "Impartial" Service
Throughout the book, Webb portrays the BBC External Services as an organisation that, while happy to toe the anti-Communist line of the British government, exercises caution when it comes to sacrificing 'impartiality'. In my interpretation, the two tenets of 'impartiality' in this case are, a) covering news in a way that is as informative and unbiased as possible* and b) when expressing opinion, doing so in such a way as to reflect the opinion of British society as a whole, and not a particular subsection of it**.
*The BBC upheld the principle that the "treatment of an item in an Overseas news bulletin must not differ in any material respect from its treatment in a current news bulletin for domestic listeners" (p.18).
**As Ian Jacob observed, the BBC "has no entity in the sense of having views and opinions of its own". But rather, it "seeks to hold a mirror to British opinion, and to reflect what the ordinary man and woman in Britain feels" (p.30).
However, the BBC has often faced challenges to attain this ideal of 'impartiality', and this can be shown in two episodes, both of them in 1956, that represented watersheds both for the Cold War and British foreign policy. One is the Hungarian uprising, and the other is the Suez crisis.
Months of civil unrest in Communist-ruled Hungary finally exploded into full-blown revolution on October 23rd, 1956, when a demonstration organised by university students snowballed into an enormous movement demanding greater "political, economic and democratic freedoms". In the ensuing weeks, this protest transformed into an armed insurrection as Hungarian, and then Soviet, troops were deployed to quell the unrest. In the first two weeks, roughly 2,700 people were killed, and in the end, the resistance was crushed (pp.133,134).
Before long, coverage of the Hungarian uprising had "dominated all the broadcast output" of the BBC, with transmissions in nearly all languages "wholly concerned with reporting and interpreting its developments" (pp.139,140). With limited resources on the ground, the BBC Hungarian Section relied on Budapest Radio, which had early-on pledged its support for the demonstrators but also acted a mouthpiece for the authorities, as its "principal source of news" (pp.133,140)*.
*However, this was buttressed by a stream of reports from the British Legation in Budapest (p.140).
However, this strong reliance on Budapest Radio was an "acknowledged problem for the External Services in deciphering the accuracy of events". The Minister at the Budapest Legation, Leslie Fry, thought it "most disturbing to the Hungarian people that the BBC should still be quoting virtually nothing but Budapest Radio". The BBC's head of Central European Services, Gregory Macdonald, admitted that the "pinning of everything to Budapest Radio meant ... that unwelcome Communist jargon sometimes crept in" (pp.141,142).
Nevertheless, despite the BBC's obvious sympathies for the resistance, its main concern throughout the uprising was informative reporting, without overstepping the bounds of a news broadcasting service. The same, however, could not be said of the American broadcasters - in particular, CIA-funded "Radio Free Europe" (RFE). In the aftermath of the uprising, the Hungarian leadership accused foreign broadcasters of playing an "essential role in the ideological preparation and practical direction of the counter-revolution, in provoking the armed struggle, in the non-observance of the cease-fire, and in arousing a mass hysteria which led to the lynching of innocent men and women ... [and] ... for the bloodshed between Hungarians". Above all, the broadcasters were criticised for "rais[ing] unreasonable expectations that the West would intervene, diplomatically and militarily, to help the Hungarians in their struggle for freedom", which, of course, they did not (p.150).
The Americans were never going to intervene militarily in Hungary, with President Eisenhower describing it "as inaccessible as Tibet". Yet, according to a study by the US Information Agency, 96 percent of those who fled Hungary during the uprising carried the expectation that "the West would provide aid during the revolution". Half of those surveyed thought that the "American broadcasts gave the impression that the US was willing to fight if necessary to save Hungary". As such, this unfortunate result brought critical attention on RFE, the "most emboldened and forthright of the radio stations" which were engaged in this "collective western broadcast offensive", a station that, more-so than any other, explicitly identified itself with the "idea and language of 'liberation' (p.150).
Despite the whitewashing given to RFE in the public eye, assessments behind closed doors were somewhat more critical. In a report for Eisenhower, CIA director Allen Dulles concluded that "RFE broadcasts went somewhat beyond specific guidelines in identifying itself with Hungarian patriot aims, and in offering certain tactical advice". William Griffith, an RFE Policy Advisor based in Munich, subsequently released a report that found that out of 308 programmes reviewed, four had violated policy, with three offering "tactical military advice". and one implying Western assistance. The Hungarian programme editor, Gyula Borsanyi, had "instructed listeners in partisan warfare and implied assistance if the fighting could be prolonged". On October 30th, in the midst of the uprising, his colleague Gyula Litterati "educated listeners on the use of Molotov cocktails in anti-tank warfare", whilst the day before Katlin Hunyadi had "explained that Americans and Hungarians in Cleveland, Ohio, were volunteering to go to Hungary to fight". Finally, Zoltan Thury quoted a report from the London Observer's Washington correspondent that suggested that "the pressure upon the government of the United States to send military help to the freedom fighters will become irresistible ... In the Western capitals a practical manifestation of Western sympathy is expected at any hour". Of course, that "practical manifestation" never came (pp.151,152).
However, perhaps most revealing is the review of RFE output conducted by the BBC's head of Central European Services, Gregory Macdonald, providing as it does a window into "many of the governing principles inherent in BBC practice". The core principle behind his review is that "a distinction must be preserved between News and Comment - between the reporting of facts and developments on the one hand and the analysis or interpretation of facts". On this front, RFE broadcasts had "too marked a tendency in them to be persuasive or polemical". He noted that an RFE guidance document proclaims that "We believe that only the truth can win us credibility with our listeners. We have faith in our cause. We believe it must triumph in the end". He therefore detected a tendency in RFE to "regard News as a trend towards the future, so that stories indicate (and sometimes predict) what is about to happen rather than what has happened". In contrast, at the BBC, "News is what has happened, set if necessary against a background of past happenings so that proportion is achieved" (p.153).
The Hungarian episode reveals how the BBC, unlike Radio Free Europe, managed to avoid the trap of engaging in the "persuasive or polemical". However, the fundamental driver of its news broadcasting, no matter how objective, was condemnation of Soviet repression in Hungary, a sentiment unanimously reflected in British society. The BBC's "impartiality" stance would finally be put to its greatest test in another episode in which there were in fact "acute divisions of opinion within both British society and the wider international community": the Suez crisis. This episode reveals clearly the tension between the BBC's stated endeavour to represent opinion across all sections of British society, and the government's efforts to transform the BBC into its effective mouthpiece (p.157).
BBC/government tensions had been brewing prior to Suez, mostly over the problem of the budget (see Section III). Whitehall considered that both BBC services to Western Europe and to the Middle East had become ineffective: to Western Europe because they were superfluous (in the sense that they did not contribute to the government's publicity objectives there) and to the Middle East because they did not have the "reach and impact" necessary to engage in Whitehall's desired "propaganda war" there. As such, the pressure on the BBC was to shift priorities to the Middle East and sacrifice its Western European operations as a result (against BBC wishes). As such, it was clear that Whitehall placed great value on the propaganda gains to be achieved by the BBC in the Middle East (pp.164,165).
After Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez canal on July 26th, 1956, a cleavage of opinion gradually grew in British society: On August 2nd, Prime Minister Eden announced that "certain precautionary measures of a military nature" were underway, whilst Opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell maintained that any action over Suez would have to be done under United Nations auspices. The role of the BBC now was, in government eyes, to help to "maintain the momentum of anti-Nasser sentiment". However, the BBC itself felt obliged to continue to reflect the "conflicting views about British policy which had begun to be voiced" after a debate in the House of Commons. Matters came to a head on August 15th when the BBC invited Major Salah Salem, editor of Al Shaab newspaper, to provide an Egyptian perspective on the crisis. On top of the BBC's initial refusal to allow Sir Robert Menzies, the visiting Australian prime minister, to broadcast in support of Eden's line, this merely confirmed to the government's upper circles that "the BBC was against them". Eden pondered whether those responsible at the BBC were "enemies or just socialists?" (pp.168,169).
As a consequence, on August 17th, Eden summoned Ian Jacob to a meeting where he threatened to install a Foreign Office liaison officer at the BBC if it failed to fulfil its duty to "educate" the country as to the "seriousness of the situation". This, despite the fact that the BBC was in fact going to great lengths to toe the government line in its overseas broadcasts - for instance, by arguing on the Arabic Service that Nasser was "damaging regional development" by "scaring away those who are most anxious to promote international cooperation" (p.169).
By mid-September, the rifts of opinion in British society had become too obvious to ignore. In parliamentary debates on September 12th/13th, Gaitskell condemned the military preparations being made - preferring a solution that involved the UN - whilst demonstrations in London called for "No War Over Suez". Still, the BBC's board of governors impressed on Ian Jacob that "the BBC should do nothing to underline the existence of party division and disunity at a time of crisis", an unrealistic proposition that was in essence calling for deliberate censorship (p.170).
Thus, despite the efforts of the BBC to support the government line, Whitehall was not satisfied with a situation in which the BBC was not directly subordinate to it, and could therefore present a survey of opinion that even pretended to be balanced. As such, the Ministerial Committee on Oversea Broadcasting pondered "whether the Government should have greater control than at present over the content of overseas broadcasts by the BBC, even perhaps to the extent of assuming full responsibility for the content and operation of overseas broadcasting services". However, it was quickly decided that total control was out of the question, in the face of the BBC's existing credibility and its professional abilities. The solution proposed by Ivone Kirkpatrick was to threaten the BBC's funding, which would "administer a psychological shock to the BBC and might bring the Corporation to consider more seriously than hitherto the problem of reconciling its independence under the Charter with the need to conduct its external services in the national interest" (pp.170,171).
Thus, on October 24th (the same day as the British, French and Israelis agreed to spark a war in the Middle East and overthrow Nasser), the Cabinet agreed to notify Jacob that the External Services budget would be slashed from £5 million to £4 million (with greater emphasis being placed on the Middle East), and that the Foreign Office would appointment a liaison officer to "advise the BBC on the content of the overseas programmes" (p.172). In addition, not long after, senior leaders of the BBC were invited to the Ministry of Defence where they were "told of imminent military operations and informed of the government's intention ... to revive broadcasting measures which would involve an elaborate system of censorship and direction" (p.175).
As it turns out, the government's plans were scuppered by the eventual humiliation at Suez as American pressure forced the British and French to withdraw, leading to Eden's resignation on January 9th, 1957. The BBC had successfully defended itself from total subordination.
Webb has produced a captivating study of the BBC in the postwar years, as it navigated the vicissitudes of international events, and balanced the institutional interests of the Foreign Office, the Treasury, No.10, and itself. At its heart is a conviction, on the part of the BBC, that is maintaining "impartiality" and "neutrality", while at the same time serving the British "national interest". Is this a contradiction in terms? In one way, yes, but in another way, no.
The BBC can never be "neutral" in a strategic sense because it is a public broadcaster, accountable to and funded by the British government. However, it does have a tactical interest in providing objective, informative, news as events go by. The lack of obvious political bias in BBC news coverage promotes the credibility of the BBC, and by extension, the reputation of British public institutions overall. As Ian Jacob stated in a May, 1956 paper for the FO, "the BBC's standing abroad is a national asset comparable with the country's reputation for parliamentary institutions, a free press and a stable system of justice ... unlike other foreign broadcasting systems which have followed the tactical needs of the moment and earned a corresponding notoriety and lack of trust" (p.181). Paradoxically, then, the major contribution of the BBC to the British government is that it does not pander to it.
Furthermore, the BBC as a British public institution has always carried its own interest in the furtherance of British foreign policy objectives. For example, one factor in the BBC's acceptance of a consultative relationship with Whitehall was "the genuine desire, with limited resources, to be apprised of conditions in reception territories and the wish not to misrepresent the 'national interest' by being unaware of British strategic priorities" (p.20). How could this not be so, with such a strong connection between the BBC and the British state, exemplified by such individuals as Sir Ian Jacob?
However, there is an even more fundamental, and perhaps inevitable, sense in which the BBC can never be neutral, one that is perhaps obscured by focusing solely on the relationship between the BBC and Whitehall. The BBC can never be neutral because it is British, and therefore, will always reflect the tastes, priorities and opinions of British society. It would also naturally reflect the intellectual climate of Britain - the things desirable or undesirable to stay - in a way that conditions media output in a way completely independent of government control. This is all unsurprising for what is, after all, the British Broadcasting Corporation. Thus, when the BBC speaks of "neutrality", the most it can do is to represent as wide a section of British society as possible (whose opinions are themselves conditioned by mass media organisations such as the BBC).
*One recalls George Orwell's observation that "the sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary". This adds a somewhat patronising tinge to the BBC's characterisation of its activities as "letting in daylight from the whole of the outside world" (p.41) or ensuring that "minds ... are being kept just open" (p.63).
This is far from a criticism of BBC policy - after all, no broadcaster can be fully "neutral" (whatever the really means). There are only so many hours in the day, and selection must be made of what items to present, and how they should be presented*. During the Cold War, the BBC's overseas services to Eastern Europe were oriented toward criticism of Communism. Their reports may have been truthful and objective, but the political bias is smuggled in through the choice to focus on this topic (as was clearly shown in the Foreign Office's regular demands on BBC output). This tension occasionally reveals itself in a certain denialism on the part of the broadcasters themselves, as with Ian Jacob's insistence that when it comes to political warfare, "the BBC is not conducting anything" (p.67).
*This is evident in Gregory Macdonald's statement that "News is what has happened, set if necessary against a background of past happenings so that proportion is achieved" (p.153). Who, exactly, decides whether "proportion is achieved"?
Today, the BBC remains a major radio and television broadcaster trusted by hundreds of millions worldwide (with almost half a billion listeners every week from overseas services alone by 2021) . Its news broadcasts continue to convey the British interpretation of events, and its entertainment programmes - often fulfilling a "projection-of-Britain" role - continue to inspire fascination of, and familiarity with, the British way of life. As such, it is perhaps the most successful broadcaster in the world at enhancing its country's prestige while maintaining that it is "not conducting anything".