Sunday 13 August 2023

Macleod at the BBC

Macleod at the BBC Joseph Macleod (1903-84), a rather marginalised poet, published A Job at the BBC (1945) after leaving them. It is rather paranoid but documentation now coming to light has suggested to several Macleod scholars that he was right to be suspicious. He describes the firm as being run by people with no official title or job, and these people also censored his scripts and prevented him from workng.

I don’t mean to upset you further, Andrew, (and it upsets me greatly to recall and write this), but I found out a great deal when I went to the BBC Written Archive at Reading in 2007. I was only 27, so I reckon I could have pushed a bit more if I’d gone at my present age - but I was quite pushy and maybe my youth helped extract that little bit extra information. The Head Curator, a lady in her 60’s, was remarkably abrupt and clipped in her speech with me from the get-go. She knew exactly who Macleod was and what he was “about” she told me. She showed me a set of files from the early period of his employ and was strangely reluctant to show the ones from 1943 onwards. I photographed a great deal of it with my digital camera, as surprisingly I was permitted to do, but I’d brought it just in case. When I got up to leave, having seen the scandal of Macleod’s being bundled out of the BBC due to his accent and leftish leanings by the then Director General Lindsay Wellington and also the surprising (and, bizarrely, later super-famous as (not the best) Oxbridge boat race commentator) thorn in Macleod’s side - Head of Presentation, John Snagge - I mentioned the scandal of 1945 and how Macleod had clearly had been swiftly removed from his position after reading Churchill’s election defeat, to which the strict curator replied very defensively and I thought even aggressively- “Macleod was NOT removed. He RESIGNED!” I decided not to argue - though the papers I’d just seen and photographed showed a mighty row took place before he departed. 
(email from James Fountain, author of the only book about Macleod)

I have just copied this from the BBC website:
"By that stage [1985], a policy of flatly denying the existence of political vetting - not just stonewalling, but if necessary lying - had been in place for five decades.
As early as 1933 a BBC executive, Col Alan Dawnay, had begun holding meetings to exchange information with the head of MI5, Sir Vernon Kell, at Dawnay's flat in Eaton Terrace, Chelsea. It was an era of political radicalism and both sides deemed the BBC in need of "assistance in regard to communist activities". These informal arrangements became formal two years later, with an agreement between the two organisations that all new staff should be vetted except "personnel such as charwomen". The fear was that "evilly disposed" engineers might sabotage the network at a critical time, or that conspirators might discredit the BBC so that "the way could be made clear for a left-wing government"."
Macleod had sympathies with the Soviet Union (publishing three books about Soviet theatre) and his problems with BBC management almost certainly related to his uncertain security status, rather than anything else.
His book does not mention a purge of leftists already on the staff, in the later 1940s, but I hear persistent rumours that this is what took place, even if MI5 had been vetting new recruits since 1935. The radically changed conditions of the Cold War brought more polarised attitudes towards hapless staff members. Presumably this had not happened when Macleod was writing his 1945 memoir – the Cold War had not then begun.
My feeling is that the archivist reacted so extremely because she knew what James were looking for and because she had had other people looking for evidence of the same process. Because the process had occurred and it is of considerable interest.
What upsets me is the ability of a large organisation to cover up new ideas and opinions and then to cover up the fact that a cover up had taken place. Suppression was itself suppressed from the record. So meetings that never got minuted, people in vetting jobs that aren't shown in the organogram or in a job title, decisions hidden behind fake “performance issues”. The frame itself is not visible even though it is the restriction on what is visible.
James also mentioned the yawning gap between the coverage by the British media of Middle Eastern politics and what had actually happened. This brought us to a new theme – Robert Fisk, writing about the great war against the truth, is dealing with the large scale, but the BBC coverage of what happens in Britain can only distort subtly, because the audience have the means of comparing the broadcast with the reality. So we as cultural historians are tracking subtle distortions. We are directed at the small scale. This is our situation. But perhaps long practice has also given us the ability to detect what was never entered into the record. The skill we admire is that of detecting the frame and seeig where the cut-off is.

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