B.B.C. Staff (Political Rights)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th March 1959.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

4.6 p.m.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

As I was saying when that spate of legislation and expiring legislation interrupted me, the B.B.C. is the finest broadcasting service in the world. In peace and war it has lived up to its motto, "Nation shall speak unto nation" and it has played a great part in building up the cultural and political life of the country. It presents daily the best report of Parliament—apart from the prestige newspapers—and of current political events and its handling of controversy, in a nation which loves political controversy and fights fierce political battles, has been exemplary. It strives to do so fairly. Of course, it is attacked by the Right and the Left from time to time, but those very attacks are a measure of its success. Of course, some of its broadcasters make errors of taste, tact or bias at times, but the B.B.C. is only human and I believe that it can be justly proud of its essential integrity.

I believe passionately in political freedom. It may be difficult for some hon. Members to realise just what freedom means to Socialists of my age. Keir Hardie's statue is just outside our Tea Room; Keir Hardie, like his brothers and my uncle, was sacked for his political opinions. Things have changed in Britain since then. I believe that most Conservatives now would not think of wanting to have the power which they Lad when I was a boy, of evicting people from their cottages because they went to chapel instead of to church, or of doing what the Middlesex Tories did, when they had a majority on the county council across the way, of making their politics the reason for interfering with the opportunity for promotion of some schoolmasters.

Tories and Socialists alike are proud of being free. There are still limbless ex-Service men limping about the country, after having nobly won that fight for freedom twice in this century. Yet, without eternal vigilance freedom may be nibbled away. With Clough, we may say, "We must not kill freedom", but, on the other hand, we "need not strive officiously" to keep it alive. Today, tens of thousands of people are denied some of that freedom as a condition of their employment, some B.B.C. staff among them.

The B.B.C. consists of men and women of various political opinions, or of no political opinion. There is no political screening at the B.B.C., but certain posts are held by men whose freedom is circumscribed; they can think what they like so long as they do nothing about it. If they indulge in overt political activity the B.B.C. has discretionary power to dismiss them, and it has used that power. I believe the power to be wrong, and that the B.B.C. has misused that power in the case which aroused my angry protest some weeks ago.

The B.B.C. argues that in certain posts a man has the opportunity, if he so wishes, to give a programme a political slant, and that it cannot afford to risk its reputation for impartiality by having a known political figure in such a post. But the opportunity to twist a programme is there whether the man's political opinions are proclaimed outside or not. What really makes him suspect is his political faith, and not the way he expresses it when off duty.

I have said that I believe in the integrity of the B.B.C. Some authorities have misunderstood what I have said outside the House, so perhaps I might interpose here that I believe that the B.B.C. would take the official line that it does, whatever the party politics of the man under question. The B.B.C., too. must learn to believe in the integrity of its staff. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Reeves) in the minority Report to the 1949 Beveridge Report said, on page 235: There is yet another confusion of thought which lies behind the restriction of civil liberty. It springs from the belief that politics and intelllectual honesty cannot go hand in hand. Francis Williams, in Forward, echoed this finely when he wrote recently: ?A concept vital to the British way of doing things is that men active in politics are entirely ready and able to set aside party considerations when called upon to take on public responsibilities in which it would be improper for them to be taken into account. No one dreams of a Tory doctor, even if he is a candidate, giving special treatment to Tory patients, or of a Socialist magistrate—and nearly all magistrates are really poltically chosen—dealing out political rather than judicial sentences.

The B.B.C. has a right to demand professional integrity from its professional staff. By all means let it sack a man if he breaks a professional code, or neglects for his politics the work he is paid to do. I would demand of any B.B.C. worker impartiality and efficiency in his working hours, but when he leaves his day's work he ought to be as free as his fellow citizen to engage in whatever political or religious pursuits he likes.

It would be more logical—but utterly immoral—for the B.B.C. to refuse to employ any party politician at all. The B.B.C., I am sure, agrees that to be served by political eunuchs would be as crazy as it would be outrageous. Political acumen, political knowledge and political faith are all of value to those whose make programmes on poltical and other controversial topics, but what the B.B.C. says is, "Be a Socialist, be a Tory, but do not try to get into Parliament if you are on the restricted staff, otherwise you may be dismissed."

I wonder whether the B.B.C. understands the mechanics of getting into this House. Every constituency chooses its candidate months, sometimes years, ahead of an election. The candidate must nurse the constituency and get known. Being a prospective candidate is an unpaid job. Now, he must be expected to give up his job when it comes to the campaign. That is a risk he must take, but enlightened employers—and I have no doubt the B.B.C. is one—try to give him back his job if he fails to be elected. In the long period between selection and the General Election I believe that the man has an inalienable right to keep in his work; and this right the B.B.C. continues to some of its staff, but says to others that they must choose between giving up the job or refusing a candidature.

I ask the Minister how many B.B.C. staff in past years have been given this grim choice and how many have taken each of the two alternatives. It would be an impoverishment of British life if a single individual in the B.B.C. had been compelled to give up what might have been a great political career Some mute inglorious Milton …Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood …Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd.… out of loyalty to the B.B.C., or conversely, had had to give up the valuable work he was doing at the B.B.C. because he chose to be a free political citizen outside. I believe this is an unjust choice that its men have to make. It is punishing some men for political activities which are permitted to most other free citizens.

I am a Socialist, but I hope that I should be equally indignant if what recently happened to a young Socialist employee had happened to a young Conservative. Peter Simple, of the Daily Telegraph, a man whose views I rarely share, puts his finger on the key point even though his motives may have been very different from mine. He said: What sticks in the B.B.C.'s gullet is not the views, but the open expression of them. What interests the B.B.C. is not impartiality, but its reputation for impartiality. But in the hackneyed sentence about justice being "seen to be done", the much more important part is" let justice be done". We do not say, "Let us do an injustice so that justice may appear to be done." To me, it is utterly unjust to dismiss a guiltless employee because of his acts of political faith.

In the public Press debates on this question, reference has been made to other B.B.C. employees or staff who either openly have political aspirations or who technically comply with the B.B.C.'s wishes by nursing parliamentary constituencies without being actually selected. The argument that there is a difference between staff and contract employees of the B.B.C. has little weight with me. Both of them can be dismissed at once if they commit unprofessional acts.

I would not take away from other B.B.C. employees any of their rights. I want more, not less, freedom. All those whom I have seen or heard, both Tories and Socialists, are excellent broadcasters. I heard a future Tory candidate interrogate both Socialists and Conservatives on the radio so incisively that nobody could question his utter professional sincerity or, indeed, even his artistic delight in needling people of his own political faith.

I cannot see what harm such a man would do the B.B.C. by openly accepting the nomination that he would, no doubt, get when the General Election comes. Indeed, the main harm that the B.B.C. is doing with the restriction which it imposes can hurt only the sincere, the frank and the open and encourage subterfuge. When the University of Oxford made it a condition of entry that one should accept the thirty-nine articles, those who accepted thirty-eight and could not swallow the thirty-ninth were rejected; but any cynic who did not believe any of them but who would have accepted 139 articles to get into Oxford, was admitted. If open political activity is banned, subversive activity is encouraged. This is one of the classic arguments for freedom. For having used it in this House, Peter Wentworth was sent by Parliament to the Tower.

I urge the B.B.C., through the Minister, to reconsider its attitude to the discretionary power that it possesses, and uses, of dismissing certain grades for accepting nomination for Parliament. Parliament needs the best citizens it can get. They are to be found in all walks of life, the B.B.C. among them. To restrict the rights of any British citizen or to restrict the free choice of electors hurts Parliament and hurts freedom itself.

This is a difficult cause to advocate, simply because Britain is not full of people who want to become Members of Parliament. In any group, there are probably only a few whose political faith seeks this particular outlet. If the B.B.C. barred its staff from voting, there would be an outcry, but although the number affected is small the fundamental issue is the same: one of political equality between British citizens and one of individual liberty. The B.B.C. has no moral right to make a servant choose between his job and accepting the honour of being standard-bearer for a group of British electors at an election. I believe that he record of the B.B.C. is too proud and too magnificent to need bolstering up by such an abuse of the precious rights of an individual.

The last word is not likely to be spoken in this debate—the issue is too serious—and I commend to the Minister the ex- ceedingly fine articles of Francis Williams in Forward, the articles in Reynolds News and the paragraphs in the Economist on this matter. The best summary of what I have tried to say in this debate, however, is said in the minority Report by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich: It is necessary and right that many citizens should be politically impartial in their work.… We do not demand that they should have no political views … yet for the sake of appearances, we make them pretend to be impartial after working hours, and deny to them the great citizen rights of free speech and free association, as a condition of their employment. In doing so we are unwittingly creating a new tyranny, to be resisted as stoutly as old tyrannies have been resisted in the past. The Beveridge majority Report says, on page 137: … all restriction of citizen activities is in itself an evil". I justify the evil as a necessary one only if a man's job is a security risk, if leaving him in his post might mean his giving useful information to a foreign Power. Outside that, I believe that there is no justification.

I commend my appeal this afternoon to the Minister and the B.B.C. by again quoting from the minority Report. My hon. Friend said, on page 233: Slowly the battles for the freedom of thought, speech, association and worship have been won; always the opponents of the extension of these freedoms have been able to adduce what appeared to be cogent arguments against the increase of freedom.… We have learnt by experience that the opponents of civil liberty were wrong". I hope that the B.B.C., through the Minister, will reconsider its attitude to the political rights of members of its staff.

4.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Thompson Mr Kenneth Thompson , Liverpool, Walton

The House has frequently been indebted to the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) for his tolerance and progressive views. The opportunity that he has provided this afternoon for the airing of an important subject will rank high among the services that he has rendered to the House.

This is an important matter. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to say so without appearing to be patronising, he is right to raise the subject above the individual case around which the controversy has most recently ranged. The House has fought many battles and has been the scene of many controversies about the liberty of the individual to take part in political controversy and political activity and about the means of devising machinery so that the resultant freedom, which is the sum total of the efforts made by many people over many years, may be effective without allowing itself to be easily subjugated by tyranny or by absence of rule.

It is the process of trying to devise a system which gives the greatest, where possible a continually growing, freedom to the individual that we are concerned with this afternoon. I do not think that the hon. Member or those who have taken part with him in the public controversy will accuse the British Broadcasting Corporation of having acted in this case in any party spirit. It is right to absolve the Corporation from having taken the action it did because in this case this man wanted to express publicly views of a particular kind or represent an affiliation to a particular party. That is not the dispute.

I will come to the generalities, since they depend to a large extent upon the sequence of events. The dispute arises over whether this man, in his position, ought or ought not to submit to some diminution of the civil liberties which we claim, with pride, attach to all of us. In the long history of discussions on this subject in the House and outside it, there have been a good many very earnest examinations of the position. We have had the benefit of a series of very searching reports into the state and extent of political freedom in this country and the limitations which it might nevertheless be necessary to continue to impose. We recall the Blanesburgh Report and the Report of the Masterman Committee. The hon. Member has rightly commented on a good many of the remarks on this subject in the Report of the Broadcasting Committee, 1949, together with its minority reports.

There is, therefore, no shortage of effort made to get at the best way of working out a scheme by which individuals, either in their service to the State or in other responsible positions, could enjoy political freedom. As the House knows, those examinations have resulted in a code of behaviour for the Civil Service whereby some civil servants, by virtue of the nature of the work they do, are deemed to be better advised to avoid plunging too deeply into the day-to-day political controversies that engage party politicians.

I realise that there may be those who hold the view that even in those cases it would be wrong to limit the freedom of the individual to go about his political business as he thought fit. Frankly, I cannot share that view, and I hope that it will not appear to the hon. Gentleman or to the House to be taking too extreme a view to say that there could be very real dangers—and, even more, real embarrassments—both to the civil servants concerned and to the Ministers and Ministries with whom they work, if that rule were to be too far relaxed. This House had an opportunity to consider the recommendations of the Masterman Committee, and to decide where the line could best be drawn without restricting too many people in the exercise of their freedom and yet preserving the integrity of the public service.

I am aware that the British Broadcasting Corporation is not part of the Civil Service, yet here we find it adopting rules which, although they differ from the Civil Service rules, nevertheless take cognisance of the same principle: that there may be some for whom the completely unfettered exercise of personal freedom in politically controversial matters ought to be limited.

The Corporation has, therefore had discussions with the appropriate staff representatives, and has agreed a system that says that at a certain point in the hierarchy of Corporation employees there shall be something in the nature of a bar. The hon. Gentleman, as well as contributing to this debate, has published his views on this matter, and has pointed out that the bar arising from these rules is not absolute. It does not say that if an employee engages as a candidate in party political controversy, he must be sacked. Indeed, I would agree with him that to do so would be going too far. It would be putting an inhibition on too many people, many of them, perhaps, suffering unnecessarily.

Before this most recent case came to light, the B.B.C. has, in the past, had to consider the situation arising from this rule in relation to others of its employees. Here, I interpose to say that this is very much a matter for the B.B.C. rather than for Post Office Ministers to decide. This House is on record on a number of occasions as wishing to leave this and kindred day-to-day matters to the good judgment of the Governors of the B.B.C.—and I am sure that we should all want to join the hon. Gentleman in his tribute to the care with which the Governors seek to exercise the powers that Parliament has given to them under the licence and the Charter.

In the exercise of these duties over the years since 1944—and I think that this relates precisely to the hon. Gentlemen's question—the B.B.C. has had to consider fourteen cases in which members of the staff, coming within what we term, for convenience, the "restricted grades", have applied for permission to stand as adopted Parliamentary candidates. I have no knowledge of the party affiliations, and they do not matter.

As I say, since 1944, fourteen applications have been made—excluding this particular case. Ten of the applicants were given permission to stand as adopted Parliamentary candidates without sacrificing their employment with the Corporation. That seems to establish—if I may again interpose—that the B.B.C. has been careful to avoid using its powers as an absolute steamroller to flatten any party political activities that may have obtruded into the private lives of members of its staff.

Nine of the ten were permitted to remain in their offices right until the start of active electioneering. Of these, five resigned at the start of active electioneering. Before that time, of their own accord and without pressure, four shad resigned to take up other employment—clearly a normal process of change of job and not related to this position. The remaining candidate, that is the tenth, has remained in office and has contested each of the last three elections on unpaid leave. Since he is continuing as a servant of the Corporation and is not in our midst, we must assume that his contests resulted in less success than he himself roust have hoped for.

Four of those who asked to be allowed to be candidates were refused permission and subsequently gave up their candidature. They made the choice which remained to them, either to sacrifice their employment with the Corporation or to give up their candidature. There has been no case so far where consideration of transfer to other work was involved and no one so far has asked for such consideration, although in this case—and here the point has already been made in correspondence—the Corporation, having decided that the type of work upon which this individual was engaged was unsuitable for him to hold whilst he was also an adopted Parliamentary candidate engaged in campaigning, tried to find for him alternative employment in the unrestricted grades or in a grade where he would not have been faced with the same continuing dilemma; and whilst a search for such an appointment was still going on in this case the individual made his own choice and resigned to continue as a candidate rather than as a servant of the Corporation.

My feeling in this matter is that none of us is completely free from some restrictions in a good many activities, both professional and private. A good many things limit us in the extent to which we can engage freely in activities which appeal to us for one reason or another. There are many people as well as those in the restricted grades, either in the Civil Service or in the Corporation, who find it either not easy or very expensive or not possible at all to engage in the work of Parliamentary candidature. Many men must decide for themselves whether the business compulsions which drive them in their day-to-day jobs prohibit them from undertaking Parliamentary work. That may be to the great loss of this House. Indeed, I have no doubt it is. Nevertheless, it is a powerful force which must affect the decisions of a great many people.

These rules, either in the Civil Service or in the Corporation, are not drawn up purely in order that some people may have the joy of limiting the freedom of other people. They are drawn up, as I am sure the House will agree, so that the system by which we all live in a highly organised, closely integrated society, can work as smoothly and conveniently as possible to the greatest advantage of the greatest number. I feel that in the case of this individual who has made this choice, he has established that there are some things for which a man must make sacrifices if he is to pursue them to their logical, complete and satisfactory ending. He has by his action made his own choice in the light of rules which he knew to exist, which he accepted and under which he had up to then worked with perfect harmony and of which this rule is only one.

By his actions this person has demonstrated that there are some people who are willing to help operate rules which are framed to add to the sum total of freedom of all other people. By so doing, I feel that he has rendered some measure of public service, and we should be grateful to him for his attitude and to the B.B.C. for the way in which, bearing the responsibilities it does, it endeavours to make the rules work as smoothly and as happily as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Five o'clock.