BBC/Censorship/Nuclear Weapons

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Event.png BBC/Censorship/Nuclear Weapons Rdf-icon.png
Date1945 - Present

The introduction of nuclear weapons in Britain and the build up of the British 'independent deterrent' have been shrouded in secrecy from the very beginning. 'The War Cabinet never discussed the atomic bomb in the period leading up to 1945; the (Labour) Deputy Prime Minister was told nothing about it; and the Labour Cabinet as a whole, after the 1945 election, never discussed Britain's own bomb. From then until now every effort has been made to discountenance public debate on the subject' (Downing 1986:167).[1]

By late 1954 BBC producer Nesta Pain was researching a possible programme on nuclear weapons. Her preliminary explorations with scientists and others came to the attention of the government, prompting a pre-emptive letter from the Postmaster General to the Chair of the BBC, Sir Alexander Cadogan. Earl De La Warr's letter was a crude attempt to vet all programmes on nuclear weapons by threatening the veto:

The wide dissemination in a broadcast programme of information about thermo-nuclear weapons might well raise important issues of public policy. Indeed this is a subject on which the public interest might in certain circumstances require the issue of guidance or directions to the Corporation in pursuance of Section 15(4) of the Corporations Licence. I am therefore writing to ask you to let me see in advance the script of any programme, whether for broadcasting or for television, which contains information about atomic or thermo-nuclear weapons (18 December 1954, BBC WAC R34/997).

Since Cadogan was out of the country at the time, the Director General, Ian Jacob, raised the letter at the Board of Management meeting on December 20 where it was felt that 'it was not in accordance with precedent to submit scripts to the PMG' and that 'it would be more appropriate if the government would give the BBC general guidance in the matter'.[2] Around the same time Sir Ben Barnett of the Post Office had phoned the Director General to threaten the use of Clause 15(4) against a planned programme called 'the Spirit in Jeopardy'.

Cadogan raised both these issues in a stinging four page reply to the PMG in January 1955. He queried 'whether the government is interested from the point of view of security or from the point of view of wider questions such as the effect on public morale'. The letter from the PMG together with the phonecall from Ben Barnett 'seem to indicate' wrote Cadogan 'that the Government desires to exercise a measure of control over BBC output which would be unprecedented in peacetime'. He rejected the threat in the PMG's letter and more or less challenged him to introduce a notice or back down:

Experience over a good many years seems to show... that the corporation cannot agree to accept and follow Government guidance over particular fields of output except where security is concerned. To do so would be to abdicate from responsibilities given to the Governors by the Charter. (Cadogan to De La Warr 24 January 1955, BBC WAC R34/997)

Cadogan concluded by asking for 'enlightenment on the thinking that has inspired these communications... with sufficient precision to enable the Governors to decide what their attitude should be'. However, at the board of management meeting later that day the Director General ruled that until they got more information from the government that 'no programmes should be broadcast about atomic weapons' (Minute 49, Board of Management meeting 24 January 1955).

Enlightenment came in the form of an informal meeting at the Ministry of Defence between Cadogan and Jacob of the BBC and The PMG, Minister of Defence and two officials. By all accounts the mood was much calmer than it had been in the earlier exchange of letters. According to the BBC account of the meeting the Minister of Defence explained that government anxiety had been sparked by the 'mistaken impression that the BBC was proposing to do a programme about Thermo-nuclear weapons and their effects before the publication of the Government's white paper on Defence Policy.' According to this account, the government's concern here was not one of national security, but rather a simple desire to manipulate public opinion:

The government had been giving anxious consideration to the extent of the information that should be made public about the hydrogen bomb and its effects, and to the way in which this information should be presented. On the one hand they did not desire to keep the public in entire ignorance; on the other hand they did not want to stimulate the feeling so easily accepted by the British people because it agreed with their natural laziness in these matters, that because of the terrible nature of the hydrogen bomb there was no need for them to take part in home defence measures (Ian Jacob, 'Note of meeting held at the Ministry of Defence' 15th February 1955).

Having tried to assure the BBC that the target of the governments action was the lazy British people rather than the independence of the BBC, the Minister of Defence went on to suggest that the PMG's rather intemperate letter and Cadogan's reply be quietly forgotten about and that they start afresh:

The Minister of Defence felt that these two communications should now be put away in the files and that the matter should be handled on a more informal basis. He assumed that there would be no difficulty in close touch being maintained between the Ministry of Defence and the Corporation on this matter, and this would enable both parties to exchange information and views without hampering documents (Ian Jacob, 'Note of meeting held at the Ministry of Defence' 15th February 1955).

The BBC response was one of relief and they quickly agreed that quiet chats were a better way of proceeding:

The Chairman entirely agreed with the Minister's proposal and confirmed that the Corporation had no desire to embarrass the Government in this very delicate matter (Ian Jacob, 'Note of meeting held at the Ministry of Defence' 15th February 1955).

Ian Jacob then explained that discussions of the White paper on Defence would simply take their agenda from the government's concerns set out in the paper itself:

I explained to the Minister that we should be under the necessity of having programmes expounding and discussing the White paper on Defence but that naturally these would be founded on the information contained in that paper. I did not foresee any immediate desire on the part of the corporation to mount programmes about the effects of the hydrogen bomb. There did not seem to be any immediate point in doing so (Ian Jacob, 'Note of meeting held at the Ministry of Defence' 15th February 1955).

A public interest in such programmes was perhaps not considered reason enough.

Following this the DG prepared a paper on nuclear weapons and broadcasting which was discussed inside the Corporation on March 4th. In it he emphasised that certain types of discussion of nuclear weapons which furthered the 'national interest' should be made 'with no hesitation':

To further the national interest in this case will be to give full exposition to the facts given in the White Paper, and to the theories expounded in it by the Government. But there are many conclusions founded on these facts and theories which call for full discussion. For example, should Britain make hydrogen bombs? Could there be a greater partition of the defence effort between us and our allies? What role should the TA play? and so on. ('Thermo-Nuclear Weapons and Broadcasting', A note by the Director General 28 February 1955)

On the other hand there were other topics which were a 'more difficult problem', such as 'the symptoms induced by the "fall-out", the degree of radioactivity in the atmosphere which may prove harmful, and so on.' Such topics had to satisfy much stricter criterion, including 'is there a worth-while object to be achieved by the programme, which would outweigh the horrific impact'. As we have seen Jacob had already told the Minister of Defence that there seemed to be 'no immediate point' in such programmes.

In a draft letter to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, following the meeting with Jacob and Cadogan, the PMG was flushed with success:

We finally agreed that the Corporation should keep in close touch with the Ministry of Defence on all matters relating to the presentation of the hydrogen bomb to the public. We all thought that this was a more satisfactory and practical solution than that the Government should try to lay down precise rules in writing. I hope you agree that this arrangement should give us the results we want.

Churchill was also pleased and congratulated Jacob for 'standing up' for self censorship:

I realise how great your difficulties are. The responsibility for the use of the vast machinery of radio and TV is at once formidable, novel and perpetual. In this case I think there would have been no trouble if the topic had been part of a rather high-grade programme like the Third programme. What vexed me was the millions of humble homes affected. I am very glad you are standing up against the idea of anticipating the Parliamentary debate on the H bomb (Churchill to Jacob 20 February 1955).

Thus is the intemperate language of vetting and censorship translated into co-operation, consultation and responsibility.

This informal arrangement seems to have worked for some years and was regarded as something of a success in Whitehall. Some Eighteen Months later the PMG advised the government that informal consultation was the best way to control the BBC. In his support he cited the nuclear weapons agreement as a 'major question' on which 'informal consultation has had some success' (HO 256/360, Hill to the Prime Minister 20 August 1956). However it seems that the agreement was not still operating in 1965 when Peter Watkins celebrated film, The War Game was banned by the BBC following government pressure (See Tracey 1982; Briggs 1979:121-123).


  1. See Cockerell et al, 1984:90- 96; Hennessy, 1985:17-29. My thanks to Peter Goodwin for supplying some of the information on which the following section is based.
  2. Minute 632, Programmes Relating to Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs' 20 December 1954.