The Jimmy Savile affair and Iraq and the suicide of Dr David Kelly were two BBC editorial crises which cost BBC directors general their jobs. But the first in the sequence came in 1987 when DG Alasdair Milne was abruptly sacked two years after Real Lives: On the Edge of the Union, the documentary which featured Martin McGuinness as an ordinary person without horns, while at the same time being the IRA leader in Derry. The DG Alasdair Milne died yesterday. The aim of the film, to portray the problems of Northern Ireland through the eyes of two opposing Derry militants ( the other being the DUP’s Gregory Campbell who owned a licensed personal protection weapon), was not appreciated by the Thatcherite establishment who were also unused to the different grammar of features documentary compared to political argument. The chairman of the time Stuart Young was a dying man during the Real Lives controversy. The deputy chairman William Rees Mogg who led the attack on Milne died just before New Year. From Milne’s obituary.
The Real Lives programme had secured an extended interview with Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuinness, at a time when the conflict in Northern Ireland was intense, with Thatcher having demanded that year that terrorists be starved of the “oxygen of publicity”.
When the interview’s existence was revealed ahead of transmission, home secretary Leon Brittan demanded that the BBC drop the film. Its board of governors pulled the programme while Milne was away on holiday.
A strike at the BBC followed, and upon his return Milne, fought the governors, arguing the programme should be broadcast. Eventually after at least one stormy meeting Real Lives was aired in October 1985.
But relations between Milne and the governors were seriously damaged – Milne later described the governors as a “bunch of amateurs”.
This account by the late James Hawthorne then the BBCNI controller who offered unsuccessfully to resign, captured the flavour. Hawthorne suggested inserts of bombs going off in Ormeau Avenue which provided enough cosmetic balance to allow the film to be transmitted and save everybody’s face – at least temporarily.
The more things change the more they remain the same. Like the familar cast of Dad’s Army that was such a fixture at the time, they are now nearly all dead.
Critics of odd facts may like to know that Alastair Campbell whose well laid ambush of the BBC brought down Greg Dyke and his chairman Gavin Davies over Iraq is an Englishman with Scotttish roots who played the bagpipes. So was Alasdair Milne.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London