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Television: Informing and Educating

BBC Independence and Impartiality: The Case of the 1956 Suez Crisis

L’Indépendance et l’impartialité de la BBC – Le Cas de la crise du canal de Suez de 1956
Mélanie Dupéré

Abstracts

As the world’s oldest national broadcaster, The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is unique in its contribution to British life and its level of international influence. The BBC is well known for its historic core mission (to inform, educate and entertain) and commitment to the principles of independence and impartiality. Yet the definition and practical application of these tenets are far from clear-cut. Considered by some to be a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization, the BBC has been subjected to much criticism throughout its long history regarding its ability to resist State and corporate pressures. This article seeks to explore State pressures in the context of calls for national unity in times of crisis when tensions with the BBC are at their greatest. To this end, a qualitative analysis of the 1956 Suez Crisis is conducted and is linked to the decline of the British Empire. This study shows the limited interpretation of impartiality by the BBC at that time. Anthony Eden’s Conservative government fought a propaganda war at home and abroad in the build-up to military intervention. The BBC’s independence was ambiguous at best, although it emerged from the crisis with its reputation intact due to its insistence on the notion of impartiality.

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Introduction

  • 1 Kevin Marsh, “Kevin Marsh, ex-Executive Editor, BBC College of Journalism, on Issues of Impartialit (...)

For a working journalist, especially one in the BBC, the theoretical discussion is not very helpful. It is essential to have some kind of understanding of what impartiality could – and perhaps even should – look like in practice, even if it is a struggle to define it rigorously in theory […] It is true that it should be seen as an aspiration rather than a measurable goal. That it is a collection of characteristics rather than a formal definition. And that it will change over time.1

  • 2 Bias of sense experience, bias of form, bias of content, bias of context of use, bias of relationsh (...)

1The nature and degree of independence and impartiality at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have been a source of debate throughout the organization’s long history of radio and television. Impartiality is not to be confused here with objectivity. The former is more commonly used in British journalism whereas the latter is more widespread in the United States. Impartiality is to be understood as a sense of detachment and an absence of bias when presenting opposing viewpoints, whereas objectivity is concerned with picking out evidence and facts, and balance merely involves providing equal space to differing opinions. Communication theorist Denis McQuail categorized bias into five types but, as he stated, these are non-exhaustive.2 Impartiality therefore cannot be described in absolute terms but rather as an aspiration, which requires normative judgments as to which elements to include in a given news story.

  • 3 Georgina Born, Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC (London: Vintage Digital (...)
  • 4 Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, vol. I: The Birth of Broadcasting (L (...)
  • 5 Thomas Hajkowski, The BBC and National Identity in Britain, 1922-53 (Manchester: Manchester Univers (...)
  • 6 BBC Charter (1927) [online], https://www.bbc.com/historyofthebbc/research/royal-charter [consulted (...)
  • 7 Burton Paulu, Television and Radio in the United Kingdom (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Pres (...)

2The BBC quickly established itself as a social institution with a nationalizing function that has been contributing to definitions of the “national community” ever since.3 This has involved processes of inclusion and exclusion, which have played a decisive role in reflecting particular representations of cultural life back on the nation. Indeed, the broadcaster has been expressing ideas about identity, nationhood and conflict ever since its foundation as a commercial company in 1922, at a time when the Irish Free State seceded from what was then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. From the outset, the company’s general manager John Reith insisted that it should be both a public and independent institution removed from government and corporate interference.4 He pictured a public service broadcaster answerable only to a superior cultural ideal that would allow radio listeners to be uplifted.5 This line of thinking contributed to the BBC being chartered as a public service corporation in 1927, following a report by the Crawford Committee. It was believed that the instrument of a royal charter and licence agreements were best suited to a publicly funded but editorially and journalistically independent institution. The concepts of independence and impartiality were inscribed in the BBC’s first royal charter6 and governments from that time forth instructed the broadcaster to refrain from giving personal opinions regarding current affairs and public policy.7 Reith’s legacy may be viewed as that of a public service ethos, the nature of which was already evolving by the time of his departure from the BBC in 1938. However, the charter also provided for a government veto power over programming and the authority to revoke the Corporation’s licence. Additional sources of structural and financial pressure on BBC independence and impartiality included the government’s authority to appoint the Corporation’s Board of Governors and control over the annual television licence fee.

  • 8 Hugh Chignell, “Change and Reaction in BBC Current Affairs Radio, 1928-1970”, in Michael Bailey (ed (...)
  • 9 Kevin Marsh, “Kevin Marsh, ex-Executive Editor, BBC College of Journalism, on Issues of Impartialit (...)
  • 10 James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power without Responsibility (London and New York: Routledge, eighth (...)
  • 11 Economic and Political Weekly, “Keeping BBC Unfettered”, vol. 3, n° 44, 2nd November 1968, p. 1680.
  • 12 David Deacon, “‘A Quietening Effect’? - The BBC and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)”, in Media Hi (...)
  • 13 Stephanie Seul, “‘Plain, Unvarnished News?’: The BBC German Service and Chamberlain’s Propaganda Ca (...)

3BBC notions of independence and impartiality have since evolved in practice against a backdrop of societal and technological change.8 The earliest interpretations of these key tenets consisted of simply airing government policy views and those of the Opposition,9 in a limited vision of due balance. The broadcaster’s position was quickly tested as successive governments sought favourable coverage – albeit with varying degrees of success. Some notable examples include reporting of the 1926 General Strike,10 the crisis surrounding Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936,11 the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939,12 Prime Minister Arthur Chamberlain’s pre-Second World War policy of appeasement.13 However, the 1956 Suez Crisis is of particular interest here in that it demonstrates the struggles of the BBC to fulfil its mission as an independent and impartial broadcaster in the context of the Government’s lingering attachment to empire. The emerging specificities of BBC radio and television journalism will first be considered in order to situate the Corporation’s concern with independence and impartiality. Government attitudes towards the BBC will then be placed in the context of the British Empire’s decline and the strategic importance of the Suez Canal. Finally, attention will be drawn to interference with the Corporation at the highest levels, particularly with respect to the Government’s propaganda war at home and abroad in favour of military action.

The Emergence of BBC Journalism

  • 14 Brian McNair, “What is Journalism?” in Hugo De Burgh (ed.), Making Journalists (Oxon: Routledge, fi (...)

[…] journalism matters because it has a uniquely privileged cultural status, placing it (and journalists) at the centre of public life and political debate ever since journalists first began to irritate kings, queens and popes in early modern Europe.14

  • 15 Martin Conboy, Journalism in Britain: A Historical Introduction (London: SAGE Publications Ltd., fi (...)
  • 16 Laura Ahva, “Public Journalism and Professional Reflexivity”, in Journalism, vol. 14, n° 6, 2012, p (...)
  • 17 Martin Conboy, Journalism in Britain: A Historical Introduction, op. cit., p. 26.

4The BBC has changed perceptions regarding the role of journalism and how the journalism of public service broadcasting can be compared to that of other media, particularly the well-established press industry.15 This may be explained in the context of the BBC’s early radio history, competition with the newspaper industry and the growth of Post-Second World War television. Journalism is considered here as an ideal-typical value system, in which the public service ideal gives practitioners legitimacy as gatekeepers and watchdogs. Indeed, the occupation may be seen “as a collection of shared but continuously contested values that define how proper journalists should act or at what they should aim”.16 The content and style of British journalism were predominantly defined by the commercial printing press until the BBC’s radio services began in 1922. The early twentieth Century had seen fierce competition within the newspaper industry, the rapid growth in circulation of the popular press amongst the working class and the advent of the modern tabloid format. By the late 1920s, BBC radio was hesitantly developing its own network of journalists and sources independent from those of the printed press, although it was only in 1934 that the Corporation founded a news department. BBC radio thus gradually sought to distinguish itself from the so-called sensationalism of mass-circulation printed press by forging “its own notions of taste, tact and propriety”.17

  • 18 Stephen Cushion, “Journalism and Current Affairs”, in Martin Conboy and John Steel (eds.), The Rout (...)
  • 19 Colin Seymour-Ure, The British Press and Broadcasting Since 1945 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, sec (...)
  • 20 Matthew Linfoot, “A History of BBC Local Radio in England c 1960 – 1980”, (unpublished doctoral the (...)

5Early television news, in turn, was influenced by BBC radio journalism in both form and style. This was demonstrated in 1954 by the Corporation’s first televised news bulletin, which was mostly made up of a still image and voice-only narration.18 The decision by Winston Churchill’s Conservative government to allow commercial broadcasting in 1955 marked the end of the BBC’s monopoly over the small screen and acted as a catalyst for an era of greater competition in television news production. The BBC sought to respond to newly founded Independent Television (later renamed ITV) and its particular brand of journalism, which was aimed at increasing ratings. Independent Television News (ITN) strategies included vox pops and a more adversarial journalistic approach when interviewing politicians. In this respect, post-Second World War media history can “be seen very largely as a process of adjustment by and to TV”.19 In the 1960s, BBC television news would go on to be strengthened with the founding of the Ten O’Clock News, a daily news and current affairs programme, which included fact and comment. The BBC was praised for its espousal of public service broadcasting principles as demonstrated by the 1962 report of the parliamentary Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting. The report was critical of ITV’s focus on ratings and concluded that there was an “overwhelming mass of disinterested opinion” regarding commercial broadcasting.20 Legal commercial radio would not begin until 1973.

  • 21 Alban Webb, “Constitutional Niceties: Three Crucial Dates in Cold War Relations Between the BBC Ext (...)
  • 22 James Curran and Jean Seaton, op. cit., p. 232.
  • 23 Gordon Johnston and Emma Robertson, BBC World Service: Overseas Broadcasting, 1932-2018 (London: Pa (...)

6Limits to the BBC’s independence were perhaps most readily accepted at an institutional level during the Second World War, as national survival and victory took primacy and propaganda was considered an invaluable tool. In particular, the war showed the key role played by overseas broadcasting.21 BBC radio news programmes were paramount for morale on the home front but also for rallying troops and allies abroad. However staunchly the Corporation claimed to defend its editorial and political independence at that time, such discourse must be treated with scepticism given that news “was determined by the necessity of winning the war” and national survival.22 However, the colonial battles of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, marked a new chapter for the BBC. There was fear that nationalist movements would facilitate the spread of communism.23 In this context, the Corporation strove to portray itself as an impartial and independent news provider, all the while playing a nationalizing function as an authoritative arbiter between competing definitions of community.

A Lingering Attachment to an Empire in Decline

  • 24 From a White Paper drafted by Clement Attlee’s Labour Government, and which laid out the BBC’s comm (...)

The Government intend that the Corporation should remain independent in the preparation of programs for overseas audiences, although it should obtain from the government departments concerned such information about conditions in those countries and the policy of His Majesty’s government towards them as will permit it to plan its programs in the national interest.24

  • 25 The BBC World Service was eventually consolidated into BBC Worldwide in 1995.
  • 26 Gordon Johnston and Emma Robertson, op. cit., p. 230.
  • 27 Thomas Hajkowski, op. cit., loc. 322.

7BBC claims to independence and impartiality in post-war broadcasting need to be understood in the context of mass decolonisation: From 1945 until the end of the Century, no less than ninety-six new states were founded as a consequence of the decolonisation process. British international broadcasting began with the launch of the BBC Empire Service in 1932, reaching the African continent, Australasia, British Guiana, Burma, Canada, the Federated Malay States, India, Trinidad and the West Indies. The service was renamed General Forces Service in 1944, General Overseas Service in 1947 and External Services in 1948, before being consolidated into the World Service in 1965.25 Originally aimed at English-speakers throughout the British Empire, the Corporation broadcast in forty languages by 1959.26 Overseas services grew exponentially and were funded by government revenues rather than by the domestic licence fee.27

  • 28 Ibid., loc. 377, 590.
  • 29 William Haley to Lindsay Wellington, 31st December 1945, BBC Written Archives Center, R34/420, in i (...)

8However, the BBC’s transition from supportive representations of British imperialism to those of a multicultural Commonwealth cannot simply be described in the linear terms suggested by the multiple renaming of its international broadcasting service. Post-Second World War programming reflected the complexities and inconsistencies of government attitudes and policies towards colonized peoples.28 In a 1945 memo, BBC Director-General William Haley stated his belief that the British were “nowhere near finished in [their] island or world story”.29 Such claims to empire and an island story as features of national identity reflected a deeply rooted imperial attitude that could still be found in British society, despite the fact that India was already on the brink of independence.

  • 30 Hugh Chignell, Public Issue Radio: Talks, News and Current Affairs in the Twentieth Century (Basing (...)
  • 31 Tony Shaw, “Eden and the BBC During the 1956 Suez Crisis: A Myth Re-Examined”, in Twentieth Century (...)
  • 32 House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, The Ownership of the News, 1956, Appendix 4, par (...)

9As the British Empire went into decline, deference towards those in positions of authority began to erode30 and the 1956 Suez Crisis (also known as the Tripartite Aggression) became a defining test for the BBC’s self-portrayal as an independent and impartial broadcaster. When the newly elected Egyptian President, Gamal Nasser, announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company on 26th July 1956, Anthony Eden’s Conservative government went to great lengths in an attempt to win a propaganda war on the home front and abroad.31 Press Secretary William Clark stated that the Prime Minister “had instructed the Lord Chancellor […] to prepare an instrument which would take over the BBC all together and subject it wholly to the will of the Government”.32

  • 33 See: Elizabeth Monroe, Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956 (London: Johns Hopkins Univer (...)
  • 34 Eden's 'thoughts' on general position after Suez: 28th December 1956, Prime Minister's Office paper (...)
  • 35 Jeff Hulbert, “Right-Wing Propaganda or Reporting History?: The News Reels of the Suez Crisis of 19 (...)

10The artificial Suez waterway had been completed in 1869 and held great strategic importance for British and French trade as it connected the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Indeed, the Middle East was home to the greatest identified crude oil reserve in the 1950s and the British had a strong colonial past and military presence in the region.33 On 24th October 1956, British, French and Israeli government representatives concluded secret talks in Paris with the signing of an agreement, which later became known as the Protocol of Sèvres. Together, they agreed to take military action in an attempt to reverse Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal Company. In this context of collusion, Israel invaded Egypt on 29th October, while British and French forces landed in the Canal Zone on 5th November. A ceasefire was announced the following day and the withdrawal of forces took place on 18th November. Yet the Suez Crisis took its toll, culminating in Eden’s resignation on 9th January 1957. In the immediate aftermath, Eden himself reflected that the experience had “not so much changed our fortunes as revealed realities” with respect to the United Kingdom’s role in the world.34 His Egyptian foreign policy failure showed his fundamental miscalculation regarding American President Dwight Eisenhower who favoured a peaceful settlement. It was the first time the United Nations had sent a peacekeeping force (United Nations Emergency Force) to oversee the end of hostilities and withdrawal of occupying forces.35

  • 36 Hugh Chignell, Public Issue Radio: Talks, News and Current Affairs in the Twentieth Century, op. ci (...)
  • 37 PRO CAB 128/30, CM(56)54, 27th July 1956, in Tony Shaw, “Government manipulation of the press DURIN (...)

11At the beginning of the crisis over nationalization, there was a political consensus between Eden and Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell but this evaporated as the Opposition did not support military action without approval from the United Nations.36 The Conservative government quickly realized that the fight against Nasser lay on an unsound foundation from a legal perspective as the Egyptian President’s announcement implied buying out the Suez Canal Company shareholders.37 This partially explains why the Government so vehemently sought to win a propaganda war presenting Nasser as the villain of the piece whilst secretly preparing for military action. Attempts to influence broadcasting took place internationally and on the home front.

Government Interference with Broadcasting during the Suez Crisis

  • 38 Board of Governors minutes, BBC WAC R171724, 13th September 1956, in Tony Shaw, “Eden and the BBC D (...)

[…] the BBC should do nothing to underline the existence of party division and disunity at a time of crisis.”38

  • 39 Broadcasting Policy, White Paper, ibid., para. 59.
  • 40 WAC, E40/251/1, Jacob to DSW, 5th October 1948, in Alban Webb, “Constitutional Niceties: Three Cruc (...)
  • 41 Douglas Boyd, “Sharq Al-Adna/The Voice of Britain: The UK’s ‘Secret’ Arabic Radio Station and the S (...)
  • 42 Ibid., p. 445.
  • 43 BBC Empire Service had been broadcasting in Arabic, which thereby became its first foreign language (...)

12According to the 1946 White Paper on broadcasting policy, the treatment of a particular story must be the same in overseas and domestic news bulletins.39 This was hotly debated within the BBC. Retired military officer and director of BBC Overseas services Ian Jacob quickly imposed his view that news items should be selected for Cold War purposes: “broadcasting to one’s own people is quite a different professional job from broadcasting to foreign countries, and efforts to try and escape from this difference are efforts to put one’s head in the sand.40 The British government for its part was acutely aware of the success of Cairo-based Voice of the Arabs (Sawt al-Arab) service, which was broadcast across the Arab world and helped Nasser in his bid to lead an Arab nationalist movement.41 According to Professor of journalism Douglas Boyd, this was the “first international radio war among western countries over a developing region.42 The Government had already been attempting to influence radio and print in the vicinity to encourage Arabs to join British-backed military forces in the context of the Second World War. Although unknown to the general public at the time, the British Foreign Office was funding the Near East Broadcasting Station (Sharq al-Adna) and in 1955 installed what was then considered a powerful medium-wave transmitter in Cyprus.43 The BBC whose External Services were also funded by the Foreign Office occasionally provided assistance. Indeed, British facilities in Cyprus contributed more generally to the activities of the Central Treaty Organization, a pro-West military alliance that was founded in 1955 and sought to curb Soviet influence in the Middle East.

  • 44 Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, vol. V: Competition (Oxford: Oxford (...)
  • 45 Anthony Benn, House of Commons Debates, “Middle East (Broadcasts)”, 9th November 1956 [online], htt (...)
  • 46 Barbara Castle, House of Commons Debates, “Cyprus (Broadcasts)”, 19th December 1956 [online], https (...)

13In October 1956, the Near East Broadcasting Station was officially requisitioned by the British government and renamed the Voice of Britain: The Foreign Office took charge of programming, the service Director as well as his staff either resigned or were fired and Arab BBC announcers were called in to keep the service running.44 The relay station was eventually handed over to the BBC in 1957, as the British Government realized during the Suez Crisis how untrusted and ineffectual The Voice of Britain was as a propaganda tool. In November 1956, left-wing Labour MP Tony Benn denounced the secrecy around the station’s operations and stated: “It is morally wrong, and it is not the voice of Britain.45 The following month, left-wing Labour MP Barbara Castle also criticized the service as “a Government agency which is pouring out partial propaganda, which, I must add […] is very dull and bad propaganda.46

  • 47 Peter Goodwin, “Low Conspiracy – Government Interference in the BBC”, in Westminster Papers in Comm (...)
  • 48 Tony Shaw, “Eden and the BBC During the 1956 Suez Crisis: A Myth Re-Examined”, ibid., p. 323; Nicho (...)
  • 49 Peter Goodwin, “Low Conspiracy – Government Interference in the BBC”, ibid., pp. 109-111.

14 Despite the BBC being involved with the British government’s covert international broadcasting and propaganda, tensions quickly rose at a domestic level in the period from Nasser’s July announcement to the October military invasion in 1956. Prime Minister Eden applied pressure on the press and broadcasters at the highest levels: He exploited his network of personal contacts with ministers, key newspaper and BBC figures, organized nonattributable political briefings and pursued methods of censorship.47 In particular, Eden met with several editors-in-chief and his Press Secretary, William Clark, held confidential press briefings as well as meetings with BBC Director-General Ian Jacob and ITN Editor Geoffrey Cox.48 The Prime Minister also demanded a televised ministerial address to the nation and succeeded in securing a spot on a BBC Home Service radio programme (At Home and Abroad) for an outspoken supporter of his policies on the Suez Canal crisis.49 Eden’s ally, Australian Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies, had originally been side-lined from the broadcast due to the announcement that British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd was going to make a ministerial address at around the same time. However, Eden telephoned BBC Chairman Alexander Cadogan in order to secure Menzie’s invitation. It is noteworthy that Cadogan was also a government-appointed Director of the Suez Canal Company and had previously been Eden’s Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office.

  • 50 PRO PREM 11/1089A, Public Record Office [unpublished], in ibid., p. 111.
  • 51 The Postmaster General was a Ministerial position for maintaining the postal system, telegraphs, te (...)
  • 52 PRO PREM 11/1089A, Public Record Office [unpublished], in Peter Goodwin, “Low Conspiracy – Governme (...)

15Yet Eden’s tactical success was almost immediately mitigated. This may be demonstrated by the BBC’s decision to air a Light Service radio programme called Special Survey on the Suez Canal Crisis, on 15th August. In the interests of voicing alternative views to those of the Government, the programme included a pre-recorded excerpt from a pro-Nasser Egyptian military officer, Major Salah Salem. The very next day, Eden ordered Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd to conduct an investigation into the programme and the latter commented: “I think it an outrage that a body widely believed to be in part at least associated with the British Government [the BBC] should broadcast at such a moment a speech by a notorious enemy”.50 Eden also instructed the Colonial Secretary to write to Postmaster General51 Charles Hill, particularly with reference to the BBC Charter. However, the Postmaster General’s response highlighted the limits of Government interference with the Corporation’s editorial choices: “While the powers of formal intervention remain so limited, it is only by informal contact and discussion that programme contact can be influenced.52

  • 53 Ibid., p.113.
  • 54 Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, vol. V: Competition, op. cit., p.89.

16Once again, Eden telephoned and wrote to BBC Chairman Cadogan and thus obtained a promise not to broadcast any similar programmes during the London Conference. This conference (the first of two) took place from 18th to 23rd August 1956 and was organized by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Invitations were sent to all states that had signed the 1888 Constantinople Convention regarding Suez Canal oversight, as well as those concerned by cargo shipping in the area. The British Government clearly saw BBC airing of any divisive views regarding the Suez Crisis as likely to influence the attitude of conference attendees. On 17th August, Eden also summoned BBC Director-General Ian Jacob from his holidays in Suffolk in order to discuss the Suez Canal controversy.53 Although what transpired between the two is not exactly known, the Prime Minister subsequently expressed his feeling that the BBC General-Director was more aware of the Government’s position on the national interest and his belief that informal prior consultation with the Corporation should be further developed. Eden and his government saw the BBC as an influential national institution, which ought to be utilized and watched over closely. It was no coincidence that they sought to install permanent broadcasting facilities at N° 10 Downing Street in August that year.54

  • 55 FO 953/1617/P10127/3E D-Notice, 4th August 1956, FO 953/1617/P10127/4(A) D-Notice, 15th August 1956 (...)

17The Prime Minister’s direct and informal interventions at the highest levels of the BBC were also accompanied by extra-legal and legal measures, which favoured self-censorship. In particular, the Services, Press and Broadcasting Committee Secretary, Admiral George Thomson, issued two Defence Notices (D-Notices) to the print and broadcast media in August and a further one on 1st November 1956.55 The media were thus advised not to reveal any details of troop movements in the Middle East prior to the invasion and of course the very existence of the D-Notices was to remain secret. Subsequently little was published or broadcast on the issue of troop movements.

  • 56 Pauline Sadler, National Security and the D-Notice System (London and New York: Routledge, second e (...)
  • 57 The Defence Notice was renamed the Defence Advisory Notice (DA-Notice) in 1993 and has been the Def (...)
  • 58 House of Commons Debates, 1960-1961, vol. 640, columns 636-638, in Ian Cram, Terror and the War on (...)

18The D-Notice system had been set up in 1912 as an alternative to “overt censorship56 and was the result of long-running debate between Parliament and the press dating back to 1880.57 Yet for the first fifty years, even Parliament did not know about the D-Notice system’s activities58 and in the 1950s there were few breaches. In 1956, the committee was composed of Services officials, press and broadcasting representatives for the BBC and ITV. Although the D-Notice was a non-legally binding arrangement between the British media and the government, news providers were under pressure to carry out self-censorship. Indeed, editors had to carefully consider the post-publication and post-broadcasting legal implications should they go ahead despite the warning. In particular, there was always the risk of prosecution under the 1911 Official Secrets Act, which provided no public interest defence for the media.

  • 59 Tony Shaw, “Eden and the BBC During the 1956 Suez Crisis: A Myth Re-Examined”, ibid., p. 325.
  • 60 House of Commons Debates, “Broadcasting (Suspension of 14-Day Rule)”, 18th December 1956 [online], (...)

19Censorship also stemmed from the BBC and ITV’s adherence to the Fourteen Day Rule, which restricted public knowledge of political debate by forbidding radio and television services from broadcasting news of any issues (beyond parliamentary proceedings) that were being discussed in Parliament for a period of fourteen days. Referred to pejoratively as the Fortnight Gag, this principle had been introduced voluntarily by the BBC in 1944 and formalized as an aide-mémoire in 1947.59 In 1955, the BBC sought to have the principle abandoned but Eden’s government insisted on making it an official rule. Such a restriction on free speech reflected politicians’ perceptions of broadcasting as a threat to the primacy of Parliament in the form of immediate scrutiny and commentary by an unelected body. However, the experience of the Suez Crisis and ITV developments in news coverage proved to be too much for Eden’s government to withstand. The Fourteen Day Rule was suspended as of 18th December 1956.60

Conclusion

20Tensions over independence and impartiality at the BBC during the 1956 Suez Crisis were marked by the United Kingdom’s lingering attachment to an empire that was already in decline. The crisis was manifold in the context of British post-war politics, decolonisation and the Cold War. Anthony Eden’s Conservative government fought a ferocious propaganda war overseas and at home, and which severely limited the BBC’s ability to provide impartial news. The BBC’s independence was at best ambiguous as demonstrated by its implication in British government covert overseas broadcasting and propaganda. There was a heavy reliance on an old boy network as reflected by informal exchanges at the highest levels. This was facilitated by the Government’s authority to appoint the Corporation’s Board of Governors and control the annual television licence fee. Like the press, broadcasting was subject to censorship and self-censorship in the build-up to the invasion. There was always the implicit threat of legal action should the BBC not heed government advice. The golden age of British wireless was giving way to the expansion of television but the radio propaganda war remained essential to the British government during the Suez Crisis. The immediacy of broadcasting was still perceived as a threat to the primacy of Parliament and the Government clearly believed in the BBC’s power to influence public opinion, given that it was already a well-established social institution with a nationalizing function. Both the press and broadcasting were severely restricted in their ability to report on events regarding the crisis.

21Egyptian President Gamal Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal Company and the ensuing crisis show the structural weaknesses of the BBC in the face of British government pressure, yet such direct and informal exchanges regarding editorial choices were largely unknown to the general public. This perhaps helps to explain how the Corporation survived with its reputation for independence and impartiality intact. As events developed in the build-up to the invasion, cross-party political consensus was lost. Eden and his government were unable to sustain an image of unity in the national interest despite their best efforts. Yet the Labour Party as a whole did not benefit from this political disarray. Harold MacMillan replaced Eden as Prime Minister and led the Conservatives to victory in the 1959 general election whilst vaunting the relative prosperity of the country’s mixed economy and evidence of his strong stance against Soviet influence. In any case, the BBC’s subsequent policy of giving as much domestic and overseas airtime to Labour Party dissent as to Government views appears to have been its saving grace.

  • 61 Burton Paulu, ibid., p. 39.

22In the following years, the broadcaster itself proudly reimagined the Suez Crisis as a time when government pressure had been successfully resisted against all odds. For the purposes of the BBC’s review of its first fifty years, the organization published BBC Handbook 1973, which included remarks on the Suez Crisis by then Director-General Charles Curran: “Against formidable arguments about the national interest, the duty to provide an impartial service was held by the BBC to be paramount, and the pressures were successfully resisted61. The reality is rather more nuanced as the Corporation’s interpretation of impartiality was so limited at that time. More generally, the case of the Suez Crisis is situated in a long-running series of tensions between the BBC’s public interest tenets and pressure from governments seeking favourable coverage in times of conflict. From reporting of the decolonisation process and the Troubles to the Kosovo War, such tensions in the latter half of the twentieth Century are indicative of the broadcaster’s resistance against undue interference, albeit with varying degrees of success.

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Cushion, Stephen, “Journalism and Current Affairs”, in Conboy, Martin and Steel, John (eds.), The Routledge Companion to British Media History (London and New York: Routledge, first edition 2018), pp. 504-513.

Deacon, David, “‘A Quietening Effect’? - The BBC and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)”, in Media History, vol. 18, n° 2 (2012), pp. 1-29.

Economic and Political Weekly, “Keeping BBC Unfettered”, vol. 3, n° 44 (2nd November 1968), p. 1680.

Goodwin, Peter, “Low Conspiracy – Government Interference in the BBC”, in Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, vol. 2, n°1 (2005), pp. 96-118.

Hajkowski, Thomas, The BBC and National Identity in Britain, 1922-53 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, first Kindle edition, 2013).

Hendy, David, “The Great War and British Broadcasting: Emotional Life in the Creation of the BBC”, in New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, vol. 82 (2014), pp. 82-99.

House of Commons Debates, “Broadcasting (Suspension of 14-Day Rule)”, 18th December 1956 [online], https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1956/dec/18/broadcasting-suspension-of-14-day-rule [consulted May 2020].

Hulbert, Jeff, “Right-Wing Propaganda or Reporting History?: The News Reels of the Suez Crisis of 1956”, in Film History, vol. 14, n° 3-4 (2002), pp. 261-281.

Johnston, Gordon and Robertson, Emma, BBC World Service: Overseas Broadcasting, 1932-2018 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, first edition, 2019).

Linfoot, Matthew, “A History of BBC Local Radio in England c 1960 – 1980”, (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Westminster, 2011).

Marsh, Kevin, “Kevin Marsh, ex-Executive Editor, BBC College of Journalism, on Issues of Impartiality in News and Current Affairs”, in Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies, vol. 1, n° 1 (2012), pp. 69-78.

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McQuail, Denis, McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory (London: SAGE, sixth edition, 2010).

Monroe, Elizabeth, Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956 (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, second edition, 1981).

Nicholas, Siân, “The Reithian Legacy and Contemporary Public Service Ethos”, in Conboy, Martin and Steel, John (eds.), The Routledge Companion to British Media History (London and New York: Routledge, first edition 2018), pp. 323-333.

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Peden, George, “Suez and Britain’s Decline as a World Power”, in The Historical Journal, vol. 55, n°4 (2012), pp. 1073-1096.

Pilkington, Harry, Broadcasting Policy: The Pilkington Report, CAB/129/110, 1962 [online], http://filestore.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pdfs/small/cab-129-110-c-62-102.pdf [consulted May 2020].

Sadler, Pauline, National Security and the D-Notice System (London and New York: Routledge, second edition, 2018).

Seul, Stephanie, “‘Plain, Unvarnished News?’: The BBC German Service and Chamberlain’s Propaganda Campaign Directed at Nazi Germany, 1938-1940”, in Media History, vol. 21, n° 4 (2015), pp. 378-396.

Seymour-Ure, Colin, The British Press and Broadcasting Since 1945 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, second edition, 1996).

Shaw, Tony, “Government manipulation of the press DURING the 1956 Suez crisis”, in Contemporary British History, vol. 8, n° 2 (1994), pp. 274-288.

Shaw, Tony, “Eden and the BBC During the 1956 Suez Crisis: A Myth Re-Examined”, in Twentieth Century British History, vol. 6, n° 3 (1995), pp. 320-343.

Webb, Alban, “Constitutional Niceties: Three Crucial Dates in Cold War Relations Between the BBC External Services and the Foreign Office”, in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 28, n° 4 (2008), pp. 557-567.

Wilkinson, Nicholas, Secrecy and the Media: The Official History of the United Kingdom’s D-Notice System (London and New York: Routledge, first edition, 2009).

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Notes

1 Kevin Marsh, “Kevin Marsh, ex-Executive Editor, BBC College of Journalism, on Issues of Impartiality in News and Current Affairs”, in Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies, vol. 1, n° 1, 2012, pp. 69-78, p. 70.

2 Bias of sense experience, bias of form, bias of content, bias of context of use, bias of relationship. See: Denis McQuail, McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory (London: SAGE, sixth edition, 2010), p. 126.

3 Georgina Born, Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC (London: Vintage Digital, first Kindle edition, 2011), loc. 11087-11098 ; Siân Nicholas, “The Reithian Legacy and Contemporary Public Service Ethos”, in Martin Conboy and John Steel (eds.), The Routledge Companion to British Media History (London and New York: Routledge, first edition 2018), pp. 323-333, p. 323.

4 Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, vol. I: The Birth of Broadcasting (London: Oxford University Press, first edition 1961), pp. 299-302.

5 Thomas Hajkowski, The BBC and National Identity in Britain, 1922-53 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, first Kindle edition, 2013), loc. 311; David Hendy, “The Great War and British Broadcasting: Emotional Life in the Creation of the BBC”, in New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, vol. 82, 2014, pp. 82-99, p. 99.

6 BBC Charter (1927) [online], https://www.bbc.com/historyofthebbc/research/royal-charter [consulted May 2020].

7 Burton Paulu, Television and Radio in the United Kingdom (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, first edition, 1981), p. 31.

8 Hugh Chignell, “Change and Reaction in BBC Current Affairs Radio, 1928-1970”, in Michael Bailey (ed.), Narrating Media History (London and New York: Routledge, first edition 2009), pp. 36-47.

9 Kevin Marsh, “Kevin Marsh, ex-Executive Editor, BBC College of Journalism, on Issues of Impartiality in News and Current Affairs”, ibid., p. 71.

10 James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power without Responsibility (London and New York: Routledge, eighth edition, 2018), pp. 205-208.

11 Economic and Political Weekly, “Keeping BBC Unfettered”, vol. 3, n° 44, 2nd November 1968, p. 1680.

12 David Deacon, “‘A Quietening Effect’? - The BBC and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)”, in Media History, vol. 18, n° 2, 2012, pp. 1-29, p. 26.

13 Stephanie Seul, “‘Plain, Unvarnished News?’: The BBC German Service and Chamberlain’s Propaganda Campaign Directed at Nazi Germany, 1938-1940”, in Media History, vol. 21, n° 4, 2015, pp. 378-396.

14 Brian McNair, “What is Journalism?” in Hugo De Burgh (ed.), Making Journalists (Oxon: Routledge, first edition, 2005), pp. 25-43. pp. 25-43, p. 26.

15 Martin Conboy, Journalism in Britain: A Historical Introduction (London: SAGE Publications Ltd., first edition, 2011), pp. 21-42.

16 Laura Ahva, “Public Journalism and Professional Reflexivity”, in Journalism, vol. 14, n° 6, 2012, pp. 790-806, pp. 790-791.

17 Martin Conboy, Journalism in Britain: A Historical Introduction, op. cit., p. 26.

18 Stephen Cushion, “Journalism and Current Affairs”, in Martin Conboy and John Steel (eds.), The Routledge Companion to British Media History (London and New York: Routledge, first edition 2018), pp. 504-513, pp. 505-506.

19 Colin Seymour-Ure, The British Press and Broadcasting Since 1945 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, second edition, 1996), p. 6.

20 Matthew Linfoot, “A History of BBC Local Radio in England c 1960 – 1980”, (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Westminster, 2011), pp. 115-116; Harry Pilkington, Broadcasting Policy: The Pilkington Report, CAB/129/110, 1962 [online], http://filestore.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pdfs/small/cab-129-110-c-62-102.pdf [consulted May 2020].

21 Alban Webb, “Constitutional Niceties: Three Crucial Dates in Cold War Relations Between the BBC External Services and the Foreign Office”, in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 28, n° 4, 2008, pp. 557-567, p. 557.

22 James Curran and Jean Seaton, op. cit., p. 232.

23 Gordon Johnston and Emma Robertson, BBC World Service: Overseas Broadcasting, 1932-2018 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, first edition, 2019), p. 225.

24 From a White Paper drafted by Clement Attlee’s Labour Government, and which laid out the BBC’s commitments as well as provisions for the Charter renewal process: Broadcasting Policy, White Paper, Cmd 6852, London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 2nd July 1946, para. 60, in Gordon Johnston and Emma Robertson, op. cit., p. 147.

25 The BBC World Service was eventually consolidated into BBC Worldwide in 1995.

26 Gordon Johnston and Emma Robertson, op. cit., p. 230.

27 Thomas Hajkowski, op. cit., loc. 322.

28 Ibid., loc. 377, 590.

29 William Haley to Lindsay Wellington, 31st December 1945, BBC Written Archives Center, R34/420, in ibid., loc. 113-133.

30 Hugh Chignell, Public Issue Radio: Talks, News and Current Affairs in the Twentieth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, first edition, 2011), p. 71.

31 Tony Shaw, “Eden and the BBC During the 1956 Suez Crisis: A Myth Re-Examined”, in Twentieth Century British History, vol. 6, n° 3, 1995, pp. 320-343, p. 321.

32 House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, The Ownership of the News, 1956, Appendix 4, para. 22, in Steven Barnett, The Rise and Fall of Television Journalism: Just Wires and Lights in a Box? (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, first edition, 2011), p. 40.

33 See: Elizabeth Monroe, Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956 (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, second edition, 1981).

34 Eden's 'thoughts' on general position after Suez: 28th December 1956, Prime Minister's Office papers, series 11, file 1138 (PREM 11/1138), The National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNA), in George Peden, “Suez and Britain’s Decline as a World Power”, in The Historical Journal, vol. 55, n°4, 2012, pp. 1073-1096, p. 1074.

35 Jeff Hulbert, “Right-Wing Propaganda or Reporting History?: The News Reels of the Suez Crisis of 1956”, in Film History, vol. 14, n° 3-4, 2002, pp. 261-281, p. 268.

36 Hugh Chignell, Public Issue Radio: Talks, News and Current Affairs in the Twentieth Century, op. cit., p. 73.

37 PRO CAB 128/30, CM(56)54, 27th July 1956, in Tony Shaw, “Government manipulation of the press DURING the 1956 Suez crisis”, in Contemporary British History, vol. 8, n° 2, 1994, pp. 274-288, p. 275.

38 Board of Governors minutes, BBC WAC R171724, 13th September 1956, in Tony Shaw, “Eden and the BBC During the 1956 Suez Crisis: A Myth Re-Examined”, ibid., p. 331.

39 Broadcasting Policy, White Paper, ibid., para. 59.

40 WAC, E40/251/1, Jacob to DSW, 5th October 1948, in Alban Webb, “Constitutional Niceties: Three Crucial Dates in Cold War Relations Between the BBC External Services and the Foreign Office”, ibid., p. 562.

41 Douglas Boyd, “Sharq Al-Adna/The Voice of Britain: The UK’s ‘Secret’ Arabic Radio Station and the Suez War Propaganda Disaster”, in International Communication Gazette, vol. 65, n°6, 2003, pp. 443-455, p. 447.

42 Ibid., p. 445.

43 BBC Empire Service had been broadcasting in Arabic, which thereby became its first foreign language, since 1938. The Near East Broadcasting Station began broadcasting in Arabic from around 1941-1942.

44 Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, vol. V: Competition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, first edition, 1995), p. 127.

45 Anthony Benn, House of Commons Debates, “Middle East (Broadcasts)”, 9th November 1956 [online], https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1956/nov/09/middle-east-broadcasts [consulted June 2020], vol. 560, columns 523-524.

46 Barbara Castle, House of Commons Debates, “Cyprus (Broadcasts)”, 19th December 1956 [online], https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1956/dec/19/cyprus-broadcasts [consulted June 2020], vol. 562, column 1260.

47 Peter Goodwin, “Low Conspiracy – Government Interference in the BBC”, in Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, vol. 2, n°1, 2005, pp. 96-118, p. 109.

48 Tony Shaw, “Eden and the BBC During the 1956 Suez Crisis: A Myth Re-Examined”, ibid., p. 323; Nicholas Wilkinson, Secrecy and the Media: The Official History of the United Kingdom’s D-Notice System (London and New York: Routledge, first edition, 2009), p. 245.

49 Peter Goodwin, “Low Conspiracy – Government Interference in the BBC”, ibid., pp. 109-111.

50 PRO PREM 11/1089A, Public Record Office [unpublished], in ibid., p. 111.

51 The Postmaster General was a Ministerial position for maintaining the postal system, telegraphs, telecommunications and broadcasting. The role was abolished in 1969.

52 PRO PREM 11/1089A, Public Record Office [unpublished], in Peter Goodwin, “Low Conspiracy – Government Interference in the BBC”, ibid., p. 112.

53 Ibid., p.113.

54 Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, vol. V: Competition, op. cit., p.89.

55 FO 953/1617/P10127/3E D-Notice, 4th August 1956, FO 953/1617/P10127/4(A) D-Notice, 15th August 1956, in Tony Shaw, “Eden and the BBC During the 1956 Suez Crisis: A Myth Re-Examined”, ibid., p. 324; Nicholas Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 246.

56 Pauline Sadler, National Security and the D-Notice System (London and New York: Routledge, second edition, 2018), p. 61.

57 The Defence Notice was renamed the Defence Advisory Notice (DA-Notice) in 1993 and has been the Defence and Security Media Advisory Notice (DSMA-Notice) since 2015.

58 House of Commons Debates, 1960-1961, vol. 640, columns 636-638, in Ian Cram, Terror and the War on Dissent: Freedom of Expression in the Age of Al-Qaeda (Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, first edition, 2009), p. 140.

59 Tony Shaw, “Eden and the BBC During the 1956 Suez Crisis: A Myth Re-Examined”, ibid., p. 325.

60 House of Commons Debates, “Broadcasting (Suspension of 14-Day Rule)”, 18th December 1956 [online], https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1956/dec/18/broadcasting-suspension-of-14-day-rule [consulted May 2020], vol. 562, columns 1095-1097.

61 Burton Paulu, ibid., p. 39.

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References

Electronic reference

Mélanie Dupéré, BBC Independence and Impartiality: The Case of the 1956 Suez Crisis Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXVI-1 | 2021, Online since 05 December 2020, connection on 07 May 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/6992; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/rfcb.6992

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About the author

Mélanie Dupéré

Center for Research on the English-Speaking World, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

Mélanie Dupéré holds a PhD in British Civilisation Studies from the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle. She is an associate researcher at the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle’s Center for Research on the English-Speaking World (EA 4399) and a teaching fellow at the University of Reunion Island, specializing in English for Law and Economics.

Mélanie Dupéré est titulaire d’une thèse de doctorat en études anglophones (Civilisation britannique) de l’Université de Sorbonne Nouvelle. Elle est chercheuse associée auprès du Center for Research on the English-Speaking World (EA 4399), et enseignante à l’Université de La Réunion où elle est spécialisée en Anglais juridique et économique.

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Revue française de civilisation britannique est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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