History of the BBC

History of the BBC

Real Lives 1985

Real Lives
Alasdair Milne

 

A month after Mrs Thatcher declared that terrorists should be starved of the "oxygen of publicity", she learned that a senior Republican paramilitary had been interviewed for a forthcoming BBC Real Lives documentary, At the Edge of the Union.

 

As a result, Home Secretary Leon Brittan stated that transmission of the programme would be against the national interest and, more significantly, he wrote to the Chairman, Stuart Young, asking the BBC to cancel the broadcast.

 

Leon Brittan
Leon Brittan

The Governors called an emergency meeting and, against the advice of senior BBC executives (acting in place of Director-General Alasdair Milne who was on holiday), decided to view the programme. They ruled that it could not go out.

 

This was interpreted inside and outside the BBC as government censorship, and the Governors found themselves at the centre of a furious storm. Staff went on strike for a day in protest, and the Assistant Director-General went into print saying the Governors were to the BBC what the iceberg was to the Titanic.

 

When the dust settled the programme was broadcast with minor tweaks. But inside the BBC procedures were tightened. Rules already existed about the referral procedures on delicate programmes about Northern Ireland, but they had been spelt out to news and current affairs staff - not to programme makers in the Features department, which was responsible for Real Lives. Now the rules applied across the board.

 

Other outcomes: Leon Brittan was demoted, and Alasdair Milne's position became increasingly difficult after the deepest rift in BBC history between the boards of Management and Governors. However, it is thought that, although it damaged him, the episode served to delay their decision to dismiss him (since they would not wish to be appearing to act against him on behalf of the Government). It was another 18 months before he was asked to step down.

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