PETER FROST has been reading recently released files from the 1950s that show the extent to which the government was monitoring the BBC for communist and Soviet sympathisers
IN A surprise move the government has authorised the release of secret MI5 papers on communist influence at the BBC. These are papers that Winston Churchill ordered should be kept secret indefinitely.
Yet other secret service papers, those covering the arrest and trial of the Shrewsbury 24 for instance, are still being kept secret, well away from public scrutiny with no future date offered for release.
The Shrewsbury 24 were a group of activists campaigning for better pay and conditions during a 1972 builders’ strike. They were convicted of public order offences and sent to prison.
The group have always protested their innocence and believe the trial was politically motivated.
Demands for their secret files to be released have always been refused on the spurious grounds of national security.
The Churchill papers on the other hand concern left-wing influences at the BBC and their release will give the Tory press and the Murdoch media yet another chance to demonstrate the supposed left-wing bias of the BBC as part of the campaign to cut BBC services further and to hand Murdoch an even bigger share of British broadcasting.
The newly released papers date from the early 1950s. In June 1952, a letter from Conservative MP Sir Waldron Smithers urged the prime minister Winston Churchill to investigate communist activities in Britain.
“We have traitors in our midst,” he wrote, “and although I should deplore suppression of free speech they should be treated as traitors.”
Smithers went on to urge the prime minister to set up a “committee presided over by an English judge or QC … who could make an extensive enquiry into communist activities and report to you.”
His idea had come from across the Atlantic where senator Joseph McCarthy was making headlines with his controversial hearings into alleged communist infiltration in the United States.
As early as 1947, Smithers had asked the then Labour prime minister Clement Attlee if he would “set up a committee of this House on Un-British Activities, on the lines of the Committee on Un-American activities.” The Labour government refused point blank.
Smithers then asked if communists would be outlawed and their funds seized. Again the answer was no.
By 1952 the Tories were back in power and paranoid Smithers told Churchill, the Tory prime minister, that he was particularly worried about communist sympathisers in the BBC: “In the event of war or a major crisis … these fellow travellers, with their intimate knowledge of the mechanisms of broadcasting, could in half an hour cut wires and damage equipment seriously to hamper broadcasting.”
He produced a list of BBC employees who he accused of being communists, sympathisers or fellow travellers. Most of them worked in the new Russian service.
Top of the list was a Mr Goldberg, who he described as “A Jew … and a communist.” Anatol Goldberg was in fact head of the BBC Russian service.
Churchill sent the letter and the list of names to MI5. It wrote back saying the prime minister should not be worried. “In the considered view of the security service, communist influence in the BBC is very slight and does not constitute a serious security danger.”
For many years, MI5 had been vetting BBC staff. It had its own list. It numbered just 147 communists, suspected communists, or communist sympathisers, out of a total staff of 12,200.
MI5 also sent Churchill its views on Smithers’s list. There was no evidence that any of them had actually been Communist Party members.
Goldberg, it said, had been in contact in 1950 with a known communist, who was employed by Soviet News — but nothing more.
Nevertheless in 1957 Goldberg was shunted out of his senior post. He remained a BBC commentator. It is of course no secret that MI5 and other government intelligence agencies check on the political views of potential employees of the BBC, they always have and always will.
Back in August 2014, I wrote an article for the Morning Star on precisely that subject (click here).
That article detailed the long career of Brigadier Ronnie Stonham, who along with his department of three assistants had the job of ensuring any communists, Trotskyists, peace campaigners, indeed anyone who wasn’t true blue Tory like the Brigadier, ever got a job at the BBC.
Security vetting of editorial appointees was introduced at the BBC as early as 1937. In 1986 the BBC officially told the world that it had been halted, but they would say that, wouldn’t they.
The security screenings weeded out those who the Tory Establishment considered potential political subversives.
Applicants who got the thumbs down had their security files stamped with a triangular green tag known as the Christmas tree.
Grounds for exclusion could be as vague as “had a subscription to the Daily Worker” or “associated with communists and CND activists.”
The screenings may have kept out lefties, but paedophiles and murderers seemed to find a comfortable home in the BBC.
Among those who fell foul of the witch-hunt were folk singer Ewan MacColl, theatre director Joan Littlewood, Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen and film director Roland Joffe.
Film-maker Jeff Perks, who made a great film about Ken Sprague, Stephen Peet, who later went on to make the Yesterday’s Witness series for the BBC, John Goldschmidt, who made a film about the whistleblower Stanley Adams, and Sunday Times journalist Isabel Hilton were all among those blacklisted for their left-wing sympathies.
Anna Ford, who went on to be one of Britain’s most respected broadcasters, had the temerity to live with Trevor Hyett who had edited the young communist magazine Challenge. She got a Christmas tree sticker and a ban from the BBC.
Just as the selection of BBC staff has been a political weapon now it seems so is the release of previously secret files. If a file can help bolster the campaign against public broadcasting it will be released. If all it can do is demonstrate the judicial framing of trade unionists then it best be kept secret forever.