The BBC has admitted spending decades conspiring with MI5 to stop a progressive UK government. From the early days of the BBC, the secret service vetted the majority of its staff to ensure that people deemed too left-wing or anti-war were excluded. Later, the corporation also included far-right organisations on its banned list. The state broadcaster had a policy to outright deny political vetting until an Observer investigation in the 1980s exposed the practice.
Now, the BBC has admitted that the vetting, code-named “formalities”, continued until the 1990s. But despite this apparent openness about the past, the broadcaster won’t say whether or not MI5 still vets staff today, citing “security issues”.
BBC wanted more vetting
The security service did not force political vetting on the BBC. On the contrary, senior BBC figures asked MI5 to expand the vetting process to prevent “subversives” gaining influence.
Nonetheless, the number of BBC staff MI5 vetted gradually decreased throughout the years. The broadcaster could certainly afford to reduce the programme, given MI5 vetting extended well beyond political roles at the BBC. People hoping to work in religious broadcasting, along with the gramophone and make-up and wardrobe departments, were also investigated. In the 1960s, MI5 – discreetly referred to as ‘the College’ by the BBC – reduced the number of roles vetted within these departments.
Even a loose affiliation to the following organisations (from a 1984 memo) would bar you from a BBC job:
- Communist Party of Great Britain
- Socialist Workers Party
- Workers Revolutionary Party
- Militant Tendency
- National Front
- British National Party
MI5 put candidates deemed to be of concern into three categories:
- A: “The Security Service advises that the candidate should not be employed in a post offering direct opportunity to influence broadcast material for a subversive purpose.”
- B meant MI5 advised against employment, “unless it is decided that other considerations are overriding”.
- C should not “necessarily debar” a candidate, but the BBC “may prefer to make other arrangements” if the post had “exceptional opportunity” to undermine the establishment.
The BBC encouraged political vetting. The roots of such a position show up in other links between the BBC and the government. Senior executives on its board of governors, later the BBC Trust, were political appointees. That remains the case today, although the BBC Trust was recently replaced by a new ‘unitary board’. Members of the board appoint the director-general, the most powerful position at the BBC.
The influence the government has on the BBC goes further than the hierarchical appointee system. The government also sets the BBC‘s funding, along with the salaries of non-executive directors.
On one level, informal vetting happens at every media organisation. The Sun is not going to employ Owen Jones as its political editor, for example. But collusion between the security services and our supposedly independent public broadcaster takes that a leap further. It shows just how close the BBC is to the war-mongering establishment.
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