31st January 1987

Police raid BBC Scotland HQ

BBC Scotland commissioned investigative journalist Duncan Campbell to research and present a six-part series called Secret Society, which would be broadcast on BBC Two. Each episode, to be aired in 1987, would look at an aspect of society that is kept away from prying eyes.

Unfortunately for the BBC, one episode, regarding the top secret Zircon spy satellite, attracted unwanted attention from the government, police, and security services, resulting on a raid on the BBC’s offices in Scotland.

Secret satellite

The programme outlined how the £500m cost of the satellite had been hidden from the Public Accounts Committee.

However, it wasn’t so much this revelation as it was the fact that the satellite itself had been revealed, which landed the BBC in hot water. The programme explained that as part of the effort to hide its existence several other communications satellites were being developed simultaneously. The hope was that if enough of the communications satellites were launched in quick succession, another one – Zircon – would be able to slip through unnoticed.

Pressure on the BBC

The government got wind of the programme and put pressure on the BBC to ensure it was never broadcast. This put the BBC, which should be impartial, in a difficult position, and it led to heated discussions at the Corporation’s governors’ meetings. Eventually, the governors decided to withdraw the Zircon episode from the series, although this action itself gained widespread attention as it was reported in The Guardian newspaper.

Video copies of the programme nonetheless leaked and, on 31 January 1987, Special Branch, accompanied by Strathclyde Police, raided the BBC’s Scottish headquarters in Glasgow. They took away boxes of evidence, footage, and production notes regarding the programme.

Times change

When the BBC appealed, the court ruled in its favour. The police duly returned the material that had been taken but, within a matter of hours, had obtained a new court order of its own and was back to reclaim the boxes of evidence.

The Zircon satellite was eventually cancelled and, the following year, the programme was at last broadcast. However, one other episode in the series, about secret Cabinet committees, was held back and has still never been shown.



Other events that occured in January

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