Daily news in the 1980s

The keystones of the broadcast schedules are the news programmes. On radio and on television, ‘news’ marks out the day with predictable regularity; breakfast, midday, early evening, late evening -from the brief headline bulletins to the longer slots with space for interviews, debates and investigatory pieces. In the 1980s, before 24 hour news channels and internet news, these authoritative spaces were even more influential than today -drawing the attention of viewers and listeners to the issues of the moment.

Kevin Marsh, currently Editor in Chief of the BBC’s College of Journalism, was a news editor in the 1980s, working for both the BBC and Independent Television News (ITN).He concluded the No Such Symposium by reviewing the issues we had been discussing as they appeared to those producing the news at the time.

No such thing as society: Daily news in the 1980s

Kevin Marsh writes:


The first thing I should say is that I’m not an academic – so any of my remarks are lightly researched anecdote. But they do constitute an authentic account of what it felt like to be working in daily news in the BBC and ITN in the 1980s. And what that contributes to what it feels like now.

My first proper job in journalism was covering the 1979 election. I began editing programmes on the day parliament voted to sent the task force to the Falklands. I edited, wrote, produced daily news programmes for the BBC and ITN throughout the decade.

I want to think out loud about four questions:

The Daily experience
Journalism is most certainly not the first draft of history. And if anyone insists it is, I’d have to counter-post Hemmingway’s quote – “the first draft of anything is shit.” Daily journalists themselves rarely claim theirs is a considered and complete account of the world. It’s about telling stories from the world, which may or may not contribute to a coherent account of the world. And the fact that daily journalism is based on stories is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Those stories are either extraordinary in themselves or extraordinary manifestations of some aspect of the zeitgeist.In daily journalism, there’s no room for the defining ordinary. The massive accumulation of stories that is daily journalism, give no guarantee of completeness, coherence or proportion.

So did we shape our daily news coverage within a bigger narrative that said what we were living through was an ideological revolution?

1979-1983 No
Our topics were:

1983-1985 Sort of
We reported on:

The Miners’ strike (1984-5); local government and the abolition of Metropolitan County Councils (1985); vested interests; privatisation and deregulation, described by ex- Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, as ‘selling the family silver’ I think it was probably after the Falklands War and the miners’ strike that the image of Mrs Thatcher began to shape our daily coverage. She was seen as determined, hard and uncaring – particularly as political interviews fed back into daily news coverage.

1985–1990 Yes
We reported on:

More deregulation; the crash and the real economy; the introduction of a universal charge, “the Poll tax” in place of local rates, which led to riots in the streets; divisions within both major parties.

As far as the NHS was concerned, the daily stories we framed lay within the parameters we’ve been hearing about in this Symposium: queues … shortages … decrepitude … shroud waving; then later – doctors versus managers … underfunding … the internal market.

Re-inventing the public
Margaret Thatcher imageIt’s important to remember, though, the other big story that ran alongside the Thatcher story day after day – and that’s the implosion, realignment, internal strife and so on of the left and centre-left of British politics. This mattered then and matters now – because what we were seeing in the Thatcher decade was a radical re-definition of ‘the public’ … and the left and centre-left struggled to have anything to say because they were so internally focused. And because they appeared to have little to say that was new.

Between 1976 and the winter of 1978/9, any shared understanding of ‘the public’ in the UK had become strained to say the least. David Marquand -who was first a Labour MP, then a founding force of the SDP before returning to the Labour Party – wrote this in 2004, “The policy and institutional paradigm of the post-war period – broadly Keynsian economic management carried out by a state machine imbued with the tradition of autonomous executive power – was manifestly bankrupt. Whatever their ideological preferences, decision makers were forced to look for new approaches.”

Which, apart from its academic language, isn’t a million miles away from Margaret Thatcher’s foreword to the 1979 Conservative manifesto: “What has happened to our country, to the values we used to share, to the success and prosperity we once took for granted?... During the industrial strife of last winter, confidence, self-respect, common sense and even our sense of common humanity were shaken. At times, this society seemed on the brink of disintegration.”

Labour’s defeat – and the circumstances of that defeat – meant that the left and centre-left struggled to articulate an alternative. One quotation I like: “The political left offered only more of the same, dressed up in rebarbative Marxisant rhetoric.”

So, running in parallel with our coverage, story by story, of Thatcher’s management of the economy and so on, was our reporting on the Labour party, in particular: The election of Michael Foot as leader of the Party; the 1981 Labour special conference, which led to the formation of a new party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP); the activities of the far-left group, Militant, with its policy of ‘entryism’ into the Labour Party, which led to the election of far-left Labour local authorities; the deputy leadership contest between Denis Healey and the more left-wing Tony Benn (1981); the Labour Party’s left-wing manifesto in 1983, described as the ‘longest suicide note in history’; that year’s general election, and so on.It wasn’t until Neil Kinnock’s speech here in Bournemouth in 1985 that Labour could even begin to formulate an alternative articulation of ‘the public’ … a process which didn’t really come to any kind of resolution until 1995 and 1996.

When we look at what happened to the debate over ‘the public’ in the 1980s – we have to bear in mind another of Mrs Thatcher’s phrases; ‘there is no alternative’. In terms of a coherent articulation of a left/centre-left notion of the public – there was, indeed no alternative. One effect of this, incidentally, was the rise of the single issue pressure group, hugely assisted by the development of cheap fax machines.

If there was a coherent, ideological campaign to dismantle the BBC or transform it from a publicly funded, publicly accountable broadcaster to a commercially or part commercially funded organisation – then it wasn’t especially well done. Not only did the BBC survive, with a Charter and licence fee still intact – possibly more commercialised, possibly more risk averse- but it is still living and breathing. And over the past 20 years –particularly in assembling its case for the 2006 Charter – it has been an important voice in the discourse, the rolling re-definition of ‘the public’. We heard from Jonathan Powell that Mrs Thatcher never ‘got’ the BBC. But for the most part, we in the BBC daily newsrooms learnt about Mrs Thatcher’s displeasure through the press. And I never once had a conversation with any senior figure at the BBC that began: “the government has complained, therefore we must …’

I have to say, it wasn’t quite like that at ITN – during the 1987 election campaign, the senior editor (who subsequently got a Damehood) would routinely brief us about the latest from Central Office. At the BBC we experienced it as complaints direct to programmes – though it never approached a tenth of the intervention and attempts at story management of the Campbell decade of 1994-2004.

Margaret Thatcher was not thrilled by the BBC’s coverage of the 1981 Brixton riots, nor by its coverage of the Falklands War – in particular, our insistence on using impartial language - we talked about ‘British’ troops- nor our refusal to let the Belgrano sinking drop. And the Goose Green cock-up – when we apparently reported an assault and re-broadcast it on the WS – was seen as only possible in an unpatriotic culture. However, she recognised the reporting of Brian Hanrahan and Bob Fox.

[The Falklands, incidentally, gave us an abiding image of the relationship between newsrooms and government, with the lugubrious press briefings given by Ian MacDonald. MacDonald was a civil servant, whose reporting line went to the Head of the Civil Service, as did that of everyone who worked in what became known as the Government Information Service. That structure didn’t change until 1997, when for the first time ever, British government press officers gained a political boss, sitting in Downing Street. This meant that in the 1980s relationships with press officers tended to be of a much more innocent kind.]

But there was plenty on the Current Affairs side of the News fence that Mrs Thatcher found intolerable throughout the decade: Carrickmore, Maggie’s Militant Tendency; Real Lives; the American raid on Libya; Brian Redhead on Today. And it felt like a vendetta. [for more information on the Falklands coverage and these other incidents see http://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc/resources/pressure/]

But there were other voices in her cabinet who urged a different approach: Lord Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd were powerful voices in her cabinet not just in defence of the BBC on any single issue, but of the public ethos it represented. They certainly didn’t see the BBC as ‘an affront to the market’.

Enter Alan Peacock, author of the Report on the Financing of the BBC (1986) – and Marmaduke Hussey, appointed Chair of the BBC’s Board of Governors in 1987. Duke Hussey had been brought in to ‘sort out’ the BBC – but that didn’t have quite the effect some had hoped. He fired the ‘old school’ Director General, Alasdair Milne and replaced him with an accountant, Michael Checkland, and, as his deputy, a fiercely driven, part-technocrat, part-ideologue, John Birt. This was where it went wrong: Checkland may have been an accountant … but he was a BBC accountant. (Some would say that’s an oxymoron.) But there will never be agreement over Birt. Some argue that he blunted the BBC’s investigative cutting edge – part of a ‘keeping his head down’ strategy. But it’s easy to forget that Birt saw himself as much as a reformer of British journalism as anything else.

And it’s too easy, I think, to see all Birt’s journalistic interventions as risk-averse or even supine. His proposal to introduce ‘fact-checkers’ into BBC newsrooms was derided – yet they’re common in American newsrooms. And I’m not sure he was wrong, in principle at least. I didn’t much like him sticking his oar in the programmes I made – as we heard from Jonathan Powell earlier, John was nothing if not high-end. He never stopped one of my programmes – but he used to send me notes that queried headlines I’d written. Or running orders. Or lines of questioning in interviews.

Alasdair Milne’s grudging assessment of Birt was that he was nothing but bad for the BBC – except that he developed its internet services. It was Birt’s early digital and online strategy that future proofed the BBC and allows it now to formulate a public service argument in a changed broadcasting world, with even greater commercial pressures than Alan Peacock or Birt himself foresaw. ‘Producer choice’ was his largely vilified brainchild. This was portrayed a kind of internal market that had obvious parallels with the NHS. It was to address what Birt later remembered as a BBC drowning in …“waste and bureaucracy … a vast command economy … it was Byzantine … creative freedom was frustrated …” The policy threw up well-publicised abominations – such as the CD library charges that were so high it really was cheaper to buy the CD from HMV and throw it away after use. I once asked him at the start of the first of many zero budgeting exercises -this one in 1988- what was the incentive for me to arrive a budget lower than the one I’d had the previous year. “The right to continue,” he said.

Mind you, this didn’t necessarily embed itself in BBC culture. As recently as 2003, when Greg Dyke was Director General, I was at a BBC Leadership event and one executive delivered the line, “Of course … no-one ever won a BAFTA for coming in on budget”. The assembled company erupted in applause.

But it’s worth remembering that News – Birt’s personal fiefdom – was largely spared from producer choice. It was strictly budgeted – but it remained in every respect that mattered, a command economy. Newsrooms were compelled to buy their main raw material from the BBC’s Newsgathering department. The choice of production systems, studios and resources was centrally managed. Such producer choice as there was, was exercised by the Director of News or his departmental heads. I wasn’t one of John Birt’s fans – I can’t say I particularly liked working for him. But I do think that the fact the BBC exists at all in 2010 as a public service broadcaster, paid for by the licence fee and actively participating in that discourse around the rolling re-invention of ‘the public’ is largely down to his strategies as Deputy and then Director General.

Kevin Marsh is Editor in Chief of the BBC’s College of Journalism. In the 1980s he was a BBC news editor, and also worked for ITN’s News at Ten. He was Editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme from 2002 to 2006