Monday, February 23, 2009

The censorship of the Beeb

Something more than an idle historical curiosity is the intriguing tale of the BBC's "dirty tricks" against the offshore pirate radio stations of the '60s, and its campaign to take them off the air.

What is particularly chilling is the way the BBC was able to ban all its own presenters from broadcasting any reference to Radio Caroline, the most popular of the pirates. It also suppressed audience research on the stations' popularity and put pressure on the Conservative Party not to support the pirates.

Amongst the other actions it took were lobbying acts such as The Beatles, Cliff Richard and Ken Dodd to ban their records from being played by the stations and blacklisting pirate DJs such as Tony Blackburn and Simon Dee. It even went to the extent of complained about an episode of the ITV spy thriller Danger Man (how I used to love that!) which was set aboard one of the ships, claiming that the show gave pirate stations undue publicity.

The actions did nothing to dent the popularity of the stations – and how could it. For a public broadcaster that still thought Palm Court Hotel was popular music, there was a ready audience out there which did not want to hear what the Beeb had to offer.

What people thought – and wanted – though - didn't matter to the Beeb – not when it thought its own monopoly was at stake. As a result, we saw the exercise of naked power, culminating in 1967 with the introduction of the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act. That was a "pork-barrel" Act if ever there was one. It made it illegal to work for, advertise on or supply pirate stations, closing down all but one, Radio Caroline, which struggled on in a sort of half-life.

The point of course is that this display of raw power demonstrated what the Beeb could do when it felt threatened by the relatively modest power of the commercial stations. Anyone who thinks the Beeb could not or would not exercise such power again – or does not – is in the land of the fairies. If government turned the screws, it would very quickly fall into line, and we would never even know.

The most sinister activity has to be the censorship – wiping from the content of a public broadcaster any mention of a phenomenon to which 20 million people were listening and which was familiar to many millions more. We have argued many times that the most powerful controls exercised by the media is in what they don't tell you, rather than what they actually publish.

In its attempts to suppress the existence of the pirate stations, the BBC was being rather ludicrous. Virtually everybody knew about them. But there are many, many other things about which we do not know – or about which we should know more – and are not being told. And, if we are not being told, how do we know that? If the Beeb knows, and it ain't telling, it may well be more than a simple oversight or a local editorial decision.

The BBC has shown is it is a major player in the censorship game, and can exercise enormous power. This sinister organisation is not our friend.