George Orwell devised the word ‘unperson’ to describe someone who had so offended official thought, he or she was vaporised — not just liquidated but wiped from the record for eternity.
That way the unperson couldn’t set a bad example.
All memory of the impertinence would be forgotten, Comrades!
Orwell was satirising Stalin’s Russia, where such practices were all too common.
When a Politburo member called Nikolai Yezhov, People’s Commissar for Water Transport, fell out of favour with Joseph Stalin in 1940, he was not just killed.
A photograph of him beside Stalin in happier days was doctored to remove all trace of the unfortunate Yezhov. It was as though he had never existed.
And he was not the only one.
Though the circumstances are less dramatic, I am at present feeling a few twinges of solidarity with Yezhov.
Earlier this year, I made a jaunty little Radio 4 programme called What’s The Point Of The Met Office?
Last week, after a bizarre and focused lobbying campaign from environmental activists, the programme was removed from the BBC’s iPlayer playback facility.
To adapt Orwell, What’s The Point Of The Met Office? became an un-programme.
One moment it was there, available to licence fee-payers to hear at their convenience. The next? Ker-whack! It disappeared as surely as one of those Islamist-owned oil derricks in Syria snotted by an RAF Paveway missile. Ladies and gentlemen, the Left had struck. I had been censored, expunged, deleted or ‘dealt with’, as RAF types put it.
The experience was baffling rather than upsetting. The programme had only ever been intended as a light summer diversion, yet it was mistaken for some sort of attack on the Establishment’s global warming theory.
I am writing about it now simply because the media story in which I have unwittingly found myself reflects a worrying rise of intolerance in our public life, and because the response of BBC executives and the BBC Trust, the governing body responsible for acting in the interests of licence fee-payers, has been so astonishingly over the top.
It is as though the RAF used one of those missiles to ‘deal with’ an innocent old bloke selling hummus by the side of the road in Raqqa.
The rumpus, ignited by a few eco-activists and fuelled by a mad BBC bureaucracy, has demonstrated the sort of foot-stamping insistence on orthodoxy not seen during peacetime since Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth in the 17th century.
Removed: Last week, after what Letts describes as a ‘bizarre and focused lobbying campaign from environmental activists’, the programme was removed from the BBC’s iPlayer playback facility
It has been most peculiar and most un-British — and absurdly comical.
The offending broadcast was one half-hour programme in my seventh series of What’s The Point Of…?
In the established style of these summer shows, it took a chatty, personal look at a British institution.
In past programmes, for example, we have looked at the Royal Warrant (the system by which firms are officially recognised for supplying royal households), the Tate Gallery and the National Trust.
The tone of the continuity announcer’s introduction before a What’s The Point Of…? usually prepares listeners for a quirky affair.
In these programmes I try to reflect both admiration for the institution under analysis and any grumbles that may exist about it.
The shows are not particularly lucrative for me but they are fun to make. If they are amusing, that is thanks chiefly to the creative flair of my producers at the BBC’s Ethics and Religion department in Manchester.
What’s The Point Of The Met Office? looked at the history of weather-forecasting in Britain, going back to the days when the Victorians set out to reduce the number of shipping disasters by predicting conditions off our coasts.
We interviewed an archivist, various amateur weather buffs and people whose livelihoods could be affected by bad weather.
The show began with a fruity clip from the Royal Three Counties Showground in Worcestershire, where a farmer with a wonderful rustic burr ruminated on old rural superstitions about the weather. We chatted to Jeremy Corbyn’s charming meteorologist brother, Piers — an expert on sunspots and one of the most untidy men I’ve met. He argued that the ‘purpose latched’ onto the Met Office was ‘to promote and defend and propagate the man-made climate change theory’.
We also talked to John Kettley, who told us about fan-mail he used to receive from women viewers when he was a BBC weather forecaster. Oh, and we spoke to some Westminster voices: a man from the Taxpayers’ Alliance who had his doubts about the Met Office being owned by the State (as it is), and three MPs.
One of these MPs said how marvellous the Met Office’s shipping forecast was.
Two of them were critical of the Met Office lobbying politicians on climate change. We ended with a long talk with a Met Office spokeswoman, who eloquently defended her employer.
On a specific criticism about some climate change forecast which had proved wrong, she accepted that the senior Tory MP, Peter Lilley, who had been behind it maybe had a point.
Afterwards, off I pottered on my summer holiday — only to be contacted, in the middle of Greece, by my BBC colleagues in Manchester, who explained that the Green lobby was on the warpath.
One or two environmental activists were stirring up the Twittersphere about our show, as was the BBC’s environmental analyst, Roger Harrabin. The BBC was panicking.
I was accused of having shown disrespect to climate change. Mr Lilley had cracked a joke: ‘They [the Met Office] come before the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change . . . and tell us they need even more money for even bigger computers so they can be even more precisely wrong in future.’ I chuckled. I had ‘not reflected prevailing scientific opinion’ about global warming.
Radio 4’s Feedback programme (its ‘forum for comments, queries, criticisms and congratulations’) gave me a biffing. I’m afraid I never heard it — I was in some sun-kissed taverna at the time, knocking back goodish white — but was told it was ‘pretty savage’. Hey ho.
As a sketchwriter and theatre reviewer, I can hardly complain about criticism. Feedback presenter Roger Bolton has never been one of my fans.
Meanwhile, the BBC top brass held meetings about my allegedly scandalous programme.
Apparently we should have done more to explain the science of climate change. There was a danger that listeners were ‘misled’ by my interviews with Mr Lilley and Labour MP Graham Stringer, who argued that the Met Office were ‘excellent’ at short-term forecasts but ‘very poor’ at climate and medium-term predictions.
I was on the naughty step. That was the last I thought of the matter until last month, when I received a long document from the BBC Trust — a draft of an official inquiry into my misdeeds, complete with a conclusion that there had been a ‘serious’ breach of BBC rules on impartiality in my programme. I was given a few hours to offer any comments before the finding was likely to be made public.
The report, which must have cost thousands of pounds to prepare (rather more than was spent on our programme, I’d wager), included news that from the outset of the production process it had been agreed that we would never touch on climate change.
Er, hang on, chaps. No one ever told me that. Why on earth would independent journalists accept such a stricture? Why should climate change be given such special protection?
The weird thing is, I don’t consider myself a climate change sceptic. Like, I suspect, the majority of the population, I don’t know what to think about global warming. I approve of action to reduce environmental waste and to increase renewable energy supplies, but do I think Man is to blame for the changing climate? I don’t know. I interviewed sceptics because they had something interesting to say.
You will have to take my word for all this because the BBC has now removed What’s The Point Of The Met Office? from the airwaves.
It must not be allowed to pollute public opinion, even though I don’t think any Radio 4 listener would have been remotely misled by it in the first place.
History shows that censorship is rarely effective in the long term. Books such as Lolita (Nabokov’s depiction of an older professor’s lust), Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Satanic Verses — all once the subject of attempted bans — went on to become bestsellers.
Officialdom is seldom more mockable than when it seeks to suppress.
The BBC should know this, having been subjected to foolish attempts by Margaret Thatcher’s Government to stop Sinn Fein politicians’ voices being heard in the Eighties.
This is a BBC — a Corporation worth defending, in my view, despite this ridiculous show-trial I have been through — that exists to be frank and fearless, to stand up to dictatorial forces, to divert and entertain while at the same time standing apart from Whitehall.
Using such a heavy steamroller to crush the life out of my no-doubt imperfect but innocent little programme is the behaviour not of a bastion of British liberalism, but an insidious and worrying threat to two very British qualities: common sense and freedom of expression.