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In 1980 the BBC’s documentary series Panorama began developing an episode on British intelligence.  This was the first of its kind, at least by such a prominent and respected series, but both the central government and the intelligence agencies were not happy.  Over a period of several months they put pressure on the BBC, trying to stop the programme from being broadcast.  When this failed they considered using the government veto to prevent it from airing, and ultimately ended up heavily censoring the documentary via a secret preview screening with MI5.

In the late 1970s under the Labour government of James Callaghan British intelligence faced a problem. Officially, they did not exist. Or at least, their existence was not admitted. The entire government machinery and much of the population knew full well that they did exist, but we didn’t talk about it. In my opinion it’s only in Britain that such absurd doublethink could become institutionalised as government policy.

The problem was that documents from the late 1940s were due for release to the National Archives under the 30 year rule, documents that confirmed that GCHQ and MI6 continued to exist in the post war period. This led to a quite lengthy discussion within Number 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, with the Ministry of Defence, the head of MI6 and the leaders of the Liberal and Conservative parties being consulted by Callaghan.

The leader of the Tories at that time was Margaret Thatcher, who won the general election in 1979 shortly after this discussion took place. The Labour government had initially decided to abandon the doublethink fiction and decided that they should begin to officially acknowledge the existence of MI6 and GCHQ. The leader of the Liberal party basically agreed, but Thatcher was completely opposed to this and said they should maintain the fiction. This caused a rethink, and ultimately the Labour government changed their minds. Or possibly the Cabinet Secretary convinced the Prime Minister to change his mind. So Thatcher had quite an influence on this process, and when she became Prime Minister this ridiculous doublethink policy remained in place. It was not until 1994, several years after Thatcher resigned, that the Tory government passed legislation putting MI6 on a formal, public basis.

However, early on in the Thatcher government an episode of the BBC’s flagship documentary series Panorama caused a stir. It focused on the intelligence services, both British and American, and threatened not only to undermine the doublethink fiction but also to reveal details of what these agencies actually did. This was the first time that any such documentary was made, let alone one by such a respected and high-profile series. The British people had simply never seen this sort of information on the TV before.

A top secret file from the office of the Prime Minister documents what happened, and so it is this story we’re going to look at today. In the last episode we looked at an example of the British government and British intelligence helping to produce a documentary that demonised trade unions and the working class. This is the other side of the coin – the ability of the government and security services to censor a documentary about themselves.

The Censorship of Panorama File

The file was made available in late 2011, the reference is PREM 15/587, titled Proposed BBC Panorama Programme on British Intelligence. It’s a little under 60 pages covering June 1980 to February 1981 and comprises a bunch of memos and other internal communications and records. I know most of you are interested in the story rather than the documents but I just want to be clear where I’m getting pretty much all of this information.

So our story begins when Sir Robert Armstrong – the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service – wrote to Clive Whitmore, Thatcher’s private secretary. Armstrong had mentioned to Thatcher that the BBC were considering doing a Panorama episode on British intelligence. ‘Informal high level contacts’ between the government and the BBC had made clear that it would not be used as a platform for bashing the intelligence services, and that it would be some time before it would be broadcast, if that ever actually happened. A handwritten note by Whitmore to Thatcher says simply ‘hopeful’, expressing his doubt that the situation was that simple.

A few weeks later Armstrong sent a letter to Thatcher marked Top Secret and Personal where he explains that the Director General of the BBC Sir Ian Trethowan had met with MI5’s Legal Adviser Bernard Sheldon. Armstrong reports that Trethowan:

‘does not think he can reasonably prevent some programme on the accountability of the intelligence services; he recognises that this is not a matter on which present or past members of the Services should be asked to comment, and would hope to achieve balance by seeking the views of an appropriately experienced politician.’


‘he understands the dangers of lending respectability to a campaign by Duncan Campbell, Robin Cook, Robert Cryer and others, and the possible need to expose their motives and associations’.

Robin Cook was at that time a Labour MP who was proposing a bill trying to put British intelligence under the supervision of Parliament. Duncan Campbell is one of the few British journalists to have consistently covered the security services and argued for more accountability, and on the whole has done an excellent job. So it is no surprise to see their names on the shitlist of the Thatcher government, who viewed them with outright suspicion and hostility.

The letter goes on to discuss Tom Mangold, the head of the Panorama team who were researching and developing the documentary. It says:

‘Panorama’s interest in the subject clearly stems from the activities of Duncan Campbell. It is not clear whether Campbell is in any sense behind the idea of a Panorama programme. Panorama is believed to have approached one of Campbell’s associates in connection with this programme; and Mangold has in the past worked with Steve Weissman, a collaborator of Agee and an associate of Campbell.’

Government Veto over the BBC

Armstrong emphasised that the longer they left the decision about how to intervene in the programme the less influence they would be able to have over the content. He also mentioned a little-recognised fact – that the government can veto any BBC programme. Armstrong does describe this as the ‘nuclear option’ for both the government and the BBC, i.e. something neither side really wants. Thatcher’s handwritten note says ‘I would be prepared to use the veto’.

A few days later after a meeting between Armstrong and the heads of British intelligence he reported back that they decided that the first attempt would be to try to persuade the BBC to drop the programme altogether. His memo goes on:

‘The Heads of the Agencies are doubtful whether it would be prudent actually to use the power of veto to prevent the programme: they fear that the resulting row, with all the attention which it would focus on the intelligence services in the media, could do the intelligence services more damage than a Panorama programme limited to whatever extent it might be possible to limit it. They agree that in discussion with the BBC at this stage the possibility that the veto might be used should not be foreclosed.’

Some time was given to talking the use of D-Notices, Defence Advisory Notices issued by the government to ask the press not to cover things relating to national defence and security. These are not orders, as such, but they are pretty much always complied with by everyone. In the end these had little influence on the Panorama programme, I’m just highlighting that this was raised in the course of these conversations.

They also discussed trying to get the programme to focus purely on the argument about whether there should be more accountability, and direct the BBC away from talking about actual functions and operations of British intelligence. It was decided, and Thatcher agreed, that Armstrong should approach Trethowan and have a quiet word trying to persuade him to drop the episode altogether. A few days later he reported back on that meeting. One of the problems was that some people were willing to go on camera and say that there needed to be more accountability, but no one from the intelligence agencies or the government was prepared to publicly argue against that. This meant that producing a ‘balanced’ programme was more or less impossible. According to Armstrong’s memo, Trethowan:

‘Hoped that it would be possible to provide a measure of balance by inviting former Ministers to take part: he referred to Mr. Merlyn Rees, Lord Carr, Lord Butler and “former Prime Ministers, but not Sir Harold Wilson”.’

How ironic, since Harold Wilson was removed from office in what many people believe was an MI5 coup. I will add here that most of these memos in the file on Panorama had extremely limited distribution – often only half a dozen copies were distributed among the small number of relevant people and they were stamped Top Secret. This was very hush hush.

The discussions within Number 10 went on, as did the conversations between the government and the BBC. Trethowan seemed to be hinting that he wasn’t going to drop the programme and provided reassurances to the government that the Panorama episode would not tread on any toes. But he didn’t accept that the Home Secretary should be able to review the programme prior to it being aired, which is probably why another handwritten note at the top of one of these memos says ‘Ian Trethowan is being as weak as I expected’.

Trethowan also mentioned that the Panorama team had interviewed people in foreign countries including Richard Helms, former head of the CIA, who:

‘drew attention to the damage done to the intelligence services in the United States and expressed the view that we had managed our affairs in these respects much better. The publication of such an interview would not be damaging to the interests of the services.’

This is curious because the new head of the CIA, Stansfield Turner, is referenced elsewhere in this file and apparently he thought the opposite. But then Turner was brought in to clean up the shop and repair the CIA’s image, so he would say that.

MI5’s Censorship of Panorama

They continued going round in these circles – Amstrong applying pressure on Trethowan and reporting back that he understood the concerns and agreed with most of them and had instructed the Panorama team not to interview current or former MI5 and MI6 officers. However, attempts to get the programme ditched completely did not go so well, and while the veto option was always kept on the table no one wanted to be the person responsible for using it. Then we get to October 1980, several months into the process, and a memo recording the latest conversation with Trethowan. A memo records how:

‘Sir Ian Trethowan had met the Heads of both MI5 and MI6 and had claimed, surprisingly, that both had been comparatively relaxed about the programme.’

It seems that the government did not know about this. They knew about the meetings between Trethowan and Bernard Sheldon, the MI5 legal advisor. But not that the Director General of the BBC had met with the Director General of MI5 and the Chief of MI6. This is where we see one of those signs that deep politics and public politics are sometimes very different. While you would think that the Prime Minister and the guy running the Cabinet who is also in charge of the civil service including the intelligence services, you would think they would know this stuff, it certainly came as a surprise to the Home Office. Who, to be sure, are the ones who are supposed to be in charge of MI5. Proof positive that the intelligence services have their own back channels to the BBC and that a lot of the time their parent departments simply don’t know what they’re doing. Another top secret memo a few days later records how Trethowan had asked that Tom Mangold, the producer, be given a briefing and Trethowan suggested that this be done by Sheldon and Sir Dick White. White was a former head of both MI5 and MI6.

Then there’s a gap in time until January 1981, when another memo summarises the developments in those months. Trethowan initially decided to preview the episode with some of the editorial team and Bernard Sheldon. Then he thought that this would probably mean that Sheldon’s role would leak to the press, so he arranged for a private screening for just himself and the man from MI5. The original film was about 100 minutes long and identified buildings and senior personnel of the intelligence services, discussed operations including assassination and the overthrow of governments, and presented arguments for greater accountabiity. Sheldon offered some comments and recommendations, and then went to consult with senior figures in British intelligence before going back to Trethowan with more feedback.

The result was a documentary that was trimmed down to half the length of the version Sheldon and Trethowan watched together. As one of the January 1981 memos says, it was ‘a reasonably balanced programme from which most of the material to which we would have strong objection had been deleted’. It seems that some of the production and editorial staff working on the documentary were not happy with this, as the story then leaked to the press. Trethowan told the media that no one from the government had seen the film and there had been no government pressure on the BBC over the content. Two lies for the price of one.

Censorship of Panorama: The Cover-Up

Meanwhile, Armstrong wrote to Thatcher suggesting that if the question came up in the House of Commons that she could respond:

‘In July we learned that the BBC were approaching a number of people concerned with security matters to give interviews for a proposed Panorama programme on intelligence and security. The BBC were told that, in view of the risks to national security inherent in such a programme, people in Government service would be instructed not to give interviews or co-operate with those making the programme. But the BBC has, under its Charter, complete editorial freedom, and it was, and is, entirely within the responsibility of the BBC to decide whether to show such a programme and what to put in it.’

Three lies for the price of one. After the film was broadcast in February the government anticipated questions about it and further draft answers to possible questions were drawn up. One of the last documents in the file lists four potential questions and the answers that should be given. They’re worth reading in full.

Q1. Has the BBC’s attention been drawn to ‘D’ Notices?

A1. That is not necessary. The BBC is represented (by the Director of News and Current Affairs, Mr. Richard Francis) on the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Committee, which is responsible for ‘D’ Notices, and can be assumed to be well aware of their contents.

Q2. Does the Government propose to use/has the Government considered using its power of veto to stop the showing of this programme?

A2. No, I do not think that it would be appropriate to use the power of veto.  It is much better to put the onus on the BBC to exercise their editorial freedom with a sense of responsibility.

Q3. How was the Government’s decision to refuse co-operation conveyed to the BBC?

A3. I do not prepose to add to what I have already said.

Q4. Any questions about the contents of the programme?

A4. That is entirely a matter for the BBC.

In the end, no one in the House of Commons asked any questions. There is no reference in Hansard to any discussion or debate about this TV programme. Despite the press reporting that large chunks had been removed at Trethowan’s request it seems even the supposedly dangerous left wing MPs had other, more pressing issues to deal with.

One final point about this is that from Number 10’s point of view they weren’t entirely happy with the finished result but it appears MI5 were. In a BBC interview with Tom Mangold, the producer of this episode of Panorama, he said that Trethowan got a copy of the script and showed that to MI5, this would have been some time before the private screening for Bernard Sheldon.

(clip from BBC interview with Tom Mangold)

If Mangold is telling the truth here then we have additional evidence that it wasn’t just Number 10 and the Cabinet Secretary who were leaning on the BBC, but MI5 were involved more deeply and from an earlier stage than the documents say. It appears that it was primarily MI5, not the central government in Downing Street, who censored this broadcast. This is critical because in the small amount of very short-lived media coverage of this story they’ve always put the blame on Thatcher’s government. A keen eye for the documents and an ear for what Mangold said in this interview very much indicates something more insidious.

I will at this point suggest that you back and listen to episode 10 of this podcast, titled The War Game. It is all about a 1960s BBC docudrama about nuclear war that was banned by the BBC after a private screening with the government, not unlike what happened here. As I did at the end of that episode, I will round things off today by playing a clip from the BBC sitcom Yes, Minister. Thatcher was a huge fan of this show and was friends with the writers, so when trying to understand the British government in the 70s and 80s I find Yes, Minister to be very instructive. In this episode the government is trying to get the BBC to not broadcast an interview in a news documentary about the inadequacy of fallout shelters, and the Minister and the head of his department go to meet with the BBC’s Director of Policy.

Notice in this clip that while it is the minister and the senior civil servant who deliver the message, their power comes from surveillance of top BBC officials and unexplained implications for national security. So while this is largely a reworking of the story of The War Game, it is equally applicable to this story of the censoring of Panorama.