‘The bloody Protestants ran BBC in Northern Ireland’ in 70s, says ex-TV boss

<span>The aftermath of violent clashes in Derry, August 1969.</span><span>Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images</span>
The aftermath of violent clashes in Derry, August 1969.Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The British public were not told the truth about the Troubles in the 1960s and 1970s because “the bloody Protestants were running the BBC in Northern Ireland”, the then controller of BBC One has claimed.

This is the damning judgment of one of television’s most distinguished former top executives, Sir Paul Fox, who was editor of Panorama and then controller of BBC One. He firmly believes this meant that British viewers were not told the truth of what was really happening in Northern Ireland and in particular to the Catholics.

Fox, who was editor of Panorama in the 1960s, condemns “the censorship” of the Catholic viewpoint in a new documentary about the corporation’s fights and impartiality. Similar sentiments are expressed by Martin Bell and Irish-born Denis Tuohy, who were then both reporting from Northern Ireland and who agree that the BBC was prevented from telling the British public about discrimination against Catholics in education, work and housing.

Yet the documentary, Shooting the Rapids, was itself nearly “censored”. Its commissioning editor told the director that it should go straight into the BBC Archives. John Bridcut, a highly regarded documentary maker since the 1990s, then arranged a personal meeting with director general Tim Davie, who overruled the department head and agreed on its broadcast. It will air on 3 March on BBC Four at 9pm.

“Back then, the one thing we could not tackle was Northern Ireland,” says Fox, who later became managing director of BBC Television. “The decision had been taken that the head of Northern Ireland programmes would act as censor. So it was as difficult to film there as in the Soviet Union. It also meant that it was easier to go to America, with no censorship, to film their race problems than those of Northern Ireland.”

Bell, a war-zone veteran, admits his ignorance about Ireland when sent in the late 1960s. “I hardly knew the difference between Belfast and Dublin.” On arrival at BBC Belfast, Bell was told to call Derry “Londonderry” first and only Derry later, and not to refer to the province as “the Six Counties” as that was “Republican speak”. “I had the controller of BBC Northern Ireland breathing over my shoulder,“ he says. “I was also beaten up a bit and my cameramen were attacked by loyalists because they thought we were not their voice and were giving one to the Republicans. The Reverend Ian Paisley called the BBC ‘the Papist Broadcasting Corporation’ ”.

Tuohy, Northern Irish born and bred, was the first Catholic in any reporting or production post on joining BBC Northern Ireland in 1960. “The grievances of the Catholics on housing or voting rights had very little traction,” he says.

Tuohy then moved to BBC current affairs in London where he recalls in 1968 being told to return to Northern Ireland on a story. “But my editor called me into his office, shut the door and said I was now not going since BBC Northern Ireland had protested at the highest level in London that I would be too close to the story. I was appalled. After all, I had been a news reporter there for several years before. It had to be that I, a Catholic, was going to Derry on a story, and the Unionists would not like that.”

All three strongly feel that not telling the British public what was actually happening in Northern Ireland led to ignorance and prejudice. “If we, the BBC, had been given access to deal with issues and injustices long before the troops went in, the British people would have been much more aware of what was happening in Northern Ireland, and understood what was going on in our country,” says Fox.

Bell, who became an independent MP, concurs. “The BBC did itself an injustice by not telling the truth.”

Shooting the Rapids, which follows two other programmes in 2022 which Bridcut made about the BBC to commemorate its centenary, also contains stories from other broadcasters and executives from its earlier years. Sir David Attenborough, then aged 30, recalls producing Sir Anthony Eden’s broadcast to the nation during the Suez crisis. “I arrived in Downing Street to be told by the PM’s PR man that he thought Eden had gone mad.

“He said to go upstairs to his private room, where he was in his pyjamas. After some rest, Eden was prepared for the broadcast. But at the last moment, Lady Eden saw a vision of her husband in the TV monitor before saying ‘this is a conspiracy as nobody can see his moustache’.” The TV lighting had blanched it out. “She found some mascara and put it on his moustache.”

The documentary also highlights blatant sexism. Joan Bakewell speaks of “touching up being common and frequent fondling in the lift”, and of taking Labour cabinet minister Douglas Jay to the studio in a taxi where “of course, he made a pass”.

Monica Sims, former head of BBC children’s programmes, who has died since her interview, talks of director-general Hugh Greene demanding to come to her house for a discussion. “He spent the whole time mesmerised by my legs,” she says.