RADIO / Their finest hour?

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The Independent Culture
THE BBC has a rather sentimental attitude to its own history - there are plenty of programmes, like yesterday morning's With a Song in My Heart (Radio 4), in which Jeremy Nicholas waxed nostalgic over Family Favourites, that hark back to the days when there were crumpets for tea and the Beeb was everybody's favourite Auntie. For a change, Document (Radio 4, Thursday), a new series of historical features, was more concerned to point the finger at the Corporation, and to suggest that the Second World War was a long way from being its finest hour.

In 'The Unspeakable Atrocity', Denys Blakeways investigated wartime coverage of the Holocaust. This, it turned out, was rather like the strange incident of the dog in the night-time. Throughout the war and even afterwards, when the death-camps were liberated, the BBC was peculiarly resistant to broadcasting any stories about Nazi atrocities against the Jews. The hype before the programme suggested that there was some scandal to be raked up here, to do with anti-Semitism in high places. There was evidence of this: Foreign Office memos suggesting that Jews were unreliable sources of information, a BBC internal memo complaining that if you gave Jewish broadcasters an inch they would come back clamouring for an ell; but nobody ought to be surprised at news of anti-Semitism in this country in the Thirties and Forties.

More importantly, there was a credulity gap: people couldn't bring themselves to believe that something as evil as the Holocaust was really happening. Those who did find reports of mass extermination morally credible, such as Sir Frank Roberts, a former Foreign Office official interviewed by Blakeways, thought it was improbable that the Germans would waste resources on something as complicated as gas chambers when they had a war to fight.

In any case, the BBC's line was that it didn't want too much talk about the Jews on the radio: abroad, it would alienate German listeners, and at home it might inflame British feeling about the Jews. And what would be the point? As Sir Frank Roberts pointed out, 'You can't combat anti-Semitism with pro-Semitism.' The point, according to Blakeways, would have been to warn Jews in occupied Europe of their danger, and to warn Nazis of the punishments that would await them after the war. You wonder if that would have worked - fear of punishment hasn't stayed anybody's hand in Bosnia.

In the end, the programme fell a long way short of showing anything scandalous about the BBC's behaviour. What it did show, dishearteningly, was that the cosy self-image that Auntie gave the country during the Second World War had its downside, in complacency and shoddiness. Still, at least the BBC is ready to make programmes like this about itself; that's some sort of consolation.