The BBC Quietly Censors Its Own Archives

Charles Cooke:

Out of public view, the state-owned broadcaster has been altering old episodes of its shows to make them ‘suitable’ for modern listeners.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE 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 factogovernment 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?