“You’ve joined the BBC (Jimmy boy) and it’s just about to crack. Bloody gentlemen of the BBC think they are above criticism… Airey Neave and Margaret Thatcher have come to see me and we’re absolutely agreed that there should be no increase in your licence unless you put things right.”
That threat was delivered by a government minister, Roy Mason, when addressing James Hawthorne, controller of BBC Northern Ireland, during a “friendly pub lunch” in 1978.
It was not an isolated incident either, as Robert Savage reveals in his absorbing history, The BBC’s ‘Irish troubles’: television, conflict and Northern Ireland.*
Mason also accosted a BBC reporter, Bernard Falk, and warned him that there would be repercussions for the corporation if he continued to interview “terrorists”. Falk told his bosses Mason had said: “Stay away from these killers, Bernard, remember the licence fee. Get sharp son.”
Falk had previously been charged with obstructing justice and spent four days in jail for refusing to identify an IRA volunteer he had interviewed.
Savage’s study of internal correspondence by BBC executives from the 1960s until 1982, citing memos and board minutes, shows how the corporation was placed under consistent government pressure over its coverage of the troubles.
The BBC faced existential threats throughout the administrations of Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Thatcher as its journalists sought to carry out their job of informing the public about the conflict.