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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 1.

    Whatever their views of her politics, people have a right to object to the obscene amounts of money being spent on what is a state funeral in all but name. If you are able to find the time to broadcast assinine interviews with ex-Ministers describing how sexy they found her ankles, surely you can find time to discuss the issue which is really angering people. Furthermorem I'm not one, but younger people pay taxes as well, and it is very patronising to assume they don't have an opinion on how those taxes are spent. Finally, bowing to political censorship is pathetic and cowardly and not what I expected of the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Just as you try to present yourselves as the Vox Populai of Britain and as you accept funds from the public,you must represent the wishes of said public-If the charts show the that silly song "Ding,dong the witch is dead" and others stating public opinion,you must present it in full it reminds me of reading how the beeb,turned down an incredible video by David Bowie.You must present the will of the masses,we still remember your mistakes,like the fact you cannot seem to work with another search engine but the bug ridden IE and you have not corrected it these past 5 months or the fact you kept quiet about that announcer's abuse of all and sundry and you've kept mum about it until he died.Quit making mistakes!! I am planning of setting up a group on Facebook to cancel the TV license because you are overpaid underworked and an old boys club-we are all watching.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Definitely too much coverage and clear evidence that Ms Hockaday is contemptuous of the views of Feedback listeners. She started off a bit "shaky" by refusing to go into detail about the programmes prepared for broadcast in the event of Mrs Thatcher's death. She then fell off a cliff by responding: "That's a hypothetical question" to a perfectly valid question. What was she expecting Mr Bolton to say: "Blow me over, you're right about that. Why don't you just say anything you'd like to say while I nod appreciatively?" Well, he didn't. The situation improved for her when she explained the sound reasoning behind the decision to air an interview with Gerry Adams. Still, the amount of time devoted to Thatcher on Radio 4 has been way too much, though PM's item on her quote "there is no such thing as society" was a good listen.

    Any more programmes about Thatcher and I might just listen to 5.5 hours of Wagner on Radio 3 this Saturday for some light relief!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I agree that Mary Hockaday was very shaky on Feedback, had it not been a slow-ish news week. I'm fairly sure (so why she wasn't I don't know) that we wouldn't have been subjected to endless discussion and news reports on the days following Margaret Thatcher's death (it makes you wish the Royal pregnancy have come along a few months later!) I opted out of listening to live radio altogether after one day, and have only turned on for specific programmes since (and I even went for some of the 5.5 hours of Wagner on Radio Three!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I've found almost everything I've heard on the BBC, about the late ex-PM, to be based on implicit premises which are faulty:

    a) It is generally agreed and settled, that whether or not a great people many people were adversely affected by the politics she represented, what her governments did was essential, and that there really was no alternative. (It is not).

    b) That irrespective of politics, the settled public consensus is, that as a person and a woman she had outstanding and admirable personal attributes. (That's very much a matter of opinion).

    c) The BBC is therefore entitled to speak on behalf of the public, as if the latter generally held these views. (No it is not)

    Incidentally, I note that the various BBC discussion threads on her legacy, where the public seemed to me to be saying to each other, things at variance, with what the BBC said to the public the latter thought about her, have been closed and removed from prominence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Whatever criticism one might have of BBC coverage it can't be as bad as a channel 4 tribute the other night which allowed outrageous & fundamentally incorrect assertions about her interperetation of economics made by a contributor to go unchallenged

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    First, thank you Eddy from Waring for mentioning this blog.

    The BBC is not there to tell the British public what and how to think.

    The BBC is there to reflect what the British people think.

    The BBC's coverage of the amount of hatred from millions of how this woman acted in her time as a ' politician' has been woeful.

    It has been shameful how the positive comments about her views have dominated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Devisive in life, devisive in death.
    Many are losing benefits this week to save money.
    Then the government (who approved it ?) is spending £10m of public money in celebration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I am very much afraid that the BBC has 'had its day' as far as being an independent news gathering and reporting organisation is concerned. The amount of time dedicated to the 'positive' aspects of the late Margaret Thatcher's government has been out of all proportion to the things she actually did whilst in power.
    Granted, she was the first female Prime Minister we had, but notwithstanding that fact, she was also a very divisive and much feared and disliked politician, and you have failed to reflect any of that opinion. It is not the role of the BBC to "interpret" the feelings of the is nation, it is your job to report them - warts and all. If that means telling the truth, then that is what you must do.
    I was also dismayed to see you play into the hands of extremists and ban an innocuous song, which was written for a musical film and has nothing to do with the late Prime Minister. You have now made the rather tenuous link between her and the song permanent, and you will be remembered for doing so every bit as much as you will be remembered for caving in on the issue of whether or not to play it. That decision isn't yours to make, and you seem to be forgetting what decisions you should and shouldn't be making far too often these days.
    If you want the kind of 'freedom to interpret' that you seem to be showing all too often these days, then I'm afraid you will have to reconsider your funding model, as the one you currently enjoy simply does not support, or allow for, this level of "judgement" on your part.
    There was a time when I would have supported the BBC against any and all critics, but I find myself increasingly drawn to the 'dark side' and think the license fee should be scrapped, and the BBC left to survive in the real world like the rest of us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Dear BBC,
    It may be increasing old age but I fear that the BBC is becoming less about intelligent and thought-provoking discussion and more about trivial attemps to create headlines. This decline takes several forms:
    1. News and current events are increasingly debated by invitees who represent the extreme end positions of any issue - the lunatic fringe one might say. As the more thoughful know the really interesting and subtle arguments are usually to be found closer to the middle ground.
    2. The choice of topic is frequently not on the basis of what is truly of consequence, nationally or internationally, but what can be understood by the average journalist. This inevitably sets the intellectual bar rather low. I write as one who has sadly too often seen supposedly intelligent journalists struggle with anything requiring more that two minutes concentration.
    3.The BBC (and the media generally) are obsessed with media topics. This, in the BBC's case, frequently takes the form of ritual self-flagellation.
    4. Lastly, there is a horrible tendency for BBC interviewers to interrupt (frequently discourteously) anything that looks like becoming interesting - presumably on the basis that it is at least fifteen seconds since we have heard their voice. This is augmented by their desire to 'make a headline' by browbeating some poor fool into saying something ill-advised (John Humphreys a regular offender).

    I love the best of the BBC. Please try to raise your standards!

    Paul Down

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I listened to the World at One on the day Margaret Thatcher died. It highlighted the fact that there is a difference between "News" and "Comment". That Margaret Thatcher had died was news and was rightly included in the headlines along with other news items. However all of the comment on the death preceded details of any other news that day.

    Unlike newspapers, where the reader can skip quickly through to items of interest, radio (and television for that matter) has to be taken in the order that the editor presents it. If you have little or no interest in an item, you must still listen until the next item is introduced. I feel that programme editors should bear this in mind which, of course, means being aware of the target audience many of whose views and priorities might well be different.

    Of the World at One programme mentioned previously, would it not have been possible to say that comment on Margaret Thatchers death etc. would come later in the programme, possibly with a specific start time? In that way we could have heard the general news and those who wanted to could return to the programme at the specified time for the Thatcher items.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I have just listened to PM and heard the radio orgasm allowed to be blurterd out by Ian McGill. Why is it that whenever Thatcher is discussed an admiring twirp is given the last word. Bye,bye radio 4. Willl not be listening in until this bloody farce is over. Thatcher was a naval gazing bully and her legacy is being continued by puppets like Cameron an this moronic idiots in parliment today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Today Programme - 17th April

    What a remarkable and instructive programme! The transcript would be a gem for any budding North Korean journalist. How the West re-writes history with the help of State broadcasting- and one that is obviously in the hands of a certain BBC class running scared of the Tories.
    Thatcher's funeral was the 'news' - apparently. She was a wonderful woman - apparently. The State funeral is not a State funeral -apparently. The PM comes on and defends her in the name of all of us - apparently. And all through this the fawning presenters just let it up flow - possibly wiping their brown noses?. Feigned attempts to ask critical questions by a cast of 'journalists' that would make 'Drop the Dead Donkey' seem too real.
    Journalism - North Korean style! An absolute negation of'balance'.Jon Sweeney might as well have stayed at home?
    Is there any chance of the transcript being published? I very much doubt it. It would be very instructive however.

    Ludo Witt

    Well done

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The most disappointing aspect of the entire Thatcher debate is the lack of attention to the question of why, unlike every other Prime Minister of the 20th Century apart from Churchill, she merits the disruption and expense of a Ceremonial funeral? Much has been said about her lasting impact on Britain. The focus of the tributes to her provide a very telling indication of the significant divisions in British society that are part of her legacy. Those who believe she saved the country obviously think that the destruction of British manufacturing industry and its replacement in the economy by the service and financial sectors was the right thing to do. So, for many of us, the lasting Thatcher legacy can be characterised by two simple facts. Firstly, that in the depths of this deep recession with 2.5 million unemployed and the most miserable winter for years, the energy companies doubled their profits in the last quarter. Secondly, that little Belgium exported more to India - a Commonwealth country - than the UK in 2012. Still the rich are richer and the poor are poorer so we have to assume that the eulogy writers think that's a price she was prepared to pay.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Fed up with the OTT of The Venerable Maggie's death. The BBC appears to be under the control of Gov/Tories being told what it must cover these days. (implied or directed) A memorial service would have done and served the family better than all the criticism this funerqal has caused.
    I object to the lack of normal programming to add to this pseudo paying of respect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Now that I have been able to swallow my breakfast, following the most awful Today Programme, and the 'rant' in me has been expurgated by a previous post - still being 'referred for further consideration' ( an ominous enough phrase in the circumstances) - I feel bound to acknowledge Cameron's call for 'respect'. Only, on this point, it is 'respect' for the truth and indeed the BBC.

    To say that this morning's Today Programme was 'Orwellian' is to do a great disservice to the author. It went beyond what even he could create. 'Newspeak' was meant to be satirical rather than literal, but no-one it seems has thought to inform the Editors and presenters of the programme this morning. That Thatcher was a deeply divisive and ultimately destructive Prime Minister - industry, schools, communities, European integration etc. - is obviously a point of view that some, including myself, hold and with good reason. Blind hatred it is not. Yet, my views, which are shared by many, were entirely written out of the Today script. If the Editors wish to eulogise their hero, by all means do so with programmes where we can avoid the propogandising if we so wish. A 'news' programme is however an entirely different matter and Today got it hopelessly wrong.
    I know Orwell would be pleased with the BBC's efforts today. It confirms everything he thought would happen when a 'dictatorship' of the Establishment puts its mind to it. So here we have - a small 'elite' who no doubt were breast-fed on Thatcherism; a son who organises coups with his mother's approval; a daughter who has???;a militaristic funeral that is reminiscent of Stalin rather than Churchill; a band of 'C' list celebrities; foreign dignitaries from the Tea Party side of American politics; people from the 'Countryside' shipped in to line the route; and a police presence that is perhaps a fitting reminder of their role in the Miner's Strike? All this one can just about cope with...the Conservative party needs its heroine.
    However, the role of the BBC in this pantomime is less defensible. When 'she saved Britain' is repeated as many times as it has been in the last few days, Orwell's 'Big Brother' takes on an altogether different hue. Dredging up hawkish American politicians and former Thatcherite cabinet ministers, much like the rows of identikit Soviet leaders of yesterday at a Party conference, most of whom appear to be 'preserved' in some sort of embalming ideology, is quite frankly an indictment of the state of the BBC itself.
    The negotiations with the hostile Tory government over the licence are obviously playing a part in all this. And if all the fawning produces a positive outcome for Public Service broadcasting it may still be worth it? However, the line appears to have been crossed with the coverage of Thatcher's funeral. The aim to be 'balanced' has been forgone. Orwell RIP.

    Ludo Witt

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I understand the desire for a public funeral, she was unique, but a state funeral in all but name indicates how closeted and ignorant the government is. The people of Nottingham, Yorkshire, Tyne & Weir and Scotland have no love of her uncaring, southern focused belief system. She cared little for the people, for the needy, for the sick, for the socially deprived. Remember her, but only so that we never ever return to her government style.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    P.s. can I have a tax credit for the money I didn't want to spend on Mrs. T's funeral?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Thanks for the address of 'bias', a subject made almost comical as between the right of Thatcher and the left of Blair. This circumstance, sadly, may say as much of accepted 'new ideas' and 'established arts', as of their ignorance. The net of the BBC should be wide enough to catch equal partnership, 'the alternative' of which denial must as ever be forgiven, in charity: "They know not what they do".

    With respect to the political figure of Margaret Thatcher, many if not most are now dead or disabled, of those with lives less fortunate, whose first-hand testimony should be heard alongside patrician retrospects from apparent beneficiaries - often still-political self-accounted victors - the strand-line survivors of just the most recent of storm tides.

    Set as if to bury three decades of weasel-word praise used to devalue the ideals most shared and the lives many gave to national service, perhaps seeking to erase the memory of denigration and infiltration, and further to anaesthetise for the final destruction of the hobbled NHS left by Attlee and Bevan, today's national memorial ceremony - ostensibly for an individual - should precipitate rather than put back the peace and reconciliation process we so badly need.

    For a dying colleague, distressed for past, present and future, betrayed first by one then the other Great Party, I could give comfort only in the one grim certainty -whatever the triumphs of Mammon - that "God is not mocked". Teaching and learning, there will be - wherever not too late - if not from reflection and shared humility, then sadly but surely from hard experience. We need each other, for peace and prosperity and honour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    "The real charge against her is not economic. It is that she legitimised selfishness and privilege; that she trampled on the ethic of altruism and public service; that she widened the gulfs of class, colour and economic circumstance which divide our society against itself; that she steadily chipped away at the fundamental liberal values of tolerance, decency, fair play, willingness to compromise and respect for the rights and freedoms of others, on which the moral quality of our civilisation depends; to put it at its simplest and most painful, that she made this country a meaner, crueller, nastier place in which to live."
    Paraphrased from David Marquand, The Political Quarterly
    Volume 55, Issue 3, pages 236-244, July 1984


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