The BBC has made available to the public archive material showing the inner workings of the corporation during the Cold War.
The archives show the BBC mapping and reporting these historic events for audiences around the world, as well as often finding itself on the front-line of this shifting conflict.
One of the key Cold War issues was access to what was really happening behind the Iron Curtain. An interview with former BBC Polish Section deputy head, Eugeniusz Smolar reveals for the first time how in the aftermath of Martial Law in Poland, the BBC discovered an abandoned telephone line at the Polish Academy of Science, which gave them unique and regular access to news from this otherwise closed country.
Another opportunity to get news out of Poland, despite the best efforts of the Polish censor, is also detailed by Smolar. He describes how he learned of an alternative international telephone cable connection to Warsaw, via Istanbul: “So I called the telephone box and I started to get information directly out of Poland… I shared it with the Foreign Office. I shared it with, of course, the BBC. And they were happy because that was something from the horse’s mouth.” Such accidents of fortune were frequently the reality of Cold War news-gathering.
The collection also contains recently recorded interviews with ex-Moscow Correspondent Bridget Kendall and Head of the Russian Service Elisabeth Robson-Elliot, who offers first-hand accounts of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attempted Soviet coup in August 1991. Kendall also describes graphically her reality of news-gathering in pre-internet age Soviet Union, via “a telex machine half the size of a piano” and “one direct dial phone – white plastic”, and how in the mid-1980s she persuaded her London BBC bosses that: “the big story is internal… it was all about the dismantling of communist power that was now beginning to happen.” Likewise Robson-Elliot describes: “a feeling of exhilaration that the media was becoming more recognisable as respectable voices of the country.”
David Hendy, Lead Curator of the 100 Voices That Made The BBC and Professor of Media and Culture at the University of Sussex, says: “This new archive release for the BBC’s oral history collection is a really important piece of social history, giving us intriguing and – until now – entirely unheard ‘inside’ accounts of the BBC’s Cold War role. It also reveals the real difficulty of accessing information from behind the Iron Curtain, and how key was the BBC’s role in communicating and helping the world understand what was happening in this highly complex and shifting geopolitical arena.”
Robert Seatter, Head of BBC History, says: “These are invaluable, first hand views of our BBC history, that reveal the – often frustrating – reality of covering the Cold War from a broadcaster’s perspective. Their deft curation by the University of Sussex places them in their all-important historical context, and gives us a real understanding of their wider significance.”
The BBC archive project 100 Voices That Made The BBC is a collaboration between the BBC and the University of Sussex, is part of Connected Histories of the BBC, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This collection is curated by Dr Alban Webb and Professor Margaretta Jolly from the University of Sussex, and Dr Will Studdert, visiting scholar at Humboldt University of Berlin, under the aegis of Professor David Hendy.
This is the sixth 100 Voices That Made The BBC website. Previous editions cover Elections, The Birth of TV and Radio Reinvented, People, Nation, Empire and Pioneering Women. Three more will be created between now and 2021.