David Boulton describes what he thinks is his personal legacy through his programmes

You were talking about how you aimed to be impartial and I was interested that you were somebody, I think, who came to television with strong political and ethical principles and I wonder if there are examples that you felt that through your programme making you had perhaps changed or influenced peoples’ perceptions of issues or things that were going on in the world? Do you feel that you have a personal legacy?

I don’t have as personal a legacy as I would have liked to have had in that but there were certain issues where you could quite significantly and quite legitimately override the impartiality. I’ll give you two examples. One – we ran a series on torture around the world. Now there was no way in which we were going to say, “Well, we’ve got to be impartial between the torturer and the tortured.” We’ve got to interview the torturers as well as the tortured. We’ve got to get their viewpoint. In fact in one programme that Mike Ryan produced for me about torture in Greece, he did get some quite remarkable interviews with torturers who had been trained by being tortured themselves so they were able to talk about the experience of torture from both ways. But nevertheless we were able to make a series of programmes demonstrating the continued existence of torture in several European countries and they were straight campaigning programmes with a particular aim and a particular direction, where there was no requirement to be impartial and I remember that the one that we did about torture in Turkey resulted in Turkey being expelled from the Council of Europe and they came back into it about 10 years later. So there were those kinds of programmes. There were programmes about homelessness where we were clearly looking at it from the point of view of those who were made homeless and so by being on the side of the people, on the side of the victim, on the side of those who were clearly the underdogs, it was in that sense that World in Action was, if you like, leftwing. And we had this slogan (no doubt not very original) we were there to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ and I think that is quite a good summary of what World in Action was doing.

Another example was a programme that I did called Rhodesia’s Last White Christmas, query, where Ian Smith was about to declare UDI [Unilateral Declaration of Independence] and it looked as if there might be a massive rebellion in Rhodesia with the blacks taking over. And it was a programme that was unashamedly anti Ian Smith, UDI and what he was doing. After the programme Ian Smith wrote a letter to Sidney Bernstein saying how disgraceful this programme was in that it only gave the one point of view and Sidney (again, one of those occasions where he called me into his office) said, ‘How do we reply to this?’ No, this wasn’t Sidney on that occasion, this was Denis Forman. Denis Forman called me into the office and said, ‘How do we reply to this?’ I made my case and Denis said, ‘OK, you reply to Ian Smith and put your case’. Well, on that occasion I wrote a letter that was perhaps a little intemperate in which I basically said on a issue like this, on a issue of race and of self-determination I would no more feel obliged to be impartial than if I were making a programme during the war and required to be impartial between Hitler and Churchill. Well, Ian Smith came back with an outraged letter to Denis and Denis called me up again and said, ‘I’m not sure that was the tone of the reply that we agreed! David, I’ve got a suggestion for you. Write your letters in the white heat of anger but have a little post-box in your office in which you post it and then think about it overnight and then maybe post the letter – or not – the following day.’ It was actually very good advice. There were those issues where the strict requirements of due impartiality were not pressed upon us.

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