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The BBC's coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher

Friday 12 April 2013, 16:37

Roger Bolton Roger Bolton

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Editor's note: Roger talks to Head of BBC Newsroom, Mary Hockaday, about the BBC's coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher, listen to Feedback from 5 April 2013.

Margaret Thatcher Margaret Thatcher

She was 87 and had been in poor health for a decade. She had been out of power and front line politics for 23 years.

Yet the death of Baroness Thatcher opened debates and wounds which are still raw. Watching the coverage of the parliamentary special sessions, I was struck by the fact that her personality and policies still dominate the Conservative Party, and that many of her opponents still haven’t forgiven her. Former cabinet ministers, men of course, looked back on their - and her - golden days and chortled at the affectionate but pointed anecdotes. Elsewhere there were demonstrations against the so called “Wicked Witch”.

I’m not sure of how much interest this was to the younger generation, for whom Baroness Thatcher is a relatively remote historical figure, rather like Clement Attlee was to mine. And the television documentaries about her did not command great audiences. We don’t have access to the radio audience figures yet to see if audiences rose or fell, but a large number of Feedback listeners felt there was too much coverage and that some of it was biased. I discussed these issues with the Head of the BBC Newsroom, Mary Hockaday in this week’s Feedback.

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Head of the BBC Newsroom, Mary Hockaday discusses the BBC coverage.

On a personal front, I was the editor of BBC TV current affairs programmes, like Panorama and Nationwide, and of ITV’s This Week, for much of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership.

Indeed I produced some of Panorama’s coverage of her election campaign for party leader in 1975 and saw the condescension with which she was at first treated by some of her colleagues, who called her “Nanny” behind her back, and rolled their eyes to us waiting hacks as they posed for a photo call outside her then home in Chelsea.

I greatly admired the way she fought against such ingrained sexual prejudice, but often found myself in trouble with No 10. At one stage her press office said she was “Beyond Fury” with one of my programmes. She “hated,hated,hated” television interviews but when they were over, with a glass of whisky by her side, would stay on for an hour or two telling us how to run our business. She really enjoyed a spirited debate.

She did one such tv interview later in the same day that she had met Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time and realised he was a man “she could do business with”. After the recording she pumped us for information about him and was clearly fascinated by such a different Soviet leader. She was immediately aware of the possibilities for improved East/West relations that his emergence opened up.

Whenever I met Mrs Thatcher I was struck by two things. The first was the clarity of mind and piercing intelligence she brought to those issues in which she was interested. The second was her frequent lack of interest in new ideas and her ignorance of much of the arts, and of Irish history.

She was never less than polite, even after a heated argument, but she was the despair of her cabinet colleagues on many occasions and her fall did not come as a surprise, except to her and her closest colleagues.


Roger Bolton


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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Is there a North Korean version of John Sweeney on the streets of London today! Radio 4 coverage of Thatcher has swung out of all control and the big noise from the Times who has taken over as head of news at the BBC must get a grip - no better place to start than with Ms Hockaday, who showed disdain for the reasonable views expressed by Feedback's listeners. The BBC should not be seen as a cheerleader for political leaders of any stripe. James Naughtie had me reaching for the off button this morning. Although his programme on Walter Scott was excellent this does nothing to cancel out the bitter aftertaste from this morning.

    I'll not be listening to the World at One. I'll be listening to some Run Rig instead. It is high-time that the BBC put licence-fee payers first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    isoparix_bbc @20
    As your paraphrase suggests, I believe.

    Always seeking a party to champion "the fundamental liberal values of tolerance, decency, fair play, willingness to compromise and respect for the rights and freedoms of others", David Marquand tried to defend and advance the ideals he fervently shared, "on which the moral quality of our civilisation depends".

    Dwelling on illusion more than reality, over-estimating the distance of "our civilisation" from evil, and under-estimating the task of building the good society upon "our civilisation", Marquand gave misplaced support to a succession of charismatic figures, as they emerged, in any and every part of the mainstream political spectrum, from Anthony Crosland to David Cameron, only to see their political credit squandered.

    The reality of human partnership dynamics, perhaps curiously to some, is that all of the personal qualities any politician could elevate as worthy in any open address of the public, can only be supported - for all and for ever - in equal partnership.

    That conflict of interest tends to corrupt, should be as generally understood as the survival of the fittest, and 'what goes up must come down'. That the role of pervasive corruption is not today so understood, owes much to false hopes such as taken and peddled by Marquand. We are conditioned to 'hanging on' to the status quo, dreading change for fear of worse, knowing our own subjection to fear and greed, content to see 'protest' made only in pillory of those 'caught out'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Having just heard the summary of Mrs. T's funeral as the first item in today's PM program, I wanted to say how much I enjoyed the quality of the sound picture the BBC's technicians compiled of the event. They've done similar before and I'm not writing because today was any more special than other occasions to which they applied their skills, but as someone who messes around (literally!) with preparing occasional on-line audio reports I'm taking the opportunity to express my admiration for the polished product they presented. An object lesson worthy of imitation- if only...

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Considerate of the BBC to give coverage to the significance of Lady Thatcher's funeral (and legacy) then to chose not to broadcast it - or even highlights - when working people have a chance of watching (instead, we are treated to a ?five year old repeat of 'New Tricks'!). Five minutes on The 10 o'clock News hardly suffices......

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    At the funeral yesterday, in St Paul's, visions were seen of the 1980s.

    Speculation was reported this morning, on Radio 4's Today, that a tear from the Chancellor may have been shed not only for Margaret Thatcher, but at news of over-winter unemployment increase to 7.9%, for the British economy.

    It is not for the first time 'the troops' have been sent out in vain - today only into the shops and investment markets and job-centres - finding their credit cards to have been cut-up by the team-captain.

    Urgent measures seem called-for, either better rationing of 'money supplies' (pay and benefits stabilised preferably at equality), or the re-writing of history (if possible for 2015, perhaps more realistically for 2020).

    If 'the news' is allowed (or used) continuously to hide 'the underlying', if analysis with democratic perspective is allowed to be swept away ('referred for moderation'), or directed to be removed (as 'off-topic'), then history might be readied for 2015, the choice kept as simple as 'democratic government' versus 'unruly public sector'.

    In confusion, confusion will reign. Again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Third time lucky?
    Two failed attempts on this blog to draw the parallel between North Korean propaganda/parades and the Thatcher charade, coverage by a state broadcaster and Orwell's 1984....both 'referred for further consideration'.

    My case has been made for me.I don't expect to see this one either....but there are other platforms where the sorry story of this 'editing' fair comment can appear.

    Hail Big Brother?
    Ludo Witt

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    April 18th at 8:10am I finally switched off my link with the outside world, well Radio 4 to be exact, today has to mark one of the most depressing news broadcasts I have heard in a very long time and it made me mad, sad and depressed. Mr Lamb’s plight, repeated time and time again. The male nurse’s depressing story of a flat line economy, the heroin addicts of Brighton, the Boston bomb, the failure to change the gun laws in America, baroness Margaret’s funeral, the fertilise fire in LA, the Syrian conflict and the fact that we are probably supporting terrorist that are killing our sons and daughters in Afghanistan. My obsession with listening to radio 4 is over,

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    'Ask not for whom the tear falls...'

    TINA is back: 'the govt' or 'unruly public sector'. No contest for those possessed of wealth, media cowed? 'Democracy' is it seems accepted as oxymoronic, rule Of, For, By the UN-equal People

    Opportunities for comment have been 'delayed' and 'hidden'. Puzzling HYS on Margaret Thatcher bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22177366, merely human error?

    Apparently closed last night with comments at 666; this morning with recent comments to 686 (again 'closed for comments'); minutes ago open with fresh comments; now closed 09:01, comments at 707

    Is this super-moderation?

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Ludo Witt @26
    We enjoy spectacle and belonging. Full defence against abuse is possible only with general adult possession - and full appreciation - of enduring equal freedom, none materially tempted to take advantage.

    Gerry @27
    One could listen forever, for words of comfort, whispers of hope: but just as well the breaking of dependence! Eventually, all clues and even all rhetoric pointing to our need for equal partnership, the cleverer will find their proper vocation, and all will be well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Too much time taken out of normal broadcasting not just for THE funeral of the decade but for the run up to it. Seems the BBc was determined to use all the footage/tapes they have amassed and prepared in advance for this event. I have never used the off switch so often. The ONLY saving grace re thatcher was that she was a woman who made it to the top but then she forgot she was a woman. Claim by her own admission that she was the best man in the room.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I see Cameron says he's going to crack down on the "waste and propaganda" of councils.

    This, from one who saw fit, along with the Establishment (including the BBC), to spend ten million of our money, exceptionally without proper parliamentary approval, on a propaganda stunt for the benefit of his party and a particular political ideology.

    The BBC has, in its own words, defined the funeral as "historic", though on what grounds, apart from the above, it could be seen as such, is unclear to me.


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