Marcus Stead

Journalist Marcus Stead

A spotlight on the relationship between Government lobbyists and those in charge of newspapers, TV and radio

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BETWEEN June 1970 and October 1971, there was an extraordinary turnaround in public opinion in favour of the United Kingdom entering what was then-known as the European Economic Community.

But how was this achieved, and why? The green light was given for negotiations for the UK to join the EEC was given in 1969, and formal talks began in 1970. On 18 June 1970, Edward Heath’s Conservatives unexpectedly won a majority at a general election.

Nearly 30 years later, on the evening of 03 February, 2000, BBC Radio Four broadcast an extraordinary documentary called Document: A Letter To The Times, which explained how Heath’s Conservative government, along with pro-EEC allies from beyond the party, went about a co-ordinated campaign to try to turn the tide of public opinion in favour of joining.

In brief, public opinion was massively against EEC membership at that time. To try and turn things around, regular breakfast lobbying meetings held at a luxurious London hotel between senior politicians, newspaper editors and editorial staff in radio and TV news.

It is important to understand the context of the world as it was then. There were just three TV channels – BBC One, BBC Two and ITV, and the BBC had a monopoly in legal radio broadcasts across the country. The internet as we know it today did not exist, and very few people indeed would have had the ability to record TV or radio programmes.

Newspapers, both national and local, were very powerful, and were the main means of obtaining news and information beyond set news programming on TV and radio.

The campaign began by ensuring that letters written to The Times newspaper, putting a positive spin on EEC membership, appeared on an almost daily basis.

But if it was to succeed, the campaign needed to be more intense than that. The Times was regarded as ‘the paper of record’ in those days, but its readership was overwhelmingly middle class and conservative in outlook.

To reach more people, senior BBC radio editors were leaned on at these breakfast meetings, with the Today programme, Woman’s Hour and The World at One specifically targeted. The anti-EEC Jack de Manio was mysteriously removed as presenter of Radio Four’s flagship Today programme in 1971.

In the 2000 broadcast of Document: A Letter To The Times, Labour peer Roy Hattersley recalls his personal disgust when he attended a breakfast meeting at which similar actions to those shown to de Manio were made against other anti-EEC broadcasters.

In those days, BBC TV’s news bulletins were far shorter than we’re used to nowadays, and the ‘gold standard’ in TV news was ITV’s News at Ten programme, made by ITN. At the breakfast meetings, arrangements were made with News at Ten’s bosses for a nightly five-minute segment explaining what the EEC was about (with a positive spin put on it) was arranged, in return for the government giving the programme exclusive stories.

Near the end of the programme, Hattersley was utterly scathing of the lobbying that went on at these breakfast meetings. It was his belief that the government (and indeed the opposition) of the day should have been far more honest with the British people about the substantial loss of sovereignty that EEC membership would bring about, and that the failure to do so had played into eurosceptic hands (with justification) in the subsequent three decades, along with a substantial number of the electorate feeling they had been cheated about the project’s true intentions.

The breakfast meetings achieved their aim, public opinion turned substantially in their favour, Parliament voted to join the EEC and the United Kingdom became a member on 01 January 1973.

It is extraordinary that the BBC ever broadcast the programme at all, but it was never repeated. For years, a transcript of the programme was available online if you were willing to pay for it. Then, on 05 May this year, it appeared, in full, on YouTube. At the time of writing, just 26 people have listened to it (and one of those is me). You can do so by clicking here:

Document: A Letter To The Times

Towards the end of the documentary, a participant confirms that while the breakfast meetings of the day were formally wound up, similar lobbying events still took place between government officials, newspaper editors/owners and senior figures in major broadcasting institutions. This naturally leads one to question what influence such meetings have on what we see, read and hear today on a whole range of issues, the most pressing of which is the propaganda-like tone much of the mainstream media (especially BBC News and Sky News) takes on the wobbly theory of man-made climate change.

The way in which Roger Harrabin is routinely allowed to make claims about ‘climate change’ that go unchallenged by colleagues is a matter of interest, as is the way in which prominent BBC presenters such as Robin Page, Julian Pettifer, Johnny Ball and the late David Bellamy had their careers at the corporation cut short for having ‘non-BBC’, anti-establishment views on environmental issues. Meanwhile, Sir David Attenborough, at the age of 95, continues to be given regular prime time programmes on BBC television while his doom-mongering about ‘climate change’ is treated with a god-like reverence by his BBC colleagues.

Former BBC newsreader and Question Time host Peter Sissons outlines the BBC’s institutional bias

Certainly, the pro-EEC lobbying did not end with the disbandment of the breakfast meetings in the autumn of 1971. On 08 January 1973, a week after the UK formally joined the EEC, ITV broadcast a special pro-European version of the popular talent show Opportunity Knocks, hosted by Hughie Green, who, ironically, would become a member of UKIP towards the end of his life.

In 2010, newly-discovered documents from the National Archives showed that Prime Minister Heath was so desperate to convince a sceptical public about the merits of EEC membership that he asked Green to put together the programme, which featured singer Petula Clark, while Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff appeared on the show to reassure viewers that football in this country would not be affected by joining what was then most often referred to as the Common Market.

Viewers watching at the time would have had no idea that the programme had been made at the behest of Ministers and officials at the Foreign Office.

Green was approached by Conservative peer Lord Mancroft, who, at Heath’s request, was organising a series of events to promote Britain’s entry into the EEC.

A Foreign Office memo dated 29 June 1972 states: “At Lord Mancroft’s suggestion, Mr Hughie Green has produced the enclosed scheme for an enlarged EEC version of his show Opportunity Knocks to be screened in January 1973. The Prime Minister is anxious that Britain’s projected entry into the EEC should be marked and publicised at all levels and we agree that this idea could make a useful contribution.”

The UK was represented by the Don Bosco Youth Orchestra from Liverpool, who played the Simon and Garfunkel hit Mrs Robinson.

Germany’s entry was a comedy juggler, Denmark opted for two members of the Royal Danish Ballet and France went for a 14-year-old singer. Each of the competitors was introduced by a sponsor who had links to the performer’s homeland, and acts were judged by the show’s famous ‘clapometer’.

Green asked each sponsor a question designed to elicit a positive response about the UK’s entry into the EEC. He told French sponsor Henri Pierre, a columnist with newspaper Le Monde, that ‘many of our viewers are not in favour of joining the European Community’. Pierre stated that no one living in an existing member state had suffered any loss of national identity, while the Belgium sponsor assured viewers that food prices would not increase (in reality, many years of inflation followed).

Aletta, a German singer, warned of the danger of the ‘propaganda and nationalism which stopped us all becoming one’ and was cheered by the audience when she insisted the British might benefit from contact with the German work ethic, while the Italian-born actress Katie Boyle, already well-known on British TV, said UK women would benefit from the fashion sense of their French and Italian counterparts.

But the propaganda certainly didn’t stop there. Labour’s Harold Wilson returned to power in 1974, with the promise of a referendum on EEC membership, which was duly held on 05 June 1975.

Again, the EEC and the Government ensured the odds of a Yes vote were stacked in their favour, despite public opinion being in favour of a No vote at the start of the campaign.

Every major national newspaper (with the exception of the far-left Morning Star) favoured a Yes vote. The Daily Express, which in those days sold more than two million copies per day, and was mainly read by working and lower middle class people, had been firmly opposed to the Common Market for many years beforehand but changed its mind in plenty of time for polling day.

Official pamphlets, distributed at taxpayers’ expense to all homes, were hugely biased. There was one for Yes, one for No, and then another one for Yes, on the grounds it was the opinion of the Government. In reality, collective Cabinet responsibility had been suspended and several members of the Cabinet had actively campaigned in favour of a No vote.

The Yes campaign had every major national newspaper, as well as big business and the leadership of both main parties on its side. The No campaign, while benefitting from the passionate oratory of Tony Benn, Enoch Powell, Michael Foot and Peter Shore, as well as the campaigning skills of businessman John Mills, looked thin on resources and defensive from the start.

Spending figures (not taking into account huge inflation in the years since) for the Yes campaign were £1,850,000 and just £133,000 for the No campaign. Why was there no spending ceiling? (These figures were obtained from a superb book, ‘The Great Deception’ by the late Christopher Booker and Richard North, which gives the best account of the history of the EU and our relations with it).

Do breakfast meetings between senior politicians, lobbyists, newspaper editors/owners and senior figures in broadcasting still take place today? Maybe, or maybe not. Perhaps they take a different form nowadays.

It was certainly dubious that former EU Commissioner Lord Chris Patten was permitted to serve as Chairman of the BBC Trust between 2011 and 2014, when in receipt of an EU pension that could be removed if he didn’t respect his “duty to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance… of certain appointments or benefits.”

The BBC’s slavish reporting of ‘Project Fear’ in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum, without properly challenging the claims (no matter how ludicrous), was followed by several years of Question Time panels being dominated week after week by individuals demanding Brexit be stopped, reversed or watered down.

In recent months, little has been said on the BBC about the reality that being outside the EU’s Covid vaccine procurement programme has allowed the UK to roll out several vaccines with a speed and efficiency not seen in any other EU country, and that numerous lives have undoubtedly been saved in Britain as a result.

Other benefits of Brexit are beginning to filter through, though you’d never guess this by watching BBC News or Sky News.

It’s extraordinary that Document: A Letter To The Times was ever broadcast at all by the BBC, though it comes as no surprise that it was never repeated or made available on the BBC’s online catch-up services. Thankfully, it has now appeared on YouTube from what appears to be a private collection.

It gives an astonishing insight into the relationship between Government, lobbyists, and those who decide what we watch, hear and read. Nowadays, the breakfast meetings may or may not take place, but clandestine activities and pressures are undoubtedly applied as much now as they were 50 years ago.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 22, 2021 at 4:18 am

Posted in Politics, Review

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