During a tit-for-tat expulsions row between London and Moscow in May 1989 UK politicians were particularly incensed by the expulsion of three British journalists working in Russia. The fact that it was a mirror response to the expulsion of three Soviet journalists from London did not inconvenience them. During a debate in the Commons most MPs insisted there was no moral equivalence between the work of British journalists, who were "truly independent" of the government, and their Soviet numbers who, the MPs claimed, were under the Kremlin's thumb.
While the MPs were celebrating the independence of British media from the government, the government was busy doing the BBC's bidding in Eastern Europe, helping the otherwise independent broadcaster get preferential treatment to secure on air licenses against local competition.
In 1990 the BBC applied to the Hungarian authorities for permission to rebroadcast BBC Hungarian and World Service English on FM in Budapest and five regional centers. The project was raised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during her visit to Hungary and was endorsed both privately and at a press conference with the Hungarian Prime Minister Antall.
But in 1992 the project hit the rocks. The Media Bill to regulate allocation of frequencies got stuck in the Hungarian parliament and the BBC became worried that in the absence of the law, "low-level officials" would take matters into their own hands and would sideline the BBC in the "allocation struggle." The broadcaster came up with an easy explanation: most of those officials were "ex-Communists won over by generous lobbyists."
Help From Above
The corporation scrambled to enlist the ultimate lobbyist, the prime minister, writing to John Major's office:
"Whether the Media Bill is passed or not, intervention at a senior level is needed to secure the BBC's rebroadcasting deal. The BBC would undoubtedly stand a much stronger chance if Her Majesty's Government were to express its concern."
To support its plea for help from the Government, the BBC reminded John Major that his predecessor Margaret Thatcher had successfully promoted a similar rebroadcasting deal in Czechoslovakia in her talks with President Havel.
"With the prime minister's help, we could achieve the same success in Hungary," the BBC wrote to Major's Private Secretary Stephen Wall.
The government obliged. In a meeting with Hungarian PM Antall in October 1992 John Major read from the BBC brief, adding that he was "very keen for the BBC to be able to operate this service."
In fairness to the BBC, the corporation was not the only media outlet seeking favors from the British government.
About the same time as Margaret Thatcher was busy lobbying the BBC's interests in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, her office was approached by the Sunday Telegraph asking if the prime minister could "feed in" to Gorbachev the paper's request for an interview. To make the bid irresistible, the Sunday Telegraph assured Mrs. Thatcher that the assistant editor who would interview Gorbachev was a "strong supporter of the prime minister!" The paper thought this "point might carry some weight with Gorbachev's staff."
So many British journalists were besieging the prime minister's office seeking help to get access to Gorbachev, that at one point her Private Secretary Charles Powell had to apologize to British Ambassador in Moscow Sir Rodric Braithwaite, whose job it was to "feed in" their requests to the Kremlin: "You must be fed up with getting letters from me about individual journalists or television presenters."
With some select media outlets Powell took a more hands on approach. A BBC request for an interview with Gorbachev was sent right to the top.
As Powell wrote back to Jonathan Dimbleby, who sought his help in submitting an interview bid to the Soviet president, "I knew that all was well when I looked across the desk during our meeting with Mr. Gorbachev and saw that Chernayev [Gorbachev's aide and Powell's opposite number — NG] had drawn up a little list of points for Gorbachev's decision of which no. 5 was "BBC?" It had a tick against it in red ink!"
It was a great coup to get the first interview, Mrs. Thatcher's private secretary wrote.
But whose coup it was — the journalists' or the government's?
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