Of all the ridiculous things the BBC has ever said to me, while trying to pretend to be impartial, perhaps the most absurd is this: ‘‘Where the BBC’s editorial guidelines refer to ‘due impartiality’, the term ‘due’ refers to requirement for impartiality ‘adequate and appropriate’ to the output in question. This means that for drama the bar is set lower than for, say, a documentary.”
The opposite, of course, should be the case. Nobody now recalls the scores of radical BBC documentaries on social issues from the 1960s. But millions will never forget the radical “Wednesday Plays” of the same era, such as Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction, which were watched by millions and changed the terms of the debate.
Up the Junction, screened in November 1965, featured a disastrous backstreet abortion, a breach of about 100 taboos at once in the moral and cultural conditions of the time. Strong reactions against it ensured that it was not repeated. It featured documentary material, including an interview with a doctor advocating a change in the law, supposedly “to prevent 35 deaths each year from backstreet abortions”.
Mary Whitehouse, the much-derided campaigner against the BBC’s embrace of the cultural revolution, who has now been shown to have been broadly right in many of her warnings, was among thousands who complained. She said afterwards: “The sooner these terrible backstreet abortionists are put out of business the better! True. But what about a play which would make it clear that any kind of abortion, legal or otherwise, has dangers to mental and bodily health far greater than natural childbirth? How about a programme which demonstrated that clean living could cut out a great deal of this problem at the root?” Well, how about it? I know of none, in all the succeeding decades.
Yet, in 2012, the Corporation launched a drama, set in 1957, that had a legitimate interest in the subject, and actually starred a group of Anglican nuns, unusually treated as largely sane, benign and, well, quite nice, and the midwives who worked from their convent in the East End of London.
Based on the memoirs of an actual midwife, Jennifer Worth, it gathered high ratings. It might at least have been able to find a small corner for a conservative moral view. But don’t take my bitter right-wing word for what happened next. Private Eye, the formerly satirical, now rather left-wing magazine, said in a recent issue that Call the Midwife has lately “become a series of liberal editorials on medical and social issues”. Wikipedia concurs, producing an interminable, almost comically correct list of the issues “tackled” by the supposedly cosy drama. These include “miscarriage and stillbirths, abortion and unwanted pregnancies, birth defects, poverty, illness and disease epidemics, prostitution, incest, religion and faith, racism and prejudice, alcoholism, disability … homosexuality between men, lesbianism, female genital mutilation”. It may have been a little saccharine before. But its fervent political correctness is now so relentless it is almost embarrassing.
Is generous endorsement of a programme by pressure groups on one side of a controversial issue evidence of bias? Surely it must at least tend to be. A recent letter from a group of pro-abortion lobbies to the BBC pronounced that “Call the Midwife has repeatedly handled this issue [abortion] extremely sensitively and courageously.” Their only complaint was that the BBC Action Line response, after the drama’s second portrayal of a backstreet abortion, had not been pro-abortion enough. Diane Munday, long one of Britain’s most dogged campaigners for easier abortion, also wrote to the Guardian to describe the series as “excellent” and disclosed that she had been contacted by its makers to help them with their research. I have asked the BBC if they have sought comparable help from any opponents of abortion liberalisation. They haven’t.
I find it almost funny that the BBC will not admit that it is biased on this subject, when it so obviously is and has been for half a century. In the most recent drama on the issue, set in 1964, the following words are put into the mouth of a nurse, a likeable and sympathetic character: “We see this [back-street abortion] all the time. Young, young girls, exhausted older women, mothers who don’t know where their next penny or next beating is coming from, and others who want to take control of their bodies and their lives.”
No similarly sympathetic, articulate voice offers any opposition to this. In fact no voice at all suggests that there is, or ever was, or ever again will be, any other view, or any other answer to the problem of unwanted children than to abort them. By our own growing silence on this issue, we create a greater silence for those who come after us.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday