Pinkoes and Traitors by Jean Seaton, book review: History of the BBC examines its uneasy relations with the Establishment

Seaton shows the BBC attempting to balance two things: to be a shaper of the nation, and to hold on to its own independence

Bonnie Greer
Thursday 26 February 2015 16:00
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The title of Jean Seaton's glacial-eyed and forensic account of the BBC during the epoch-making years 1974-1987, is taken from one of the "Dear Bill" letters, the spoof correspondence of Denis Thatcher in Private Eye.

In one particular missive, he refers to the BBC as "that nest of Pinkoes and Traitors", perfectly capturing one of several anti-BBC strands that some may say exist even today. Seaton, through the use of previously unseen state papers, including those from the BBC itself, paints a picture of the Corporation as a behemoth slouching toward many Bethlehems where it seeks to be born anew. And sometimes, it gets there.

The years 1974-1986 encapsulated the last gasps of Labour as a governing party, hurried along by Margaret Thatcher, a woman of enormous vision and unstoppable energy. She was the conviction politician meeting Conviction itself. The BBC had a mission.

Seaton shows the BBC attempting to balance two things: to be, under the Home Office, a shaper of the nation, and also to hold on to its own independence. Its Reithian mission –to educate and inform came up against the cold, hard realities of a state on the brink, and a Prime Minister and a Conservative Party determined to "keep it in check".

On 30 March 1979, at the beginning of the general election campaign, Airey Neave, a war hero and close confidant of Thatcher, was blown up in the Commons car park. The BBC interviewed a member of the Irish National Liberation Army, which claimed responsibility. The interview was passed up the chain in order to be approved. Ian Trethowan, then Director-General, approved it as he was putting his dinner jacket on, readying himself to accept an award. Government officials found out, and Stormont phoned BBC Belfast objecting.

The problem for the BBC was whether it should allow the interview to go out – and so, at the very least, risk exposing Neave's widow to a man in a balaclava claiming responsibility for the murder of her husband. The BBC was accused by some as being a " a platform for traitors". Of even being traitors. The Corporation – funded by government and the licence fee, yet an independent entity–had to face a life-or-death freedom of the press issue. It saw itself as speaking to the enemy and at the same time holding the enemy up to scrutiny. In other words, it was doing its job. Seaton's assessment of this classic Corporation is simple and elegant: an informed public is also realistic. And intelligent realism is one of the bases of democracy.

In a section entitled "Attenborough: the public service animal", we come face to face with a BBC creature in his natural habitat. David Attenborough embodies everything the BBC thinks it is and aims to be. Seaton describes him as "part a blond god, part a smut-covered witness, hair plastered with sweat, with a hole in the elbow of his jumper in an especially British tradition of masculine carelessness, part modern scientist with explanation at his fingertips. But most of all a Prospero, whose magic will permit us to gasp in wonder and apprehend the hidden origins in everything."

This "public service animal" is the theme or variation of every successful male on the BBC. By implication, the "public service creature" leaves no room for women nor ethnic minorities. Even if this template comes in the shape of the quite wonderful Sir David, the author amusingly observes him with the same kind of affection, awe and curiosity that he brings to his own work.

Women. The BBC struggled to come to grips with women inside the Corporation – the "pantsuits" struggling to affirm their identity. This was "the golden generation" as one woman current affairs producer put it. They wanted interesting jobs and to excel and be mothers too. But administrative injustices, expectational barriers and a working environment shaped around male needs took many of these women into a gender ghetto.

Still, they were determined to hold on to the BBC principle to represent and serve the audience. Therefore, if the BBC was to survive with any meaning, it had to respect women's experience and abilities. And by extension, ethnic minorities, too. It is a battle that continues almost four decades later.

Then there was landmark, epoch-defining TV. "The avenger stole upon the citadel and destroyed it from within": so John le Carré describes Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge spies whose betrayal is the basis of Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. For the TV adaptation, Le Carré wanted Alec Guinness –who did not do television – to play the part of Smiley.

So Le Carré, in what has to be one of the best pitches to a star any writer has ever made, told him: "Smiley (the main character) is the motor." He (Guinness) was the right age, had the right "existential manner"; an "unearthly stillness". Guinness bought it and with him came the clout to put the production on film.

It was all done from the infamous "inside/outside" stance peculiar to the Corporation which Seaton demonstrates page after page. When the director worried over what a secret service would resemble, Le Carré told him not to worry. It would look exactly like the BBC.

In Pinkoes and Traitors, Seaton captures the colours of the austere 1970s: the dirty browns; the faded oranges of wariness and weariness; and the garish and booming 1980s in the face of the young girl known as "Lady Di".

The BBC not only invented and presented the Royal Wedding of the 1980s, it gave us the famine in Ethiopia too as a cause as pertinent as what was happening next door. It brought modernism in music right into everyone's front rooms, and it redefined drama itself as light entertainment/news.

It created the nation and followed it too. It has managed to withstand those who fervently believed that its very existence was tantamount to treason, an invitation to left-wing subversion – the "pinkoes". The question left hanging by this densely argued and magisterial account is what use it is today in a multi-channel environment in which our realities are being shaped by numerous players in all manner of ways.

Seaton, who is the director of the Orwell Prize, writes in prose which would have impressed Orwell himself. Unsentimental, robust, devoid of jargon and clear as a bell, Pinkoes and Traitors demands what Orwell himself asks of us: to stand outside. Look around. Assess. And tell it like it is in an English as direct as you can.

Like Orwell's work, Pinkoes and Traitors makes you walk out into the world and see the familiar anew.

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