We’ve Been Here Before

Critics of Ross and Brand called for sterner intervention from the BBC director-general. Is censorship really the answer?

The BBC’s director-general, Mark Thompson, has been strongly attacked for responding with insufficient speed and severity to the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand scandal. But do his critics want to go back to the days when directors-general intervened personally whenever a joke contravened one of the BBC’s puritanical and politically correct guidelines?

In 1941, the then director-general, Professor Sir Frederick Wolff Ogilvie, pounced on a somewhat off-colour, unscripted joke that the comedian Sydney Howard had slipped into a programme for the armed forces, and carpeted the director of variety. Howard was suspended for six months, even though none of the soldiers had complained. Poor Jack Payne of Musical Continuity felt impelled to write grovelling letters to all his superiors, including Ogilvie, for fear of losing his job. Sadly, the joke has been weeded from the BBC’s files and only the absurdly angry internal correspondence has survived. This was not an isolated occurrence. Even the idolised Tommy Handley was threatened with suspension. You would think that during a time of war the director-general of the BBC would have something better to do.

Ogilvie’s successor, Sir William Haley, was just as obsessed with hunting down the perpetrators of jokes. In 1944, he took great exception to a spoof German news bulletin by Wilfred Pickles that ended, “Three of our night fighters and two of our cities are missing.” Haley came down on him like a comet, thundering that such jokes were “contrary to official BBC policy”, which held that the terror bombing of German cities was to be portrayed as “a military necessity to be performed as coldly and scientifically as a surgical operation.” He added: “It is not a matter to gloat over or to make jokes about.”

Haley’s upholding of this matter of principle must have been of great consolation to the victims. How very unfair it is when foreigners call us hypocrites. Yet these are the precedents that Mark Thompson’s critics want him to follow in an age when the BBC has long ceased to be a respected institution and a vehicle for the best of our culture and traditions.

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