'CHANNELS OF DISINFORMATION'
Bernard Levin on a case of trial by television in which the rules of natural justice were turned on their head
The Times – 14 September 1992
Suppose the BBC proposed to mount a programme about Wagner, in which there were to be two leading speakers, one who thought that the entire work of that composer was insignificant rubbish, while the other thought such music wonderful and sublime. Would you think it right for the BBC to engage me not only for the role of Wagner's champion, but simultaneously also for the position of impartial presenter?
No? But the story I unfold today, though it has nothing to do with Wagner, turns on just such an implausible casting, in the form of Mr Duncan Campbell. Now read on.
Dr Julian Lewis is well known not only for his work at the Conservative Research Department, but for a vast range of annoyances directed at the Left in all its varieties. Some of his annoyings have gone a trifle far, but for the spectators in the stands it is all hugely entertaining. One of Dr Lewis's butts is, or was, CND, and Dr Lewis, together with Mr Winston Churchill, spent much time and effort in campaigning against that organisation. (Incidentally, has anybody in CND – Bruce Kent, for instance – apologised for its years of offensively insinuating – "We in the peace movement" – that those who opposed CND did not want peace?)
But we must now come to the notorious banned BBC programme called "Cabinet", which was part of Mr Campbell's series called "Secret Society". The BBC, after a good deal of uproar, finally decided that the programme was too biased to be broadcast; later, Channel 4 ran a series of programmes under the heading "Banned", and one of these was a remake (again by Duncan Campbell) of "Cabinet".
When Channel 4 screened "Cabinet", both Dr Julian Lewis and Mr Winston Churchill laid a complaint before the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC), saying that the second half of the programme (the first half was on unrelated matters) had been a one-sided attack on their campaign against CND, and that Mr Churchill and Dr Lewis had been given no opportunity to defend themselves.
Among other complaints was that a Mr Piers Wooley was described in the programme only as a former Conservative Party official, whereas he had been exposed as a "mole" operating within Conservative Central Office, spying for months for Left-wing journalists including Mr Campbell. Later, Mr Wooley refused to take any further part in this saga (the remakers of the programme had to engage an actor to play him!), even refusing to attend the BCC hearing to defend his role.
The role of Mr Campbell is significant in this story. Dr Lewis had found an enchanting comment by him in the Stalinist Morning Star (in 1984, well before Gorbachev's accession). Mr Campbell said, among other things, that:
"... we are against ... the United States administration under Ronald Reagan, which is the implacable enemy of both freedom and the safety of the world ... Their strategy is expansionist, aggressive, it is imperialist, it is militarist and it is greatest in effect, of course, where there is no countervailing power ..."
Mr Campbell is never ambiguous; those were (are?) his sentiments. He is entitled to them, but is he, then, the most suitable choice for presiding over so controversial a subject as CND – for which he has expressed sympathy and given co-operation?
Mr Churchill and Dr Lewis thought not. They would debate with Mr Campbell, or anyone else, provided only that there was a presenter somewhat less parti-pris. When the programme-makers refused to engage an obviously impartial presenter (Julian Pettifer was suggested), both Mr Churchill and Dr Lewis decided finally not to take part. But Dr Lewis wanted an assurance that he would not be portrayed as having simply promised to take part and then withdrawn; he was given such an assurance by Mr Brian Barr, the original producer of "Cabinet", who now seems to have forgotten that he gave it, and Mr Campbell repeats (with embellishment) Mr Barr's version.
It may be said that if Dr Lewis was not thus traduced on the programme (he certainly was by Mr Campbell in the New Statesman), it doesn't matter; but Mr Barr's aphasia, repeated later in a letter ("I did not give any such undertaking"), surely needs treatment. For Dr Lewis had a telephone conversation with Mr Barr, in which he repeatedly insisted that he would willingly face Mr Campbell on the programme, with a different presenter, and Dr Lewis kept a tape of the entire conversation, in which Mr Barr said, plainly and unambiguously: "No, I have no intention of saying 'Dr Lewis refused to appear on the programme', if you decided not to."
Karl Marx it was who said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. For what followed was as farcical as a dropped trouser, while Dr Lewis tried in every possible way to get the Broadcasting Complaints Commission to tell him whether his complaint had been upheld or not.
You would think that that was a simple and reasonable request, and would have been complied with at once. But Dr Lewis's first letter – "Either the BCC upheld my complaint ... or it did not ..." elicited only a copy of the adjudication, which made no reference to the upholding question. So he wrote again:
"... I should be obliged if you could confirm, in terms simple enough even for me to understand, that the first part of my complaint has indeed been upheld".
The reply carried things no further, for all that Dr Lewis got was a statement that "the Broadcasting Act 1990 does not require the Commission to use any particular form of words in making their findings". No doubt; but had the complaint been upheld or not?
He tried again; a persistent blighter this Lewis:
"I now formally request ... the Commission itself to advise me, one and for all, whether or not ... my complaint was to any degree upheld",
"I am astonished that it should be necessary for me to write in such terms for this basic piece of information".
The response was to the effect that the Commission "cannot enter into correspondence as to what their findings mean".
Bulldog Lewis hangs on, with the ominous words, "I am not prepared to let this matter rest" (we had already guessed as much). The next missive from the Commission dealt with the formal publication of the Commission's findings, and Dr Lewis's excitement knew no bounds, for now he would at last get the answer. Alas, no reference to upholding was to be found. So he wrote again:
"I believe ... my complaint was upheld by the Commission and I look to you to advise me, without further equivocation, if this was not the case".
Well, he got a kind of answer: the Commission said that it saw
"no grounds for providing further comment of the kind you are seeking".
It seems that Dr Lewis will have to go to his grave without solving the mystery of whether his complaint was upheld or not upheld. Karl Marx was right.
[NOTE: Neither Brian Barr nor Duncan Campbell, nor Piers Wooley, nor the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, wrote to The Times to challenge the facts set out by Bernard Levin. This case was instrumental in securing later legislation explicitly requiring bodies like the Broadcasting Complaints Commission categorically to state – in making their adjudications – whether each complaint had been upheld or not upheld.]