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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
BBC logo
Type Broadcast radio, television and online
Country United Kingdom
Availability National
Founded by John Reith
Motto "Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation"
Key people Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman, BBC Trust
Mark Thompson, Director-General (Chairman of the Executive Board).
Launch date 1922 (radio)
1927 (incorporation)
1932 (television)
Former names British Broadcasting Company Ltd. (1922-1927)
Official Website

The BBC has been the subject of many controversies that have been widely reported elsewhere which can be documented as to their source within this article. Although the BBC has generally sought to distance itself from controversy, it has generated controversy due to its unique position within British society. The following documented subjects reflect some of the controversial issues in which the BBC has become involved. The reporting of the controversy does not imply either agreement or disagreement with any aspect of the controversy itself, merely that the controversy has taken place and that it has been widely reported and previously documented.


Brief history

One of the first controversial issues in which the BBC became involved was over the question of funding and the control of programming. In the United States radio broadcasting had already developed to the point that there were "listeners-in" within the British broadcasting region, prior to any broadcasting service being licensed by the British government through the General Post Office - GPO.

As a result of these technical and social developments, in 1922 the British Government forced all of the British electrical companies and any American subsidiaries doing business in Britain into a single cartel and monopoly which it called the British Broadcasting Company Ltd. This arrangement lasted until January 1927 when the present British Broadcasting Corporation was given its first Royal Charter to act as a cultural and information entity.


1930s to Cold War: MI5 vetting

From the late 1930s until the end of the Cold War, MI5 had an officer at the BBC vetting editorial applicants. During World War II 'subversives', particularly suspected communists such as the folksinger Ewan MacColl, were banned from the BBC. The personnel records of anyone suspicious were stamped with a distinctively shaped green tag, or 'Christmas tree'; only a handful of BBC personnel staff knew what the 'Christmas trees' meant.[1] See also wikipedia entries for Ronnie Stonham and Michael Rosen.

1930s: Commercial radio controversy

Because the BBC had become both a monopoly and a non-commercial entity, it soon faced controversial competition from British subjects who were operating leased transmitters on the continent of Europe before World War II, to blast commercial radio programmes into the British Isles. John Reith who had been given powers to dictate the cultural output of the BBC retaliated by leading the opposition to these commercial stations. Controversy spilled over into the press when the British government attempted to censor the printing of their programme information. The pressure was created by the success of these stations. By 1938 on Sundays, it was reported that 80% of the British audience was tuning in to commercial radio, rather than the non-commercial BBC.

1940s: American Armed Forces controversy

During World War II the introduction of American Armed Forces Radio programming on to the airwaves within the United Kingdom caused controversy by the tone and style of its broadcasts. It was very popular and continued to supply the kind of entertainment once provided by the pre-war commercial stations. The BBC was forced to absorb some of this cultural programming against the wishes of its original Director General who had left the employment of the BBC.

1950s: Independent Television controversy

In the 1950s Sir Winston Churchill retaliated against the BBC because of his treatment at the hands of Sir John Reith who had banned him from the BBC airwaves prior to World War II. Lord Moran (Sir Charles Watson), recorded that Churchill denounced the BBC as a communist operation which resulted in Churchill leading the campaign to introduce commercial television into the UK.[2][3]

1960s: Offshore radio controversy

In the 1960s BBC Radio once more began to lose its audience to commercial radio, just as it had prior to World War II. This time the causes of the competition were offshore pirate radio stations. The British Government reacted by rendering the stations as illegal by passing the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, 1967, which made it an offence for British citizens to work on the pirate ships, or to advertise on them. The BBC then hired the out-of-work commercial staff and adopted the American jingles for themselves.

1970: Jamming controversy

In the 1970s pirate radio reappeared on a well financed offshore station only to be jammed by the British Government using high-powered military transmitters with the help of the BBC. The station effected a change during a General Election and the winning political party continued the jamming policy of its predecessor in power.

1984: Maggie's Militant Tendency controversy

The BBC programme Panorama on 30 January 1984 broadcast Maggie's Militant Tendency which claimed that several Conservative MPs had links to far-right organisations both in Britain and on the Continent. Two of the MPs named, Neil Hamilton and Gerald Howarth, sued the BBC for slander. In 1986 after the BBC withdrew from the case Hamilton was awarded £20,000 damages.[4]

1986: Libyan raid controversy

The Conservative Party Chairman Norman Tebbit, with the help of an academic lawyer, assembled a dossier of the BBC's coverage of the American bombing raid on Libya in which he claimed that the reporting was heavily biased against the Americans. The BBC rejected these findings.

1986: Censorship controversy

In 1986 BBC journalists went on strike to protest against police raids in search of evidence that a BBC television series in production, Secret Society, had endangered national security. The police searched the BBC studios in Glasgow, Scotland, the London home of investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, and the New Statesman offices.[5]

On 12 June 1985, the Controller of BBC2 Graeme MacDonald, was offered a series of documentaries by the BBC studios in Scotland in conjunction with an offer to them by Duncan Campbell whose work had previously appeared in the New Statesman magazine. The programmes were six half-hour films by Duncan Campbell (researched and presented by Campbell and produced according to BBC standards), which illuminated "hidden truths of major public concern". The six programmes were:

  • One: The Secret Constitution about a small, secret Cabinet committee that was in reality the Establishment that ruled the United Kingdom.
  • Two: In Time of Crisis about secret preparations for war that began in 1982 within every NATO country. This programme revealed what Britain would do.
  • Three: A Gap In Our Defences about bungling defence manufacturers and incompetent military planners who have botched every new radar system that Britain has installed since World War II.
  • Four: We're All Data Now about the Data Protection Act 1998.
  • Five: Still in production about the Association of Chief Police Officers and how Government policy and actions are determined in the fields of law and order.
  • Six: Still in production about communications with particular reference to satellites.

Work began on the series. In April 1986 Alan Protheroe, acting on behalf of BBC Director General Alasdair Milne was asked for permission to bug a private detective who said he could access a Criminal Records Office computer. Permission was granted and filming took place. The police were informed and the man was subsequently charged under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act.

The sixth programme would have revealed details of a top secret spy satellite and Alisdair Milne had already decided to cut it from the line-up when the Observer newspaper broke the story on 18 January 1987 with the headline: "BBC GAG on £500M DEFENCE SECRET". Combined with this story was a report that the Home Office intended to restrict the broadcast receiver licence fee, the implication being that the Government had decided to censor BBC investigative journalism.

Soon afterwards, a series of programmes on BBC Radio Four called My Country Right or Wrong was banned by the Government because it might have revealed sensitive secrets. The series was censored only a few hours before it was due to start because it dealt with similar issues to the television series concerning the British "secret state". However, it was eventually broadcast uncut, after the Government decided that it did not breach any laws or interfere with national security.

1987: Sacked BBC Director General controversy

On 29 January 1987 Alasdair Milne was sacked by the newly appointed Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, Marmaduke Hussey. He was replaced by a senior BBC accountant, Michael Checkland. Milne later wrote his account of this affair in The Memoirs of a British Broadcaster.[6]

October 1998: Richard Bacon cocaine controversy

On 18 October 1998, a presenter of the children's television programme Blue Peter Richard Bacon was in the headlines when it emerged he had taken cocaine. He was released from his BBC contract immediately.[7][8]

2003: Death of Dr David Kelly

In May 2003, the defence correspondent of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Andrew Gilligan, quoted a government official who stated that the British Government had "sexed up" a dossier concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, against the wishes of the intelligence services. A newspaper report claimed that Alastair Campbell (the Prime Minister's Director of Communications and Strategy), was responsible. The British Government strongly denied the claims and this prompted an investigation by Parliament.

A Ministry of Defence scientist, Dr David Kelly, was named as the alleged source of the news item, which led to official sources suggesting that Dr Kelly wasn't a credible source. The subsequent suicide of Dr Kelly resulted in an escalation of the conflict between the government and the BBC, during which both sides received severe criticism for their roles in the matter. Relatives of Dr Kelly have expressed outrage that their government would treat Kelly in this manner.

2004: Hutton Report

The publication in January 2004 of the Hutton Report into Dr Kelly's death was extremely critical of Andrew Gilligan, and of the Corporation's management processes and standards of journalism. In the aftermath, both the Chairman of the BBC Gavyn Davies and the Director-General Greg Dyke resigned, followed by Gilligan himself. Lord Hutton was accused of failing to take account of the imperfections inherent in journalism, while giving the Government the benefit of the doubt over its own conduct. Large parts of the media branded it a whitewash.[9]

2004: Butler Report

A second inquiry by Lord Butler of Brockwell did review the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and the production of the dossier. Amongst other things, the Butler Report concluded that:

... the fact that the reference [to the 45 minute claim] in the classified assessment was repeated in the dossier later led to suspicions that it had been included because of its eye-catching character.

Andrew Gilligan claims that the Butler Report vindicated his original story that the dossier had been "sexed up".

2004-2007: Balen Report

The BBC fought to overturn a ruling by the Information Tribunal that the BBC was wrong to refuse to release to a member of the public under the Freedom of Information Act of 2000 (FOI) the Balen report on its Middle East coverage. The report examines the BBC's coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict.[10][11] The corporation was reported to have spent £200,000 on fighting the case and was accused by commentators of wasting licence fee payers' money. Critics called the BBC's blocking an FOI request "shameful hypocrisy" in light of the corporation's previous extensive use of FOI requests in its journalism.[12]

On Friday 27 April 2007 The High Court rejected Mr Steven Sugar's challenge to the Information Commissioner's decision. However on 11 February 2009 the House of Lords (the UK's highest court) reinstated the Information Tribunal's decision to allow Mr Sugar's appeal against the Information Commissioner's decision. The matter goes back to the High Court for determination of the BBC's further appeal on a point of law against the Tribunal's decision.

The BBC's press release following the High Court judgement included the following statement:

"The BBC's action in this case had nothing to do with the fact that the Balen report was about the Middle East – the same approach would have been taken whatever area of news output was covered."[13]

Mr Sugar was reported after his success in the House of Lords as saying:

"It is sad that the BBC felt it necessary to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money fighting for three years to try to load the system against those requesting information from it. I am very pleased that the House of Lords has ruled that such obvious unfairness is not the result of the Act." [14]

March 2007: Blue Peter phone-in

A phone-in competition supporting Unicef, held by the children's programme Blue Peter in November 2006, was revealed to have been rigged. The winning caller in the competition was actually a visitor to the set who pretended to be calling from an outside line to select a prize. The competition was rigged due to a technical problem with receiving the calls.[15] The controversy was the beginning of a wider controversy in which a number of other broadcasters were fined for faking telephone competitions.[16]

March 2007: BBC Jam

In 2006 the BBC launched a free educational website for children, BBC Jam, which cost £150 million. Following complaints by a number of commercial suppliers of educational software that the BBC was engaging in anti-competitive practices by providing this service for free, the BBC Trust announced that the website would be suspended pending a review.[17] The following year it was decided that the service would not be relaunched and it was closed permanently.[18]

July 2007: "A Year with the Queen"

In early 2007 the BBC commissioned RDF Media to make a behind-the-scenes film about the monarchy, entitled "A Year With The Queen", for BBC One. A sixty second trailer was shown at the BBC1 autumn launch in London on 11 July. The trailer showed two clips of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; one in which she tells photographer Annie Leibovitz that she will not remove her crown to make the scene look "less dressy", and another in which The Queen says "I'm not changing anything. I've done enough dressing like this"[19]. The shots in the trailer were edited out of order, making it appear as if The Queen had abruptly left the photoshoot, when in fact, the second shot showed her entering the shoot. BBC 1 Controller Peter Fincham told journalists at the launch that it showed the monarch "losing it a bit and walking out in a huff".[20]

The next day national newspapers and other media sources broke headlines stating that The Queen had stormed out during the session. On July 12, the BBC released a formal apology [21] to both The Queen and Annie Leibovitz. On 16 July, RDF Media admitted it was "guilty of a serious error of judgement". Thereafter, both Peter Fincham, the BBC 1 Controller and chief creative officer of RDF Media, Stephen Lambert resigned.

On 10 October 2007 the BBC released its investigation into the incident.[22]

August 2007: Wales and Scotland coverage controversy

In August 2007 Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price highlighted what he perceived as a lack of a Welsh focus on BBC news broadcasts.[23] Price threatened to withhold future television licence fees in response to a lack of thorough news coverage of Wales, echoing a BBC Audience Council for Wales July report citing public frustration over how the Welsh Assembly is characterised in national media.[24] Plaid AM Bethan Jenkins agreed with Price and called for responsibility for broadcasting to be devolved to the Welsh Assembly, voicing similar calls from Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond.[23] Criticism of the BBC's news coverage for Wales and Scotland since devolution prompted debate about the possibility of providing evening news broadcasts with specific focus for both countries.[23]

September 2007: the Blue Peter cat

When the children's programme Blue Peter acquired a pet cat in January 2007, it held an internet vote to choose a name for the animal. In September of that year, it was revealed that viewers had selected the name Cookie, but producers changed the result to Socks instead, leading to accusations of breach of audience trust.[25]

2008: The Russell Brand Show prank telephone calls row

In a show recorded on 16 October 2008 and broadcast two days later, Brand made several phone calls, along with guest Jonathan Ross, to actor Andrew Sachs' home, claiming that Brand had sexual relations with his granddaughter Georgina Baillie, along with further apparently lewd suggestions.

2009: Gaza DEC Appeal

On the 22nd January 2009, the BBC declined a request from the Disasters Emergency Committee[26] (DEC) to screen an aid appeal intended to relieve the suffering of victims of the recent hostilities in the Gaza Strip. They explained that this was due to doubts about the possibility of delivering aid in a volatile situation and also to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in the context of an ongoing news. Requests from DEC to broadcast appeals are usually considered in consultation with all other UK TV broadcasters, and require consensus to proceed.[27] Because of a lack of consensus to do so, the other TV channels in the UK initially decided not broadcast the appeal,[28] however ITV, Channel 4 and Five eventually showed it on 26 January, while British Sky Broadcasting announced that it would not broadcast it. The BBC did broadcast substantial extracts from the appeal in its TV news programmes.

The BBC's decision came in for widespread criticism from senior politicians such as Nick Clegg, Douglas Alexander and Hazel Blears and other public figures including the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. A public demonstration occurred outside Broadcasting House on 24 January.[29] Former cabinet minister Tony Benn attacked the decision in an interview on BBC News 24 during which he read out the appeal address, and said that the Israeli government was preventing the appeal from being broadcast.[30] Richard Burden MP put forward an early day motion calling on the BBC to screen the appeal which received the support of 120 MPs.[31] Meanwhile, another Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, complained of about "nasty pressure" on the BBC from Israeli lobbyists. However, Mark Thompson, the Director-General of the BBC, denied that the decision was due to Israeli pressure.[32]. Complaints to the BBC about the decision were directed to Mark Thompson's blog.[33] BBC's Newsnight programme reported that the BBC had received over 15,000 complaints as well as 200 letters of support.[34] The Guardian reported that the BBC faced a revolt from its journalists over the issue, and that they had been threatened with dismissal if they spoke out.[35]

2009: BNP Question Time appearance

Following the improved performance of the far right British National Party in the 2009 European elections, the BBC controversially changed their stance on the appearance of the BNP on their flagship current affairs talk show, Question Time, and invited their leader Nick Griffin to appear in the 22 October 2009 edition.

See also


  1. ^ Smith, David (2008-03-05). "BBC banned communists in purge". Observer.,,1723776,00.html. Retrieved 2008-12-28.  
  2. ^ Moran, Lord (2002). Churchill at War 1940 to 1945 - The Memoirs of Churchill's Doctor. Carroll & Graf. ISBN 0786710411.   This diary paints an intimate portrait of Churchill by his personal physician who spent the war years with the Prime Minister. In his diary, Moran recorded insights into Churchill's character, and moments when he let his guard down, including his views about the BBC being riddled with communists.
  3. ^ Wilson, H.H. (1961). Pressure Group. Rutgers University Press.  
  4. ^ Wilson, Jamie. "Who will listen to his story now?". The Guardian.,2763,195592,00.html. Retrieved 2009-06-15.  
  5. ^ "The BBC under pressure - The Zircon Affair 1986-7", BBC website
  6. ^ Milne, Alasdair (1989). The memoirs of a British broadcaster. Coronet. ISBN 0340497505.   - History of the Zircon spy satellite affair, written by a former Director General of the BBC. A series of BBC radio programmes called "The Secret Society" led to a raid by police in both England and Scotland to seize documents as part of a government censorship campaign.
  7. ^ James, Silver (2007-11-19). "'I should be out of work'". The Guardian (Clerkenwell, London: Guardian Media Group): p. 5 (Media Guardian). Retrieved 2008-07-03.  
  8. ^ "Blue Peter Presenter Sacked". BBC News (BBC Online). 1998-10-18. Retrieved 2008-07-03.  
  9. ^ UK press mauls Hutton 'whitewash'
  10. ^ BBC asks court to block Israel report by Michael Herman (Times Online) 27 March 2007
  11. ^ BBC fights to suppress internal report into allegations of bias against Israel by Andy McSmith (The Independent) 28 March 2007
  12. ^ BBC pays £200,000 to 'cover up report on anti-Israel bias' by Paul Revoir (Daily Mail) 22 March 2007
  13. ^ "Balen report: BBC successful in High Court challenge". BBC Press Office. 2007-04-27.  
  14. ^ Lawyer hails Lords BBC Middle East report ruling as a victoryThe Guardian 11 February 2009
  15. ^ "Blue Peter admits rigging phone-in competition after technical hitch". The Guardian. 15 March 2007.  
  16. ^ "Broadcasting deception row". The Guardian. 2007-2008.  
  17. ^ "BBC Trust suspends BBC Jam". BBC Trust. 14 March 2007.  
  18. ^ Gibson, Owen (28 February 2008). "No relaunch for £150m BBC Jam". The Guardian.  
  19. ^ YouTube video of the trailer
  20. ^ How the Queen clip drama unfolded (BBC News) 5 October 2007
  21. ^ BBC statement: Trailer for A Year With The Queen
  22. ^ BBC Investigation
  23. ^ a b c Plaid MP's BBC licence fee threat Monday, 20 August 2007
  24. ^ BBC audiences 'want modern Wales' Monday, 16 July 2007
  25. ^ "BBC admits new breaches of trust". BBC News. 24 September 2007. Retrieved 1 January 2010.  
  26. ^ "DEC".  
  27. ^ "BBC defends Gaza appeal decision". 22 January 2009. Retrieved 1 January 2010.  
  28. ^ "BBC Gaza appeal row: timeline".  
  29. ^ "Reaction in BBC Gaza appeal row". 26 January 2009. Retrieved 1 January 2010.  
  30. ^ "Tony Benn to BBC "If you wont broadcast the Gaza appeal then I will myself"".  
  31. ^ "MPs call on BBC to air Gaza film". 26 January 2009. Retrieved 1 January 2010.  
  32. ^ "BBC chief stands firm over Gaza". 26 January 2009. Retrieved 1 January 2010.  
  33. ^ "BBC and the Gaza appeal".  
  34. ^ "Newsnight 26/10/09".  
  35. ^ "BBC staff protest over decision not to show Gaza aid appeal".  

External links


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