An angry dispute about a television program on secret spy satellites has stirred fundamental questions about the correct relationship between the British Broadcasting Corporation and the British government. The dispute led to an unprecedented raid on the BBC's offices in Glasgow during which three vanloads of program material were taken away by special branch police. It later escalated into a full-scale confrontation as the BBC complained about unreasonable police intrusions and the government rejected opposition charges that state power had been used to interfere in the corporation's affairs.
Trouble began when the government complained about BBC plans to screen a program on Project Zircon, a top-secret British spy satellite. The BBC agreed on security grounds to drop the program, which was part of a projected six-part series entitled ``The Secret Society.''
But Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist who wrote the series, gave the essence of the Zircon program to a left-wing weekly, the New Statesman. This prompted the special branch - a part of the police used in security matters - to search Mr. Campbell's home, from which they took away a lot of material.
Later, special branch men went to Glasgow and, armed with search warrants, removed material about all six programs in the ``Secret Society'' series. The raid, which lasted 26 hours, provoked a huge uproar.
The Labour Party said the controversial Official Secrets Act had been used on a police ``fishing expedition.'' When the issue erupted in the House of Commons, the speaker unusually agreed to opposition demands for an emergency debate.
Home Secretary Douglas Hurd denied that government ministers had ordered the searches of Campbell's home and the BBC's Glasgow offices. He said the police had acted correctly throughout, and that no political orders had been given.
Amid uproar, opposition leader Neil Kinnock said: ``The Prime Minister is killing the rule of law and, with it, the reputation of the police. Why does she not stand up and admit that she initiated all this? It is nothing to do with national security.''
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded that the program material seized by police was being examined for possible breaches of the Official Secrets Act. There had been no ministerial orders given to the police. But her reassurances failed to still the complaints.
Among points at issue were:
The BBC's status as a broadcasting organization free, under its charter, from government pressure and interference;
The role of special branch, an elite police group about whose operational methods the public knows little;
The precise way in which orders had been given to carry out a major search of BBC premises.
On the last point there was a huge amount of confusion. When police arrived in Glasgow to conduct their search, the BBC challenged the search warrant. A second warrant was obtained, but its terms were incorrect. Only when a third warrant, authorizing a search under the extremely broad terms of Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, arrived were the police able to take away what they wanted.
The thoroughness of the search prompted suggestions that the police were looking for evidence that might lead them to the ``mole'' who had tipped off the Zircon program's makers that the spy satellite project was in an advanced state.
The police search of the Glasgow office came after a week of high drama in the affairs of the corporation. Three days earlier, Alasdair Milne, the BBC's director general, was forced to resign. The BBC board of governors demanded his resignation following a series of government attacks on the objectivity and accuracy of BBC programs under Milne's leadership.