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The Personal Column: Jaw jaw not war war

Jeff Cloves reflects on the BBC's little-known motto

I wonder how many BBC listeners and viewers are aware of the corporation’s motto and that this venerable and vulnerable institution has a coat of arms? This is not a pedantic and pointless question but one which, I insist, is important and relevant.

As a child of the Radio Age, and coming from a Old Labourite family, I grew up with inborn belief in mutualism and co-operativism and utter disdain for the reductionist view that the only worthwhile engine of human behaviour is profit. The radio was the soundtrack of my young life.

Also, as a child, I used to have a comic called Radio Fun and my family also had The Radio Times, which was then a BBC publication. We were aware of, but never read, its sister highbrow publication, The Listener. In consequence, and from a very early age, I was aware that the BBC’s motto was: ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation’.

These days, management theory has given rise to the unlovely language of the ‘mission statement’ and such statements are used to justify wars and other abominations. Meanwhile, I sense the BBC’s coat of arms – how ironic – complete with motto has given way to its capitalised BBC blocks logo and its radio waves and screens are clogged with repetitive advertisements for itself and its programmes.

As you might expect, I’ve no love for coats of arms but from childhood on I’ve been influenced by that motto. A big claim I know but as a writer I believe – must believe – in the power of words, and remain heartened that a major public institution has such an idealistic statement of intent.

Now, of course, the BBC is not the fount of idealistic wisdom that its motto might suggest, but nevertheless it remains a public enterprise and, as such, is loathed by our government. My dad saw it as ‘the voice of government’, and all the governments of my lifetime have tried to control it and use it for their own purposes. Fortunately, principled and idealistic journalists have always managed to work there and have determinedly tried to maintain its independence.

At this time, it still remains one of our best hopes for a reasoned and anti-hysterical response to ‘terrorism’ and listening to Radio 5 this morning (16 November) it was a huge relief to hear interviews with various Muslim and other voices here and in Paris, speaking against the French military attacks on supposedly ISIS targets. War begets war, as we all know, and we live in ever more desperate times.

My purpose in this column is not to be a propagandist for the BBC but to speak peace to power as it were. Somewhere on Broadcasting House’s walls – internally or externally, I can’t remember – the BBC’s motto is engraved or carved or proclaimed and its public presence has always lifted my spirits. So far, it has not been removed or apologised for and in any contact with the Beeb it is worth reminding it that this is for what it claims to stand.

I have made one or two broadcasts from Broadcasting House (thank goodness for PN’s Albert Beale who somehow has frequent access to the airwaves and is a rare pacifist voice there) and once fell into conversation there (off-air) with the war historian John Keegan. I told him I was a pacifist and he said: ‘Oh good, I’m a pacifist at heart but....’ He seemed a nice man but from there on his argument fell into its preordained route: pacifism wonderful but impossible, and so on. I think I was there to talk about the weekly diary I wrote for the St Albans Review and which lasted for exactly 15 years.

I used the words ‘pacifism’, ‘anarchism’, ‘capitalism’ et al frequently, and often mentioned writing for Peace News. I was never once edited or censored but whether my words ever had any effect I’ll never know. I did once quote ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation’ and I know those words have had an effect on me.

Topics: Culture