David Boulton on the renowned Steel Papers ‘World in Action’ programme

What happened was that there was a strike at British Steel. British Steel was still a nationalised company and there were rumours that the management end of the dispute was being dictated by the Thatcher Government and these rumours were very strongly denied by the management of British Steel, Charles Villiers, the Chairman of British Steel. A very enterprising researcher, Laurie Flynn, managed to get hold of the minutes and documented discussions within the Board Room of British Steel, brought them to Ray Fitzwater who brought them to me, I think. This was very early on, I had just been appointed as head of current affairs and brought them to me and said, ‘What do you think we should do about this?’ Well, we looked through the material and it seemed to us that there was absolutely conclusive proof that the Board was being directed straight from the Government despite their denial of that. So Ray, being the slightly cautious one, wanted to develop the story in traditional World in Action way which was basically to spend 2 weeks researching it, 2 weeks filming it and 2 weeks editing it and then it goes out. I thought that it was such an explosive political thing that we needed to get it out the following Monday (I think we were having this discussion on Friday) and to do that meant that we would need to book a studio which World in Action rarely did and make it as a studio programme. I think we had just appointed Tony Wilson as the anchor that we would use in those programmes which we did from the studio so poor Ray found himself in the situation where brand-new anchor, Tony Wilson, had been more or less thrust upon him and his head of department was saying, “Let’s get this out on Monday!” We decided that the only way we could do this was to tell Charles Villiers, Chairman of British Steel, that we had these papers and to invite him to come up to Manchester on Monday, do a live programme, a live interview with Tony Wilson. To our astonishment Charles Villiers agreed to do this so we were kind of suddenly landed with this quite explosive situation! We made the programme, the programme went out and Tony Wilson interviewed Villiers who was faced with these papers and nevertheless continued to deny that there was any Government involvement. What he wanted to know was where we had got hold of the papers so once he got back to London we received from their lawyers a demand that we return the papers to them. What was clear to us, however, was that each set of papers was marked in the corner with a code which would identify the source of the papers so what we did was to snip off the corners of the paper – obviously make our own photocopy but snip of the corners of the original – and then send them back to British Steel. Well that didn’t satisfy British Steel at all because they were out to find out which of their Board Members, as they believed, had leaked this material. So they took us to court and the court required us to send back the snippets that we’d got. Of course we told them that these had been destroyed. The case then went on to High Court, Lord Denning. Five judges, four of whom found against us, in other words required us to name our source. Denning was for us but nevertheless was overruled (very rare occasion when Lord Denning was overruled) and all this was causing a great furore in the press. The Times came down very heavily in our favour, all the business about defending journalists’ sources and all the rest. In the end it all fizzled out when British Steel realised that Granada Management structure was such that only one person, Laurie Flynn, the researcher, actually knew who his source was and nobody else.

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