The BBC, MI5/MI6 and the Tories
The BBC's director general (dg) personally intervened to censor a 1981 edition of Panorama on Britain's secret services, official papers have revealed.
According to documents from the National Archives, Sir Ian Trethowan, was put under pressure by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government over the planned documentary.
In a letter flagged as "top secret and personal", the Tories even considered invoking their power to "veto" the BBC programme about MI5 and MI6 because it threatened to reveal details of the agencies' inner workings and question their accountability.
The dg requested a video of the original 100-minute programme to be shown to Bernard Sheldon, the then legal adviser to MI5. Sheldon suggested a number of heavy cuts.
BBC News reports that Sir Ian then asked the BBC's head of news and current affairs to make many of the suggested cuts, reducing the programme by around half.
Sir Ian had told the press that no-one from the government had been shown the film, but the documents reveal that he did in fact hold meetings with the heads of MI5 and MI6.
In a subsequent note to the prime minister, Armstrong said that "it looks as if Sir Ian Trethowan has not managed to clean the programme up to the extent we might have hoped".
Also revealed in the released documents was that Number 10 Downing Street felt Sir Ian was a "weak" BBC dg, while the programme makers were concerned that he was pandering to the government's wishes.
All of this was revealed in last Friday’s PM programme. The original journalist on the piece, Tom Mangold, related how he was invited to a meeting with the dg who then spent some time flattering his work. The dg then slipped in the barb that it would need to be edited ‘for sensitivity.’ Which it duly was to the apparent satisfaction of no-one.
This was thirty years ago. We have moved on and things are better now - - -aren’t they?
Well not quite. Since the Hutton report, the BBC has tended to adopt a pre-emptive cringe in the face of perceived government unhappiness. Only recently, Jeremy Hunt applied pressure to get the Corruption in FIFA Panorama programme shelved while the horse-trading was going on. He denied it of course.
The lack of mainstream media coverage of these revelations has been interesting. Compare it with the coverage of ‘Liverpool to be left to rot’ - from the same sources and subsequently unconvincingly denied by Lord Howe.
One thing this affair has confirmed. Our leaders lie to us on a regular basis. No surprises there.
Happy New Year.