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Going After the BBC : Critics Charge That Controversial Thatcher White Paper Will 'Turn the System on Its Head'

December 29, 1988|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Some say they see the ghost of Airey Neave in the British government's plans for the future of its broadcasting industry.

Neave was the architect of Margaret Thatcher's successful 1975 campaign to head the Conservative Party. And from then until he was killed by a car bomb as he drove out of the House of Commons parking lot only weeks before she became prime minister in 1979, Neave was Thatcher's personal secretary.

The assassination of the war hero and Tory veteran, whose strong views on the press, patriotism and freedom colored Thatcher's own, deeply affected her. And when BBC Television broadcast an interview soon afterward with a representative of the Irish National Liberation Army, which claimed responsibility for Neave's death, the prime minister was reputedly livid.

Like Neave, she believed then, and continues to believe today, that publicity is the oxygen of terrorism. And that those who provide terrorists a forum share their guilt.

"I will never, ever forgive them," she is reported to have said of the BBC after that long-ago interview.

Her government's recently published White Paper--as policy papers here are known--on "Broadcasting in the '90s: Competition, Choice, and Quality" has, on the face of it, much more to do with technology and free-market ideology than with terrorism. The government proposals are intended to restructure and overhaul broadcasting operations in the face of increased competition from expanding channels.

However, according to many analysts here, in the background of it all is what Peter Jenkins, a columnist for the newspaper The Independent, described as "the Prime Minister's personal pique with the broadcasting authorities."

It's a pique fueled in the years since Neave's death by what Thatcher saw as insufficiently sympathetic coverage of Britain's war against Argentina in the Falkland Islands, and a critical Independent Television expose of the killings by British security forces of three Irish Republican Army operatives in Gibraltar earlier this year.

In this admittedly paradoxical view, many proposals in the White Paper are meant as much to bring British broadcasters to heel as to accomplish what the document cites as its primary purpose: "To give the viewer and listener a greater choice and a greater say."

"There's an element of revenge in it," charged Roy Addison, spokesman for Thames Television, the largest of 15 regional licensees that make up Britain's Independent Television network. "This is the broadcasters being cut down to size."

Whether motivated by animosity, conservative ideology, or both, the critics contend that Thatcher's plan for reshaping British television risks destroying one of the institutions of which Britain can be most proud.

"Other countries stand back amazed at its quality," wrote lawyer, playwright and author John Mortimer. "Americans, sick of flicking through 35 channels of identical rubbish, find PBS, the public-service station which mainly relays British drama, and are enthralled."

Mortimer sees proposals in the White Paper as a disaster--"the most ill-informed and destructive document since Guy Fawkes jotted down the Gunpowder Plot" to blow up Parliament in 1605. Instead of the steady diet of original drama and current-affairs programs to which they have become accustomed, he predicted, British viewers can look forward to "reruns of American serials, old movies, mindless game shows and a little news done on the cheap."

Others, like Patricia Hodgson, head of the BBC's Policy & Planning unit, are more sanguine. A lot of the uproar, she said in an interview, is "the very natural reaction to this moment of change. . . . It may actually not be quite so dramatic when it settles down."

But that there is major change ahead is unarguable.

"The only comparable upheaval would have been (the introduction of) commercial television" in Britain in 1955, Hodgson said.

Most viewers here now have access to just four television channels. Two are run by the government-controlled BBC; they are public-service networks, broadcasting without advertising, and financed by a television license fee charged to every set-owner in Britain. The other two are commercial, albeit required by government charter to meet rigorous standards of quality and variety in their programming. Channel 3 features the regional Independent Television (ITV) stations such as Thames in London, while Channel 4 is a national station that shares advertising revenue, news and some other programming with ITV.

Within a year, however, the number of channels available is expected to quadruple, and by 1992 there may be close to 100.

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