PETER FROST profiles the man who ensured the broadcaster never lost its right-wing bias
Come with me to room 105 Broadcasting House. For many years it was home to Brigadier Ronnie Stonham, who has died aged 87.
Along with his department of three assistants, Stonham had the job of ensuring any communists, Trotskyists, peace campaigners, indeed anyone who wasn’t True Blue Tory like the Brigadier, ever got a job at the BBC.
Painted on the door was the legend Special Duties Manager. It gave little away. Nor did Stonham’s job title — special assistant to director of personnel.
It certainly doesn’t mention the fact that the brigadier’s main responsibility was to ensure that MI5 and MI6 and indeed any other department of spies and spooks had their say in who made programmes for the nation’s broadcasting corporation.
For many years MI5 kept continuous political surveillance on what were supposed to be internal BBC appointments.
Security vetting of editorial appointees was introduced at the BBC as early as 1937. It certainly continued until 1986, when the BBC told the world that it had been halted.
If in fact it was finally halted it was down to considerable public and union pressure — that and revelations from the Observer newspaper.
The screening weeded out potential political subversives. Or those who the Tory establishment considered subversive. Applicants who got the thumbs down had their security files stamped with a triangular green tag known as the Christmas tree.
Grounds for exclusion could be as vague as “had a subscription to the Daily Worker” or “associated with communists and CND activists.”
Brigadier Stonham may have kept out lefties, but paedophiles and murderer’s seemed to find a comfortable home in the BBC.
Among those who fell foul of the witch-hunt were folk singer Ewan MacColl, theatre director Joan Littlewood, Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, and Roland Joffe, who later directed The Killing Fields.
Film-maker Jeff Perks, who made a great film about Ken Sprague, Stephen Peet, who later went on to make the Yesterday’s Witness series for the BBC, John Goldschmidt, who made a film about the whistleblower Stanley Adams, and Sunday Times journalist Isabel Hilton were all among those blacklisted for their left-wing sympathies.
Anna Ford (above), who went on to be one of Britain’s best- respected broadcasters, had the temerity to live with Trevor Hyett (below), who had edited the young communist magazine Challenge. She got a Christmas tree sticker and a ban from the Brigadier.
The list could go on. One candidate was even barred from editing The Listener.
Brig Stonham had a typical career as a spook or a spy. He was born on July 9 1927. From Portsmouth Grammar School he joined the Post Office Engineering Department — so often a front for Britain’s electronic eavesdropping.
In 1948 as the cold war heated up he was commissioned into the Royal Corps of Signals and posted to 2nd Divisional Signal Regiment in Germany.
His cold war signals service reads like a gazetteer of British imperialist adventures. The Canal Zone, Malaya, Germany and Northern Ireland, latterly where he wrote the official (but top secret) history of the Troubles.
He even became an aide-de-camp to the Queen in 1980.
It was after his retirement from the army in July 1982 that he moved into room 105. Just who he was actually working for isn’t clear. The BBC or MI5 never made it public.
While there he ruined the working hopes of so many young and talented broadcasters, actors, directors and scriptwriters.
Some were members of the Communist Party, the Worker’s Revolutionary Party or other groups.
Most exclusions were on much less evidence. One person was blacklisted because they had a brother who had been a member of the Communist Party 15 years before. A partner or close friend with left-wing views or affiliations could earn a ban.
Brig Stonham didn’t act alone of course. He and his spooks, who actually dug the dirt — if dirt it was — were working with the full support of a number of anti-working class and Establishment figures who became in turn director general of the BBC.
They too had been appointed by various governments and ministers, both Labour and Tory, who understood only too well the need to keep the message from the BBC on the correct political line.
Only one question remains. Who now wears the MI5 mac and sits behind the desk in what has replaced room 105?
This obituary first appeared in the Morning Star 25 August 2014.