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The BBC Quietly Censors Its Own Archives

  Reflecting  upon George Orwell’s many authoritative predictions can grow tiresome for writer and reader alike. And yet, given our present ...


Reflecting upon George Orwell’s many authoritative predictions can grow tiresome for writer and reader alike. And yet, given our present predicament, one might ask what choice one truly has. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England,” Orwell wrote back in 1945, “is that it is largely voluntary.” And so, indeed, it is. Over the weekend, the Daily Telegraph reported that “an anonymous Radio 4 Extra listener” had “discovered the BBC had been quietly editing repeats of shows over the past few years to be more in keeping with social mores.” To which the BBC said . . . well, yeah. In a statement addressing the charge, the institution confirmed that “on occasion we edit some episodes so they’re suitable for broadcast today, including removing racially offensive language and stereotypes from decades ago, as the vast majority of our audience would expect.” Thus, in the absence of law or regulation, has the British establishment begun to excise material it finds inappropriate by today’s lights.

The deployment of the word “broadcast” in the BBC’s affirmation was both deliberate and misleading. Historically, a “broadcast” was a one-off event, like a newspaper or stage performance. But, as the BBC presumably knows, in the age of streaming, “broadcasts” tend to be more permanent than that. Because it is so old, much of the material that the BBC has been altering is not available to purchase or download, nor broadly owned on physical media, which means that when the BBC elects to change it, it is changing the only working copy that the majority of the public may enjoy. In a free market, one might be obliged to throw up one’s hands and lament that the copyright holder was such a philistine. But the BBC is a de facto government agency — an agency for which all Britons who own televisions are forced by statute to pay — and, as a result, the material that it is modifying is effectively publicly owned.

This raises a host of important questions — chief among which is: Why, if “the vast majority” of the BBC’s audience expects the organization to render its archives more “suitable,” has it been doing so in secret? Again: In the Internet age, changes made to source material tend to be iterative rather than additive. When the New York Times updates a story in its newspaper, one can plausibly obtain both copies. By contrast, when the New York Times updates a story on its website, the original page disappears. By its own admission, the BBC has been deleting entire sketches from comedy series that are 50, 60, or 70 years old, many of which can be heard only with the BBC’s permission. Are we simply to assume that the public supports this development? And, if so, are we permitted to wonder why the BBC was not open about it?

Orwell based the job that Winston Smith held in the Records section of the Ministry of Truth on the job that his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, had held at the British Ministry of Information’s censorship department early in World War II. The “process of continuous alteration” in which Smith was engaged, Orwell wrote in 1984, “applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance,” such that “day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.” What better description could one find of what the BBC is now doing to its canon? Some of the revisions — the removal of “racist and misogynistic jokes used in several of its classic radio comedies” — are, indeed, the result of changing mores. Others, however, smack of cynical self-protection. Per the Telegraph, the BBC has “purged mentions of disgraced stars Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris” from its collections. And down the memory hole goes that.

One might reasonably wonder where such a project might end. Whether one likes it or not, Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris existed. They were real people, who had a real effect on the culture, and who appeared on a vast number of real radio and television shows that were produced and disseminated by the BBC. That they turned out to be extremely bad people is regrettable, but it does not alter material reality. Thanks to its traditional role and its remarkable longevity, the BBC is in the enviable position of having untrammeled access to a treasure trove of historical archives. If, in an attempt to protect its reputation and placate Britain’s many would-be arbiters of taste, it is incapable of curating and exhibiting those archives without attempting to bringing them “up to date,” then, as a matter of priority, they must be placed elsewhere — alongside an exacting and stringent warning that, whatever the role of government-run media may be in 2022, it cannot be to control the past, the present, or anything in-between.

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