History of the BBC

History of the BBC

The Suez Crisis 1956

British troops in Suez
British troops in Suez

 

A recurring challenge for the BBC is its stance when the country goes to war. In World War 2 its programmes and journalism had reflected a nation squarely behind the struggle against the Nazi threat. But the question is less clear-cut when the nation itself is divided over the decision to mobilise.

 

Sir Anthony Eden
Sir Anthony Eden

The Falklands War in 1982 was a case in point, as was Suez 26 years earlier.

 

Memories of the successful alliance between the broadcaster and the wartime Coalition Government were still fresh when Britain and France sent in troops to recapture the Suez Canal after Egypt's President Nasser had nationalised the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company and taken control of the vital sea route to the Indian Ocean and the Far East.

 

At home there was limited appetite for military action. The Labour Opposition was against it, and the BBC's view was that it had to reflect that divide.

 

Sir Ian Jacob
Sir Ian Jacob

No one reflected it more starkly than Opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell in a television broadcast. The Conservative Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden was incensed by the BBC's decision to grant Gaitskell airtime to challenge his own television and radio broadcasts explaining the Government's decision to mobilise. He was angrier still when the BBC refused to tone down World Service broadcasts to the Middle East reflecting the divided opinion.

 

Relations between the Government and the BBC became increasingly bitter, and schemes to "discipline" the Corporation were discussed. These are believed to have included the Government taking editorial control of the BBC.

 

In the event, the conflict lasted only three days before the UN brokered peace and the crisis lifted. But it left an indelible mark on Eden. His press adviser, William Clark, resigned, and Eden himself stepped down a few months later.

 

For the BBC, there were no disciplinary sanctions and its reputation for proper impartiality survived more or less intact.

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