50. Whitley’s Challenge

By Peter Fraenkel

A curt note from MDXB: “If this were true I would be justified in losing confidence in H.S.Eur S. and Greek P.O.”

Oh, those BBC abbreviations!! But these meant us! H.S.Eur.S. was my immediate superior – Head of South European Services, Austen Kark. The second – Greek P.O.? That was me – Greek Programme Organiser.

The man who had sent that curt note – MDXB – was the Managing Director of External Broadcasting – Oliver Whitley – our big boss.

“What now?” I asked Austen.

“Don’t know”, he shrugged. “I’ll have to go and ask what he expects us to do.”

I had, at that stage, not met Oliver Whitley. I was still too low in the pecking order. Moreover, Whitley was often away from Bush House, where we worked. He was holding down a second job, that of C.A. to D.G. which meant Chief Assistant to the Director General. He was often standing in for the Director General.

He was a busy man and his response to Austen Kark was brief “Sue!”

Kark was staggered. So was I when he came and reported this to me. He had replied “Such a case could bankrupt us.”

Whitley had replied “The BBC will cover legal expenses. Just you prove the libel.”

We understood the subtext: If you can’t, you’re out. I would expect you to resign.

What had happened? In 1969 the publishers Dent had brought out a book called “The Greek Passion” by one Kenneth Young – an author we had never heard of. It was full of praise for the dictatorship of the colonels whose coup, two years earlier, had ousted the democratically elected government of Greece. These honest upright military men, wrote Kenneth Young, had swept away nepotism, favouritism, corruption. They had halted the advance of communism in the Balkans. The great majority of the Greek people supported them.

However, Young’s book continued, the British public had been grossly misled by the British press. Even worse had been the BBC’s coverage. They had suppressed all news favourable to the regime and had grossly exaggerated anything negative. The worst distortions had been in BBC broadcasts beamed to Greece in the Greek language … the broadcasts for which I was responsible.

Now it is true that neither I nor any of my Greek staff had sympathies with this regime that had come to power in a coup. On the other hand, I, for one, had not been enthusiastic about the previous regime, in particular about their nepotism. But brought up in the ethos of the BBC (at least as it was at that time) we had endeavoured never to let our personal views affect our reporting.

The single worst item discrediting the colonels’ regime had, in fact, not emanated from the Greek service of the BBC. It had come from the BBC’s central newsroom. Neither my boss, Austen Kark, nor I had had any hand in it.

The colonels had claimed that their coup had the full support of Constantine, the king of Greece. Constantine, however, had summoned the British ambassador and told him this was entirely untrue. The BBC reported this denial.

Whitley now wanted us to prove that Young had libelled us. The BBC appointed lawyers to launch proceedings. One of their lawyers came to see me and demanded evidence.

I went to work. My normal work had to be neglected. I spent hours ploughing through several months of P as B’s – i.e. schedules of “programmes as broadcast”. (Another of those BBC abbreviations!) I listed and, where necessary, had translated every single reference to the colonels’ regime that we had broadcast over many months.

Yes, most items – sourced from news agencies and BBC reporters and the British press – were hostile to this military takeover. However, there certainly were also items showing them in a positive light. Earlier regimes had launched numerous development schemes just before upcoming elections – far more than the country could afford. Once the elections were over these had been quietly shelved. Many schemes were left a quarter completed – until the next elections. The colonels had these schemes methodically reviewed and completed those they considered worth it. There were other positive stories – street cleaning improved. So did the supervision of restaurants: They controlled how much feta cheese there had to be in Greek Country salad.

As our lawyer read my paper he said: “When they see this they’ll publish an apology.”

But they didn’t.

Soter Soteriades – the most experienced and shrewdest of our Greek staff – said “It’s obvious, isn’t it? The colonels must be financing Young. And they think that while legal procedures are hanging over us, we’ll bend over backwards to avoid irritating them.”

I said “We’ll continue reporting the facts….” but I was a little worried: Would my nerve hold? Would that of my superiors?

Amnesty International reported instances of torture in the regime’s prisons. We published this. A listener came to visit us. From his apartment, he said, one could hear the sounds of torture. I arranged to send in a recording machine. This, unfortunately, proved a failure. Background noises were too loud.

We waited. Eventually a date was set for our court hearing. One day before we were due to appear in court – one single day – Dents, the publishers agreed to issue an apology and to pay amends.

Austen and I agreed to accept token payments: £5 for each. We broadcast that the publishers were paying amends but didn’t specify how much. The publishers’ barrister stood up in open court and read out an apology. That barrister was, at the time, England’s leading libel lawyer – none other than Leon Brittan, in later years the country’s Home Secretary. Austen and I had some pleasure announcing that we were donating our award to Amnesty International – an organisation that the colonels probably detested even more than the BBC.

We expected Dents to publish an expurgated edition but they never did. Nor did I ever hear again of Kenneth Young.

The challenge from Oliver Whitley had caused me some anxiety and a great amount of work. I cannot say that – at the time – I was pleased to be thus challenged. But I changed my mind, fundamentally. I learnt from his example. I hope I did. In later years I frequently lectured new recruits to the BBC and quoted Whitley’s challenge as an example of the BBC’s traditional ethos. When he died, years later, obituaries referred to him as “the conscience of the BBC”. He had certainly made an impact on my own conscience.