BBC Archive Project: Cuba and the Cold War
Records of most major historical events from the last century can be found in the BBC archives, even those that predate the BBC itself. The event will have been recorded in one form or another among the some million hours of film, video and audio, and millions of documents and photographs.
So when the opportunity arose to create a collection on one of these events, that is, the Cuban revolution and missile crisis, it was expected that there would be a wealth of archive on the subject, and this is true; there is. But when it comes to international events, we are confounded by copyright issues which place heavy limitations on what can be released.
As well as being time consuming to clear, copyright material often has a significant price tag too. Although the BBC holds archive of John F. Kennedy's 1962 speech on the Cuban missile crisis, which version is selected can make such a difference. Even in the 1960s many recordings of foreign events were feeds from agencies, over which BBC commentary was added. Some of the feeds originate from archives which are now owned by commercial companies, while others are in the public domain. In the case of the Kennedy speech, two minutes of footage acquired from a commercial source would have cost a significant sum while the shorter version, shot at a different angle from inside the President's office, was in the public domain and available to us for free. The shorter version does not include Kennedy's statement that Soviet missiles based on Cuba could strike most of the eastern United States and beyond within minutes, but it's a fascinating piece of footage nonetheless.
It doesn't stop there. Every photograph, presenter, voice over - almost every component of a programme - may have a cost. One excellent programme on the many attempts by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro, featured voices of actors who had been required to dub over interviews. Interviewees included former CIA agents, who contemplated Bond-esque assassination methods such as exploding cigars, and Castro's lover who almost poisoned him. However, some online broadcasting rights deals for this type of material are not yet in place. Consequently, we could not include this programme. Maybe in the future it can be added.
The rights to photographs that appear within a BBC programme also have to be cleared which again usually involves a cost. A 1971 BBC documentary, 'In Search of the Real Che Guevara' featured some 50 photographs and footage from external sources which also required payment. This documentary is an excellent account of Che's journey to becoming one of the world's most legendary revolutionaries, but due to the high costs we could not include it.
Furthermore this programme and some others considered for the 'Cuba and the Cold War' collection were co-produced or wholly produced by independent broadcasting companies. The BBC may not own the rights to these therefore, which prevents us reshowing them. It's a situation that will become more common in the future as the BBC increasingly commissions independent companies to make BBC programmes, or the BBC acquires complete programmes or series already made, where the BBC is often only granted a limited number of transmissions and/or a short licence period for online use.
To an extent, the rights costs also dictate the use of photographs to illustrate the programme information on the website. Wherever possible we try to use photographs from our own photographic archives, a rich source of the BBC's heritage that dates back to the 1920s. However, occasionally the archives don't have anything suitable; as was the case with early photos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. In such incidences, we have to approach external photo agencies. Each photograph acquired from an external photo agency is selected to reflect the value of the BBC programme whilst keeping within our budget. Agency photos are also credited so as to distinguish them from the BBC's own photos.
All of these issues make it difficult to cover international news stories but not impossible.
With persistence and careful selection it's possible to retrieve and share these gems from the BBC's rich archive.
Emma Papworth is Assistant Content Producer.