BBC DG dies who was brought down over Martin McGuinness and ” the oxygen of publicity”

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.

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  • keano10

    This was the documentary when Gregory stated that if he felt the Union was in trouble that he ” would be out on the streets with the people, with arms”.

    I think one of the intentions of the producers at that time was to illustrate the thin line which existed between those that were regarded as outwardly “terrorist” in nature and those from a seemingly “democratic” background who appeared to be willing to use weapons at the drop of a hat.

    Gregory did not fail them in that respect. He seemed to be making an early pitch for a future challenge to become heir apparent to Ian Paisley in the same maverick way that Peter Robinson had done with the whole Clontinret fiasco.

  • Now I know what you mean when you talk about Martin McGuinness “without horns.” Well, this is a man who happened to be an enemy of Britain at that particular time. If you are an enemy, you are more likely to “lock horns” than be without any.

    I do not agree with your suggestion that the BBC Governors were “Thatcherite establishment” (your prejudice clearly shows) as your post implies. If you look at the history of the BBC you will find that in other instances those same people were not quite so “Thatcherite” in their dealings with the Conservative Governement of the time.

    This was one of those episodes where there was a clash between the desire for journalistic freedom and the upholding of the National interest. Some will argue that Milne was right (as you do through the prism of somebody from your vocation) whilst others would see it differently.

    But this was also a story about somebody who was egocentric. Egocentrics do not behave well when they are asked to eat humble pie. It seems to me that he deserved to be sacked for being too headstrong.

  • Seamuscamp

    Seymour Major,

    Actually Milne knew nothing about the programme before the crisis – his stance afterwards was that the Government (Leon Britten in fact) had acted contrary to the BBC Charter and the principle of non-interference. We shouldn’t be surprised that someone like the late Rees Mogg would support a Tory Government despite his oft proclaimed belief in Freedom of the Press. Mrs T would have recognised him as “one of us”.

  • Seamuscamp,

    I dont think this story will ever be looked at properly if emphasis is made about the fact that the Government was a conservative one. History shows that when it came to policy on Northern Ireland, there was very little daylight between the UK parties.

  • David Crookes

    It is an irony of history that a self-proclaimed hater of the nanny state ended up as the Supreme Nanny, centralizing like billy-oh, wanting to control everything, and preaching the doctrine of ‘accountability’ that lies behind much of today’s hellish culture of useless paperwork.

    The ‘oxygen of publicity’ nonsense and the ‘words spoken by an actor’ nonsense both ran counter to the authentic British tradition of press freedom that goes back to John Wilkes.

    Once MT began to regard herself as a divine manifestation, she equated working for the public good with getting her own way.

  • sherdy

    Brian, You mention the ‘suicide of Dr David Kelly’ as a matter of fact.
    Kelly had ‘gone native’ and was questioning Tony Blair’s words, so became an uncomfortable embarrassment who had to be got rid of.
    The Hutton report didn’t have enough whitewash to cover it up.

  • babyface finlayson

    Or the <a href="

    Not good at links. Probably won’t work.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, babyface finlayson! It works perfectly well. Didn’t endangered witnesses in certain trials years ago use Mr Punch pitch-raisers so as to disguise their voices?

  • babyface finlayson

    “Didn’t endangered witnesses in certain trials years ago use Mr Punch pitch-raisers so as to disguise their voices?”
    Yes on the ‘Punch and Judiciary Show’.

  • David Crookes

    Brilliant, babyface, I can see that title flashing in coloured lights. The neon of publicity, so to speak.

    I can still hardly believe how certain politicians were pretty well let off after the WMDs business. Yes, a lot of people got killed.. And yes, we got it wrong. Oh, well.

    Maybe about 2021 a former leading actor will say yes, such-and-such an event really was an inside job, but it’s too late to do anything about it now.

  • two opposing Derry militants ( the other being the DUP’s Gregory Campbell who owned a licensed personal protection weapon)

    Stopped reading here.