So back in 1972. 37 years ago.
Woman’s Hour (still on BBC Radio 2 but with highlights on BBC Radio 4) broadcast a pre-recorded interview with a 16 year old boy, who had been condemning the paucity of ideas in the underground press: they could do nothing except “fucking this” and “fucking that”; he had said. All ten of the programme’s producers; their editor Wynn Knowles and the head of their department, Stephen Bonarjee, had considered the interview and found it acceptable, particularly in the light of its condemnatory tone. When it was broadcast, the BBC received a fairly muted twenty four phone calls of complaint within the first twenty four hours. The following morning, however, both the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph reported the broadcast in detail and within a few days the complaints had risen to 200. Trethowan [then Managing Director of Radio and a later DG] put it about that the matter should have been referred up and that if it had been he would have vetoed it. Publicly he defended the programme but privately he castigated the all the staff concerned.
“As we learnt over Yesterdays Men;” he told them; “the damage is done by the second wave of reaction – the people who did not hear the programme and fasten on to the newspaper mythology.Given the current climate of opinion; he went on “it was entirely predictable that the press would seize on the incident, blow it up out of all proportion, ignore the admirable quality of the programme as a whole and give the public the impression that even Woman’s Hour had climbed on the BBC’s well known permissive bandwagon.”
It was, he confided in Charles Curran (the Director General) , `a good example of the BBC getting involved in an unncessary controversy”. and he told him about the stark warning he had issued to heads of departments. “I told them “I took your theme – ‘preserving tomorrow’s freedom’ – and warned them that if we were to fight off the threats to our editorial independence , it was essential to avoid incidents of this kind. I told them we cannot avoid controversy but we must endeavour to make sure that we fight on grounds of our own choosing, ground which we really believe to be worth defending.”
This is taken from the excellent Life On Air; A History of Radio 4. by David Hendy. Certainly up there with Simon Garfield’s A Nations Favourite and Ken Garner’s The Peel Sessions as one of the finest books on BBC radio ever written. This particular incident and theme is tackled in more detail in his academic paper; Bad Language and Radio 4 in the 1960s and 1970s.
Laurie Taylor called it a “magnificent chronicle” when it was first published and i’m not arguing. Its now out in paperback and I urge you to seek it out partly because of incredibly well researched anecdotes like the one above but also because it contains the most astonishing photo of a future Radio 4 controller sitting on the top bunk of the temporary sleeping quarters of beds in Broadcasting House in 1941.