Margaret Thatcher considered forcing the BBC to show adverts, newly released documents reveal.
Records from September 1979, written just months after Mrs Thatcher took office, show that the former Prime Minister harboured concerns about “extravagant” spending by the broadcaster, which at the time had a deficit of £50 million, and suggested that some radio programmes should introduce ads to help balance its budget.
The revelations come as internal documents from Thatcher’s premiership are made public. The files released by the National Archives show that not everyone in Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet approved of the plan to advertise on “light music programmes”, Radio 1 and BBC local radio.
Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw argued that the move “would be extremely controversial and would be bitterly criticised by the BBC Governors… as well as by some people in our party.” Noting that the BBC had a worldwide reputation as “an independent source of information financed without commercial sponsorship”, he believed advertising could only “damage its reputation, particularly in the areas of news and current affairs.”
Mrs Thatcher later shelved the plans, but “would not like to rule this out for all time.”
Other proposals were more off the wall, including funding the BBC through a tax on every radio sold, and exempting the licence fee for people who only watched ITV. Mrs Thatcher believed this would force the corporation to be more competitive, but admitted the plan would require “TV manufacturers to produce a set which could only be tuned in to ITV stations.”
The documents generally appear to show the government attempting to limit the BBC’s scope. One memo from the Number 10 policy unit said that the “unstated objectives” behind a 1985 review into the corporation’s funding was to “knock the BBC down to size” and “prevent them from extravagantly expanding into everything from DBS [satellite broadcasting] to breakfast-time TV.”
The documents, released under the ‘thirty year rule’, are now stored at the National Archive.