Yesterday's Men (TV programme)

  (Redirected from Yesterday's Men (documentary))

Yesterday's Men is a British documentary shown in the 24 Hours series (BBC 1) on 16 June 1971.[1] The programme is remembered for provoking a major clash between the Labour Party and the BBC. According to Anthony Smith, the editor of 24 Hours at the time, the film led to "the biggest and most furious row that a television programme in the English language has ever provoked."[2]


The History of the BBC section of their website asserts on its page on the Yesterday's Men controversy: "Straight-dealing is one of the principles of BBC programme making, but it has not always been followed."[3] The programme makers reversed the slogan the Labour Party had used in the 1970 general election against the Conservatives (who won) to apply to the members of the former Labour government now in opposition. The title of the programme was not disclosed to participants. Nor were they informed that it would feature a satirical song with this title commissioned from The Scaffold pop group.[4] Wilson and his colleagues "were effectively tricked into taking part in a programme that would ridicule them" according to the BBC's own account.[3] Normal procedure would have been to refer the matter of the song upwards in the management hierarchy, but this was not done.[4]

The objective of the programme, the idea of David Dimbleby,[5] was to analyse the first year in opposition of the Labour Party after their six years in government under Harold Wilson. The historian Jon Lawrence has commented though that "the programme was widely viewed as a deliberate attempt to undermine the folksy, down-to-earth image of Wilson and his fellow Labour ex-ministers by presenting them as driven above all by money and personal ambition."[6] The tone was found to be objectionable by Labour, particularly as a companion film on Edward Heath and his Conservative government broadcast the following evening Mr Heath's Quiet Revolution[7] was thought to be much more positive.[8]

During Wilson's interview in his room at the House of Commons,[9] reporter David Dimbleby asked him to reveal the precise fee he had been paid by The Sunday Times for the serialisation rights of his memoirs of the government's period in office. This, plus the accusation that he might have profited from his access to secret government papers,[10] led to a heated exchange between them.[11][12] According to press secretary Joe Haines, questions about Wilson's book were excluded from the agreement with the production team, although this detail was disputed at the time.[10] This portion of the interview was not transmitted, but despite threats from Wilson, the transcript was soon leaked.[12]

In addition to Wilson, the documentary features interviews with former cabinet ministers such as James Callaghan, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey, who are all depicted as potential future Labour leaders. Future prime minister (and Wilson's eventual successor) Callaghan is thought to be already too old for the job at almost 60. Jenkins tries to evade the question of whether—owing to his positive view of entry into the European Economic Community (later the European Union)—he might ultimately lead a party faction in a split over the issue.

The political difficulties of being in opposition are discussed, including the problems implicit in opposing the Industrial Relations Bill when the Labour government had made its own attempt, with the "In Place of Strife" white paper, to change the legal framework under which industrial disputes should proceed. Callaghan, who had opposed "In Place of Strife", refuses to say whether it was appropriate for Castle to shadow her previous portfolio. Peter Jenkins, a journalist on The Guardian, is interviewed about the political situation and comments about the leading figures.

Repercussions and responsesEdit

Haines complained about the documentary to Charles Curran, the BBC's director general, immediately after filming of the Wilson interview had concluded. Lord Goodman, Wilson's solicitor, explored the legal possibilities of gaining an injunction to prevent its broadcast which were not pursued.[2] Shortly before transmission, Wilson asked the governors to intervene, and contrary to usual practice, the governor's chairman Lord Hill, and some of his colleagues, saw the programme before it went out.[5] As Nick Robinson argues: "Instead of defending the management and inquiring afterwards into whether they'd carried out their jobs properly, the governors had taken over editorial control at the prompting of a political leader."[12]

In response to the decision over not transmitting the question about Wilson's memoirs, Dimbleby and director-producer Angela Pope had their names removed from the credits.[5] Journalist Robert Kee thought at the time that the programme was "a vulgarly brilliant equivalent of the newspaper cartoon" and that it was "the duty of a healthy Fourth Estate to reflect some [disrespect]."[13] According to Tony Benn in his diary, those responsible for the programme "knifed Harold as hard as they could."[14]

In an internal contemporary memo, John Crawley, assistant to Charles Curran, thought "the title and the commissioned song ... [gave] the programme the flavour of malice that ruined it."[9] Later in 1971, the governors issued a partial apology for the film, and a BBC Programmes Complaints Commission was established in October.[15] Subsequently, Dimbleby detected a "rather hideous softening" in the way politicians were questioned,[16] and BBC–Labour relations took time to return to normal. The Annan Committee Report in 1977 commented that the controversy had led to "caution, lack of direction, touchiness and unsteadiness" at the BBC.[17]

John Simpson, reflecting in 2010, wrote that while the programme was "clever and funny", it was also "distinctly shallow, poking its finger into the eye of authority merely for the sake of it."[11] The Corporation agreed not to show the film again during Wilson's lifetime, and it was not screened until a Harold Wilson Night on the BBC Parliament channel in 2013 commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Wilson becoming Labour leader.[1]


  1. ^ a b Yesterday's Men, BBC Parliament, 24 Hours, 2013. Sources vary as to whether the programme was shown on 16 or 17 June.
  2. ^ a b Des Freedman Television Policies of the Labour Party, 1951-2001, Routledge, 2003, p.77
  3. ^ a b Yesterday's Men (1971) Archived 22 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine, History of the BBC
  4. ^ a b Briggs, Asa (1995). The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Volume V: Competition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 895.
  5. ^ a b c David Wilby, Yesterday's Men 1971" Archived 22 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine, BBC 2006
  6. ^ Jon Lawrence, Electing Our Masters : The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009, p.217
  7. ^ Andrew Crisell, An Introductory History of British Broadcasting, Routledge, 2002, p.185
  8. ^ Mark Duguid, "Dimbleby, David (1938-)", BFI screenonline
  9. ^ a b Leonard Miall, Obituary: John Crawley, The Independent, 22 March 2006
  10. ^ a b Chris Henretty, Public Broadcasting and Political Interference, Abingdon: Routledge, 2011, pp.112-13
  11. ^ a b John Simpson, Unreliable Sources: How the 20th Century was Reported, London: Macmillan, 2010, pp.441-42
  12. ^ a b c Nick Robinson, Live from Downing Street: The Inside Story of Politics, Power and the Media, London: Bantam Press, 2013, pp.204-5
  13. ^ Briggs History of Broadcasting, Vol V, p.897
  14. ^ Tony Benn, Office Without Power: Diaries 1968-72, London: Hutchinson, 1988, p.350
  15. ^ Henretty, Public Broadcasting and Political Interference, p.114
  16. ^ Bill Jones, "Broadcasters, Politicians and the Political Interview" in Bill Jones and Linton Robins (eds.) Two Decades in British Politics: Essays to Mark Twenty-one Years of the Politics Association, 1969-90, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992, p.61
  17. ^ Robinson, Live From Downing Street, p.206