7 FEBRUARY 1981, Page 15


Worm turning at the BBC?

Paul Johnson

As one who has long urged that BBC executives exert their authority over anarchic subordinates, I was naturally delighted that the supine worm of Portland Place, Sir Ian Trethowan, has at last turned. Panorama has been getting the Corporation into a lot of controversy recently, and when even the medical profession, probably the most Powerful lobby in the country, has to fight with all its strength to get a minimum of jtistice from the programme, the need for the new Broadcasting Complaints Commission is obvious. The Left have long been campaigning against our security services and it was only a matter of time before Panorama did its bit for the cause. From all accounts, the proposed programme was Predictably objectionable, and even Trethowan felt he had to tone it down. Immediately the radicals rushed to their newspaper friends and the cry of 'Censorship' went up. I trust Trethowan will stick to his guns. He has been a disappointment so far. My diary records that, before he was appointed, I found myself at lunch with the then BBC Chairman, Sir Michael Swann, at the annual jamboree of the Institute of DirectOrs, on 11 November 1976: 'He talked about who should be the next Director-General of the BBC. He said that talk about outsiders, like . and . • . , had no chance. Any outsider would have to be 50 per cent better than any equivalent type within the organisation. He said he thought it would probably go to. . . or Ian Trethowan. But Trethowan was said to be too right-wing. I said I didn't think he should hesitate to appoint Trethowan just becuse he was right-wing. After all, if he were left-wing, this would be seen as no disadvantage nowadays.' Anyway, Trethowan got the job. But Whatever his views, the drift of the BBC leftwards has continued, Hitherto the only senior executive to stand up to the young cowboys has been Alasdair Milne, Managing Director of BBC TV. who possesses certain granitic Scotch moral principles and, equally important, the courage to stick to them. The uproar about Trethowan's editing of Panorama (the Guardian characteristically used, the term 'suppression') is of course agitprop nonsense. An editor does not 'censor' his own newspaper; he simply decides what should, or should not, go into it. A BBC Director-General not only has the right to give his subordinates orders and to alter or reject such of their efforts as displease him, he has a positive duty, as chief executive of a state corporation, to act in the public interest. I hope that Trethowan's rather belated exercise of power will encourage BBC bosses lower down the pyramid to do likewise. The issue is important not least because commercial television is also slipping into radical hands. In the Spectator of 3 January Mortensen Green rightly pointed out that the recent carve-up of ITV franchises marked a move to the Left. Contractors associated with caricature 'big business' (ATV, Southern) were punished in varying degrees; those with a record of sound, radical programming (Granada, Thames) were left alone; and a mass of people with Labour and/or union backgrounds were brought in. It all says a lot about the composition of the IBA and the attitudes of the officials who advise it. Nor can we expect any improvement, since the new chairman is yet another ex-Labour politician, Lord Thomson of Monifieth who, since he left active politics, has picked up more cushy jobs even than Ivor Richards. When Margaret Thatcher lunched with the IBA before Christmas, she delivered a tremendous rocket. She should have saved her breath and indignation for her own colleague, Willy (*Quivering Jelly') Whitelaw, who was responsible for Thomson's appointment. The trouble with Thomson is not that he is radical himself--far from it — but that he is an amiable fellow who will be putty in the hands of ideologues.

Particularly worrying is the emerging shape of the Fourth Channel. I have been looking at a new Fontana paperback, Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain (£2.95). It is by James Curran, described as 'a senior lectur er at the School of Communication, Polytechnic of Central London', and Jean Seaton, *a senior lecturer in sociology at the Polytechnic of the South Bank'. That is probably enough to tell you what sort of book it is. It follows lines similar to those propagated by the new radical media pressure-group, the so-called *Campaign for Press Freedom'. But what interests me in particular is the hope the authors place in the Fourth Channel.

Obviously, the radicals intend to capture this new channel, as they captured the Open University (some, indeed, refer to it as the 'Open Channel'). They have certainly gone about it with skill. A nicely-judged press campaign got the job of founding the channel for Jeremy Isaacs. Mr Isaacs is a friend of mine, with whom I have often worked; properly supervised, he is an excellent television producer. But should a man with his strongly felt political and social views be given a free hand to run an entire channel? He was schooled in the Granada stable, and later radicalised Thames. He has recently produced the BBC series on Ireland, denounced even by some Irish historians as too pro-nationalist in its treatment: Professor Donal McCartney, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at University College Dublin, for instance, complains that the series supports the 'caricature' of Irish history promoted by the Provisional IRA. More recently still, Isaacs has made for Scottish TV a film about the murderer Jimmy Boyle, on whose behalf progressive elements are waging an early release cam paign. It is called A Sense of Freedom and will be shown on 17 February, so you can judge for yourself. A member of the IBA, which passed it with some reluctance, described it to me as 'absolutely horrifying'. . Mr Isaacs's initial top appointments do nothing to allay my misgivings. His first 'senior editor' is to be Liz Forgan, the left-wing Woman's Editor of the Guardian; the second is Naomi McIntosh, a professor of— wait for it — 'applied social research at — yes, you've got it! — the Open University. The editor of The Times, Mr William Rees-Mogg, complains that my statement last week that four members of the Times staff and one from the Times supplements were elected as delegates to the annual delegate meeting of the National Union of Journalists was incorrect. In fact, only two of the successful candidates were from The Times and three were from the supplements. I do not see that this makes much difference, but I am eager to put the record straight.