[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2006, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
BBC's dilemmas over revolution
By Charles Wheeler

Toppled statue in Budapest
A statue of Josef Stalin was pulled down during an early demonstration
Looking back at Hungary's revolution, it occurs to me how inadequate was our reporting at the time.

I'm thinking of what we might have done with the tools our successors use so effectively in Iraq and Afghanistan today. In 1956 the internet was science fiction at best.

So were satellite feeds, mobile phones and being able to transmit pictures from a laptop.

We did our best. BBC Radio sent its air correspondent to Budapest. Within hours of his arrival the airport was closed and international telephone lines blocked.

Television News didn't send anybody - apparently because Head of News saw the new medium as an unwelcome intrusion on his empire.

Fortunately, Panorama, where I was one of its six producers, was not in his control. We had what in those days was a rare possession: one of only two portable cameras owned by the BBC able to record synchronous sound on 35 millimetre film.

It was a bulky piece of gear - to fly with it we had to book cargo space - but it was irreplaceable.

Before leaving London I had to promise not to take it into Hungary.


Together with AA Englander, already celebrated for his art films, Robin Green, custodian of the sound camera, and our reporter, the Hungarian-born writer and humorist, George Mikes, I flew to Vienna.

We drove to the border, where the frontier police had joined the revolution. A convoy of Budapest city buses were loading medical supplies for hundreds of wounded in the capital's hospitals.

Reconstruction of Hungarian uprising
Hungarians are commemorating the bloody events of 50 years ago
We filmed some interviews with Hungarian doctors and an exhausted, tearful young nurse, who looked as though she hadn't slept for a week.

It was George Mikes, well known to Hungarian frontier guards for his regular broadcasts from London, who persuaded them to let us into the country.

Leaving the hired minibus behind - it wasn't insured for "riot and civil commotion" - we got a lift on a pile of coal in an open lorry. Losing my balance on a bend I dropped the camera's tripod overboard, smashing the head.

Englander, unfazed, dumped it in a ditch. He hand-held his unwieldy camera for the whole of the trip.

'Longed to travel'

We spent just over three days in west Hungary. The fighting in Budapest had already died down.

Russian troops had apparently withdrawn. Everyone we spoke to thought the revolution had succeeded.

At Sopron University students had taken over the town after locking up local party officials.

Our film was suddenly, bleakly out of date... and perhaps all the stronger for that
People told us how they had longed for years to travel, how they'd now be able read western newspapers and books instead of a diet of lies.

In Magyarova we filmed eyewitnesses of a massacre. They told us how the security police, the detested AVO, had machine-gunned a peaceful demonstration, killing nearly 100 unarmed men and women, and wounding many more, including several children.

And in the industrial city of Gyor we interviewed the elected leader of West Hungary's revolutionary committee, who complained that by intervening at Suez, and diverting world attention from Hungary, Britain had wrecked the revolution.

Soviet tanks in the streets
The protest was crushed less than two weeks after it began
"The Red Army will now be back. You'd better get out while you can," he said.

We flew back to London on Saturday, 3 November, sound camera intact. Overnight, the labs processed the film.

At dawn on Sunday four Russian divisions attacked Hungary with tanks, artillery and MiG fighter-bombers.

We heard the news that morning in the cutting room at Lime Grove. Most shattering of all was having to listen to the BBC's re-broadcast of those despairing appeals to the West for help, before free Hungarian radio went dead for the next 33 years.

Our film was suddenly, bleakly out of date... and perhaps all the stronger for that.

Suez reaction

In those days Monday's Panorama was a magazine programme of three or more items. We decided to lead with Hungary, follow with Suez and run an eve of the poll report on America's presidential election in third place.

Management intervened, ordering us to lead with Suez. We protested, pointing to the limitations imposed on broadcasters by the "Fourteen Day Rule", which banned comment and analysis of any subject down for debate in Parliament.

It would restrict us, we argued, to a bare report of the news by the BBC's defence correspondent, an ex-Admiral, over a map. "Just do it," said head of department.

"Our own boys are dying in the Middle East."

We returned to the subject of Suez a fortnight later, devoting a whole programme to worldwide reaction to Britain's role.

It turned out to be highly, indeed universally critical. There were outbursts from Conservative back benches.

But Panorama survived. The Fourteen Day Rule did not.

Charles Wheeler also reports for Radio 4 in the documentary, Hungary '56, broadcast on Monday 23 October and available online for seven days at Radio 4's Listen again page.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific