Margaret Thatcher wanted the BBC to air adverts

By Seb Joseph | News editor

December 31, 2014 | 4 min read

Margaret Thatcher considered running adverts on the BBC during her reign as Prime Minster in an attempt to offset what she deemed was “extravagant” spending from the broadcaster.

Within months of coming into power in September 1979, the Conservative leader suggested the public service broadcaster’s radio stations turn to advertisers to uncover new revenues, according to newly released documents. It would have meant “light music radio programmes” run adverts.

Mrs Thatcher also proposed a tax charge to every new radio sold, with the money ploughed into the BBC’s coffers, alongside an amendment so that people could avoid paying the license fee if they only watched ITV.

The proposals, released by the National Archives, were an attempt to tackle the BBC’s £50m deficit at the time. Such was the concern about the corporation’s spending, which was increasing by £4m each month, the Government had discussed the prospect of opening the BBC to advertisers but were split on the idea before it ever became a serious topic.

In a memo to the Prime Minster about her proposals, Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, wrote: “I know that there have been suggestions that the BBC should be funded at least in part from advertising.

“This would be extremely controversial and would be bitterly criticised by the BBC Governors and others in the broadcasting world as well as by some people in our party.”

He went on to downplay the “not great” financial impact advertising revenue would bring to the BBC and warned that advertisers on flagship station Radio 1 would affect independent local radio.

Just weeks after Mrs Thatcher had made the suggestions, a memo to the Home Office in November 1979 indicated that her enthusiasm for brands on the BBC had waned. It read: “The Prime Minister has decided that – on reflection – it would be a mistake for the Home Secretary even to raise the possibility of the BBC accepting radio advertising at this stage....(but) she would not like to rule this out for all time.”

Mrs Thatcher revisited the idea in 1984 when she met with Radio 3 controller Ian McIntyre. The issue of advertising as well as the validity of the TV license fee and ongoing concerns about the BBC's spending eventually led to the formation of the Peacock committee in 1985 to review the broadcasters funding.


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