Auntie's wavelength war

28th April 1995 at 01:00
WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, AUNTIE?, BBC1, Tuesday, May 2 and 9, 9.50 10.50pm. Sean Coughlan reports on the BBC's battle to balance its roles as purveyor of news and pursuer of victory.

In the end, what validates propaganda is victory. If we had lost the war, the BBC would have been blamed for a great deal of it. We won the war and the BBC received a lot of credit," says historian Lord Bullock, concluding an information-packed two-part documentary about the role of broadcasting in Britain in the Second World War.

Alan Bullock, later a biographer of Hitler, spent the war trying to undermine the unlamented dictator with broadcasts to occupied Europe one of the many ways in which the BBC addressed itself to the war effort. Maintaining morale among the population at home, fomenting dissent among the enemy, keeping overseas soldiers in touch with home, giving coded instructions to resistance groups and serving the insatiable appetite for news, were all tasks attempted by the Corporation, as it entered the propaganda battle of the airwaves.

How these goals were achieved, as recalled by those who were there, provides a fascinating picture of behind-the-scenes decision making in Britain during wartime, particularly in the tensions between civilian rights and military necessity.

At the outbreak of war, Winston Churchill favoured the taking over of the BBC, to be used as an official arm of the government, but instead it was decided that the Corporation would have more credibility if it remained a separate institution, on the understanding that it did as it was told.

But the resultant undisguised propaganda badly misfired. Instead of encouraging resistance, the chirpiness of the Blitz reporting irritated listeners who had experienced it at first hand, and the documentary includes a ludicrously upbeat news report of a raid on Swansea and the caustic reception it received from its audience.

In response to protests, a greater degree of authenticity was allowed, with the BBC exercising greater editorial autonomy, although the shift was towards replacing unconvincing propaganda with convincing propaganda, rather than any more objective approach to news. But it established the principle that the judicious use of truth could be a much more effective weapon than distortion.

One of the most challenging witnesses in the documentary is Frank Gillard, who supplied some of the BBC's most vivid wartime wireless reports. Without television and with heavily-censored newspapers, the wireless news was the nearest that the home population could get to eye-witness reports from the front, and the individual reporters became the voices on whose words an anxious public depended.

In 1942 Frank Gillard accompanied the disastrous attempted landing in Dieppe, and the programme includes his dramatic broadcast, set against the background explosions of battle. He says now that he is "ashamed" at his news report and his failure to tell the stark facts of the defeat and awful loss of life. As a young reporter, he praised the raid as an "all-time model", and now 50 years later he recalls how he returned to England covered in the blood of those who had not survived.

As the war advanced, so the principle of accurate reporting emerged more strongly, particularly when broadcasting to listeners in Nazi-occupied Europe. A conspicuous omission was the reporting of the Holocaust. While the BBC's own monitoring service was uncovering the attempted genocide, officials at the BBC and Foreign Office deliberately downplayed its significance. The programme quotes internal BBC memos that reek of anti-Semitism, expressing scepticism at the claims of the suffering of Europe's Jews.

But Lord Weidenfeld, then working for the BBC's listening stations, and a retired Foreign Office official, both argued that it was political expediency that stopped the BBC broadcasting the stories leaking from death camps, with anxieties that Arab support for the Allies would be jeopardised by any overt support for the Jewish cause.

Even when Richard Dimbleby filed his harrowing and historic wireless report from the newly-liberated Belsen, there was still resistance to conveying the vastness of the crime, with the transmission only going out after Dimbleby had threatened resignation if it were witheld.

But, as one of the BBC's monitoring staff regretted, such compromises meant that the German population never received definitive news about what was being done in their name until very late in the war.

The need to regulate the civilian population saw the introduction of mass education projects, creating in many ways the forerunners of today's adult education broadcasts. A "radio doctor" gave advice on diet and nutrition and a daily keep-fit item was designed for those joining in at home.

In an attempt to perk up the spirit as well as the body, the music broadcast for wartime factory workers was carefully chosen for its optimism and even the material used by comedians was guided by government advice.

These programmes could provide the raw material for much discussion about the anniversary being celebrated next week, raising many questions about how the "wartime spirit" was created, how the public mood was manipulated and how news was presented for listeners in Britain and overseas. It also has glimpses of how war trampled down any attempt to hide its essential brutality.

To mark the last Christmas of the war in Europe, Frank Gillard had found an ordinary soldier to broadcast home, before the King's Christmas Day message, as a representative of all the ordinary men and women looking forward to the peace. A day after VE Day, one day into the peace, he was shot dead by a German feigning surrender.

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