BBC examines its own record on the Hungarian Holocaust

If readers did not catch the BBC Radio 4 ‘Document’ programme by Mike Thomson on November 12th entitled “The BBC and the Hungarian Holocaust”, it is well worth listening to via this link. The programme is also summarised here.

The programme is interesting – and troubling – in that it discusses the role of Bush House in the “global propaganda battle” of World War II and the BBC’s willing collaboration with the exploitation of its reputation for “impartiality and honesty”.

“And so in a way you had the ethical, legitimate aspiration to impartiality, the values of Reithian BBC, generating the global world-wide following that you needed..”

“The hard-won credibility of the BBC was being used to help sell Britain’s propaganda effort”

At times, the programme seems to be trying a little too hard to suggest that the BBC was lead up the garden path by the man in charge of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts at the time – the Foreign Office’s Carlile Aylmer Macartney – and that ultimately the responsibility for the BBC’s having failed to inform Hungarians about the Holocaust, even whilst it was still being perpetrated, was that of the UK government. 

The programme also does little to properly address the antisemitic attitudes laid bare in BBC memos and Foreign Office communiques of the time, preferring to categorise the attitudes displayed as

“Snobbery with a strong racial tinge to it as well”.

 However, as the programme makes clear, BBC principles did not change even after Anthony Eden’s speech in the House of Commons on December 17th, 1942, in which he exposed the full extent of what he termed the “bestial policy” of the Nazi regime. 

When confronted with the question why, the best the BBC’s official historian Jean Seaton can do is to suggest that BBC policy-makers were suffering from “fatigue” and agree with the presenter that they were perhaps “war-weary”. The moral aspects of the BBC’s decision not to expose to 800,000 Hungarian Jews the details of the Holocaust – which there are BBC memos to prove it knew about – are not addressed at all. The programme concentrates instead on the practical aspects of such potential advance knowledge. In fact, it is stated by one of the interviewees that:

“It wasn’t the job of the BBC to warn Jews.”

The programme also avoids discussing the proposal put forward by one of its interviewees, Professor Frank Chalk of Concordia University, in an academic paper from 2003, whereby “Allied broadcasts detailing the fate that awaited Jews sent to “labor in the East” might have contributed more to Allied victory and the survival of some of the Jews who were murdered in Auschwitz than broadcasts encouraging disaffection among Christian Hungarians.”

Disappointingly, the programme ends with the question:

“Can such a judgement ever be fairly made in times of peace, decades later?”

So, rather than coming to any real conclusions, the BBC’s attitude seems to be to file the whole episode away somewhere in between “not really our call” and “understanding the context”.

To those of us interested in the subject of the BBC’s attitude towards present-day Jews in Israel, some of the phrases used in the programme to describe BBC policies seventy years ago, may carry an uncomfortably familiar ring.

“Not inserting lies, but providing directives on what not to say”

“We shouldn’t mention the Jews at all”

Equally unnerving is the understanding that the supposedly ‘written in stone’ BBC values of “impartiality and honesty”, as well as the organisation’s independence, proved to be in fact negotiable  - even when confronted with the knowledge of genocide.

Having avoided the follow-up question of what, if any, safeguards exist today to prevent moral and ethical considerations far broader than the BBC and its Charter being out-shadowed by the realpolitik of a funding, hands-on Foreign Office not immune to racism and particular political sympathies, the overall achievement of this programme is to provide a clue to lessons from history which go unheeded.

 

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6 comments on “BBC examines its own record on the Hungarian Holocaust

  1. A very perceptive analysis Hadar. I agree that the programme makers couldn’t bring themselves to accept the degree of responsibility (on behalf of the BBC) they ought to have done.

    The BBC has always been sympathetic to holocaust victims, albeit in a somewhat mawkish fashion, but on a superficial level, at least this programme went beyond any of that and focused on the BBC’s shameful conduct. However, I think given the level of attention most listeners probably paid to it – on the whole it was a small step in the right direction. I was a bit surprised that they didn’t blame the whole thing on the government.
    And those uncomfortable phrases did indeed have a familiar ring.

  2. Lest anyone should think Eden, in spite of his speech to Parliament, was in any way sympathetic to the plight of European Jews, a minimum of research shows his implacable resistance toward any practical help.

  3. Memorandum of Conversation by Mr. Harry L. Hopkins, Special Assistant to President Roosevelt regarding a meeting with Anthony Eden March 27, 1943

    “Four months after the State Department confirmed the dimensions of the Holocaust, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden met in Washington with President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. At this meeting, Eden expressed his fear that Hitler might actually accept an offer from the Allies to move Jews out of areas under German control. No one present objected to Eden’s statement.”

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/holocaust/filmmore/reference/primary/index.html

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