Was there a communist witch-hunt at the BBC? – BBC News3 months, 5 days ago
Newly released files from the 1950 s demonstrate the extent to which the government was monitoring the BBC for communist and Soviet sympathisers. Despite pressure from one drive MP, the authorities concerned defied the exhort to conduct a purging.
In June 1952, a Conservative MP advised the Prime Minister Winston Churchill to investigate Communist activities in Britain. “We have traitors in our midst, ” wrote Sir Waldron Smithers, “and although I should deplore suppression of free speech they should be treated as traitors.”
The letter was contained in one of Churchill’s files that has only now been released to the National Archives, more than 60 years later. It was to be closed “indefinitely” according to a note on the front of the brown card encompas.
Historians believe that’s because it concerns MI5 – and it’s merely in the past few years that their Cold War files have been released to the public.
In 1952 Smithers recommended the prime minister to set up a “committee presided over by an English magistrate or QC who could make an extensive enquiry into communist activities and report to you”.
This was the era when Senator Joseph McCarthy was the driving force behind high profile and controversial hearings into alleged Communist infiltration in the United States, especially in public service.
In 1947, Smithers had asked in parliament if the prime minister[ then Labour’s Clement Attlee] would “set up a committee of this House on Un-British Activities, on the lines of the Committee on Un-American activities”. The government refused phase blank. Smithers asked if socialists would be outlawed and their funds confiscated. He was again refused.
Five years later, Smithers was especially 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 severely to hamper broadcasting.”
He included a list of BBC employees who he understood were socialists, or sympathisers, mostly in the new Russian service. Among them was a “Mr Goldberg”, who he described as a “Jew who controls the selection of programmes and is a communist”. Anatol Goldberg was in fact head of the BBC Russian service – an important and influential figure.
Churchill was concerned enough to send the letter – and names – to MI5, via the Home office, for further investigation. They wrote back saying the cabinet of ministers should not be worried. “In the considered opinion 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. They believed there were only 147 socialists, suspected socialists, or communist sympathisers, out of a staff of 12,200. The home secretary believed a major inquiry – like that suggested by Smithers – “might cause much embarrassment without serving any useful purpose”.
Separately, MI5 forwarded their views on Smithers’s blacklist. There was no evidence that any of them had been Communist Party members. Anatol Goldberg, “theyre saying”, had been in contact in 1950 with a known socialist, who was be applied by Soviet News – but nothing more.
Peter Fraenkel, former head of the BBC Russian Service, knew Anatol Goldberg well. “He was a wonderful raconteur, ” he says. “One of the best I’ve ever known”. He isn’t surprised that Goldberg had been in contact with Russian the reporters in London – it was part of the job. He wasn’t a communist himself.
Fraenkel says Goldberg never spoke about his problems with MI5, but he knew some people felt his tone was too gentle: “He didn’t sock it to them enough.” Fraenkel says Goldberg’s approach was more subtle – to listen to people, and then asking questions topics like: “The revolution was supposed to deliver this and this this has it done so? “
Goldberg’s approach was successful. The BBC Russian service was believed to be more popular and more trusted than its US-sponsored contenders – though of course there were no dependable ratings. MI5 and the Foreign Office did succeed in part – in 1957 Anatol Goldberg was shunted out of his post. He remained a commentator.
Fraenkel says his predecessor at the Russian section, the former MI6 officer Alexander Lieven, had a poor position of his erstwhile colleagues at MI5. He advised Fraenkel not to trust their vetting – but to rely on his own Russian faculty, who would rapidly “sniff out” an infiltrator.
Churchill wasn’t fully convinced by Smithers’s fears. “I am assured you overestimate the extent of Communist influence and that proper schemes exist to counter any serious threat.”
However, the cabinet of ministers retained a private interest. A years later he asked the Cabinet Secretary, Norman Brook, to check how many communists or communist sympathisers remained on the BBC staff. There were 100 – 60 in relatively junior positions. Of the 40 in more senior roles, 31 were in the overseas services. Brook said that the Director General Sir Ian Jacob was aware of the “risks” – that they’d try to influence the content of broadcasts, but that “he is certainly on the watch for any signs of this – he is of course helped by knowing precisely who the suspects are and what positions they hold”.
The director general and the home secretary were opposed to a policy of “eradication” as they feared sacking people for their political beliefs would cause “such a political blizzard that it would do more harm than good”.
Jean Seaton, writer of Pinkos And Traitors, about politicians and the BBC, believes this was a rather British approach – to monitor rather than blacklist. While the closeness between the BBC, government, and MI5 may appear troubling now, she says it was an effect of World War Two. Churchill and Jacob, for example, had worked closely together:
“These are men who’d worked through a national emergency they’d shared concerns … they shared a world view. In that sense they don’t have the alarm bells round MI5 that someone who’d always worked on Newsnight might.”
George Orwell’s list of communist sympathisers
Shortly before his death in 1949, the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm sent a listing of names to the Information Research Department, an anti-communist propaganda division set up by the post-war Labour government The list comprised people( largely novelists) Orwell considered too sympathetic to Soviet Russia to be suitable for work at the IRD; names included the film star Charlie Chaplin, the writer JB Priestley and the Labour MP Tom Driberg List was made officially public in 2003; one commentator called his action “a terrible mistake”, but Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick said: “He did it because he supposed the Communist Party was a totalitarian menace”