Smug since Suez? The BBC, Self-Censorship and UDI

How the BBC manipulated its own programme on Southern Rhodesia’s independence to conform with government policy.

Khaleelah Jones | Published in 11 Nov 2015

Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia, signs his country's Unilateral Declaration of Independence, November 11th, 1965.Conventional historiographies of the British Broadcasting Corporation in the mid-20th century claim that the organisation faced government influence and censorship. The general view is that the Corporation always came out slightly scathed but editorially unharmed. However, little research has focused on whether attempts at censorship were actually effective by looking at particular BBC programmes. This kind of scholarship would be illuminating, helping to determine whether the pressure exerted by government officials on upper management at the BBC was effective, and if so, how these pressures were communicated to, understood and thus implemented by programme staff. 

The government did not directly censor the presentation of events leading up to Southern Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) on Panorama, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme. Rather, the programme makers self-regulated due to perceived pressures from higher-level BBC management, who were ever concerned with government interference. This leads us to question the traditional narrative of a strong BBC in the face of government influence, and to look at the nuanced nature of censorship, pressure and interference exerted at high levels.

Since the Suez Crisis, the BBC had enjoyed relaxed restrictions on its broadcasting. These included expanded ability to host government officials on its programmes and a cessation of the 14-day rule, which had barred the BBC from broadcasting any topics discussed in Parliament for a fortnight. However, upper management still remembered the pressure the government exerted during Suez. Therefore, the organisational structure in the late 1950s and 1960s was re-entrenched. Staff were kept separate from politicians by requiring all requests of a political nature, even to host MPs on programmes, go through the Director General and Board of Governors. This organisational structure had proved semi-effective during Suez. However, staff received monthly memos stressing the importance of acting in the national interest, especially given the government-provided license fee, and the organisation was under intense pressure during the Pilkington Committee review in the early 1960s, which involved massive audits of every programme and department. Thus, while direct collaboration was often impossible between programme-level staff and politicians on a formal level, programme staff at Panorama had informal meetings with government officials, either through friends or because they were on the programme. Often these meetings were to get a scoop or suss out government press release documentation. Thus, the re-entrenchment proved ineffective, at least for Panorama, in the face of constant reminders that the government held the purse strings and persistent belief that going against the government could lead to budget cuts or another calamity like Suez. Self-preservation proved a powerful motive for Panorama staff to find ways to engage with government staff to find out their policies and attitudes to various issues, including Southern Rhodesia and UDI.

Ian Smith declared Southern Rhodesia unilaterally independent on November 11th, 1965. The British government had been embroiled in crisis talks with Southern Rhodesia for over six years, yet when Prime Minister Harold Wilson broadcast his response to Smith’s unilateral declaration, he called it ‘quite a surprise’. If he was indeed surprised, he may have been alone. As early as March 1964, Panorama editions covered the growing issues in Southern Rhodesia. The language used to discuss Southern Rhodesia in these early segments aligned with government foreign policy and that which the Commonwealth Office used in its contingency plans and press releases prepared in the case of a UDI. In the edition of March 2nd, 1964, Roy Lewis of The Times gave a brief studio interview about negotiations between the Southern Rhodesian and British governments. Throughout the segment Richard Dimbleby aligned Southern Rhodesia with South Africa, which had notoriously left the Commonwealth a year before due to its apartheid policies. The press releases the Commonwealth Office would have dispatched should there have been a UDI in early 1964 made the same comparisons. It should be noted, however, that Lewis did flag the ‘beautifully vague’ terms of proposed agreements, which would take time to culminate. Thus, although coverage prior to UDI aligned with government policy rhetoric, it did point out problems.

Closer to UDI, the September 28th, 1964 edition, which featured a segment on Southern Rhodesia, stepped even closer with government policy. Over the summer, whilst Panorama was on its hiatus, the relationship between the Southern Rhodesian and British governments had become strained and UDI looked inevitable. Panorama, once back from break, interviewed several Southern Rhodesians, white and black, about their reactions to a potential UDI. None of the perspectives were supportive although this segment was filmed just months after the Rhodesian Front, the party that supported white minority rule, had risen to power. There was thus a lack of balanced narrative on the part of Southern Rhodesian perspectives on UDI. 

After Labour came to power in October 1964, coverage of Southern Rhodesia and a potential UDI quieted. Southern Rhodesia was covered on other BBC programmes, making it difficult to justify the cost of crew and production staff on Panorama. In addition, there were growing tariff issues getting film in and out of South Africa, which had the nearest airfield to fly raw footage back to London. However, that is not to say that nothing was happening. The relationship between the Wilson and Smith governments was deteriorating; Smith knew the Conservative governments of Macmillan and Douglas-Home had been much more sympathetic towards the Southern Rhodesian government. By July 1965, negotiations were so ineffective that Commonwealth Secretary Arthur Bottomley stressed in a minute to Wilson that, for public relations purposes only he should at least be seen to be negotiating, despite the real ineffectuality of doing so.

Wilson thus sustained the public image that he was negotiating with the Southern Rhodesians despite the fact that he knew how ineffective the discussions were and would continue to be. Panorama followed government rhetoric; as late as its November 8th, 1965 edition, Larry Mossman noted on a segment about Southern Rhodesia’s relationship with Commonwealth countries that ‘with some hot-headed exceptions… [Southern Rhodesians are] content to wait … in the expectation that independence can probably be negotiated’. Even after UDI, on the November 13th, 1965 edition, Panorama simply indemnified the British of any responsibility, pointing out that the British government had ‘much responsibility without the power to match’ in Southern Rhodesia, a line almost verbatim from Wilson’s November 11th speech.

We can see how Panorama’s coverage of UDI aligned with government policy. However, the government did not directly censor or pressure the BBC, and could not have directly pressured Panorama staff. Rather, it seems that Panorama staff self-censored their programmes for fear of reprisal, likely in the form of diminished budgets. This shows a clear need for a more nuanced understanding of government censorship and pressure, and for programme-specific research. 

Khaleelah Jones is a PhD student at the University of Bristol, researching the way that decolonisation was communicated to the British public through BBC current affairs programmes. @KhaleelahJones