Daily Archives: 4 January 2021

From Reuters to the BBC, 1965

From The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by Frederick Forsyth (Penguin, 2015), Kindle pp. 143-145:

Reuters simply sent me back to Paris to rejoin Harold King, and it was in a silent Paris café in the early spring of 1965 that I watched on a TV screen the state funeral of Winston Churchill.

There must have been a hundred or more around me, all Parisians and not world-famous for their admiration of things British, but they sat in awed silence as the bronze coffin of the old Bulldog was taken to its final resting place in a country churchyard.

I had already made my decision that the future of foreign-sourced news journalism was in radio and television, and that meant the BBC. I got a transfer back to London in April, applied for a job with the BBC, attended the necessary interviews, was accepted, and joined as a staff reporter on the domestic news side that October. As it turned out, that was probably a mistake.

I learned quite quickly that the BBC is not primarily a creator of entertainment, or a reporter and disseminator of hard news like Reuters. Those come second. Primarily the BBC is a vast bureaucracy with the three disadvantages of a bureaucracy. These are a slothlike inertia, an obsession with rank over merit, and a matching obsession with conformism.

Being vast and multitasked, the BBC was divided into more than a score of major divisions, of which only one was the News and Current Affairs Division, which I had joined. That in turn was divided into radio and TV, then Home and Foreign. All starters began in Home Radio, which was to say Broadcasting House on Portland Place, London.

But there was more. It was also and remains at the very core of the Establishment. The calling of a true news and current affairs organization is to hold the Establishment of any country to account, but never to join it.

Then it got worse. The upper echelons of the bureaucracy preferred a devoted servility to the polity of the ruling government, provided it was Labor, and it was.

The icing on the cake was that back then the leadership of the BBC was in turmoil, which prevailed during most of my time there. The former chairman of the Board of Governors had died in office. His deputy, Sir Robert Lusty, presumed the succession to be his. But Labor prime minister Harold Wilson had other ideas. He wanted an even tamer national broadcaster.

Rather than confirming Sir Robert, Wilson transferred his friend and admirer Sir Charles Hill, almost immediately to become Lord Hill, across from the top of BBC’s fierce rival Independent TV to chair the BBC board. There was chaos.

Sir Robert Lusty resigned. Several lifelong veterans went with him. The powerful post of director general was held by a former giant of journalism, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, brother of novelist Graham Greene, who had set up North German Radio after 1945 to teach the old principles of rigor, integrity, and impartiality. He was the last journalist to head the BBC, and thus to protect the News and Current Affairs Division.

The best German news organization for years was the one he left behind him, but twenty years later in London, he was being sabotaged, and eventually he, too, quit in disgust.

As with any ship, when there is chaos on the bridge, vices were adopted belowdecks. Talentless little empire builders proliferated, using all the Machiavellian tricks of office politics instead of a dedication to the business of news. But at the time this was far above my pay grade and seemed of small interest. Only later did I learn about office politics, just as they effectively destroyed me.

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