BBC One resorts to rolling news to cover 1991 Gulf War

A new discovery on YouTube is a reminder of the degree of disruption to BBC One which was brought about by the 1991 Gulf War. To all intents and purposes, BBC One became a dedicated news channel during the opening stages of the conflict.

The Gulf War was the first major conflict to feature regular live coverage from the field of action. Many will remember two ways with reporters in Saudi Arabia and Israel as sirens sounded.

What seems incredible in retrospect is the extent to which the corporation’s major channel took on a very different character for a few days.

The Falklands War of 1982 was mostly covered within normal news and current affairs programmes, supplemented by news reports and special programmes.

Even the 2003 Gulf War or the September 11 attacks did not lead to the same ongoing level of schedule disruption. And the disruption following the deaths of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother lasted for a finite period of time and had, for the most part, been prepared for.

Several factors explain the situation in 1991:

Firstly, there was a fear the liberation of Kuwait could escalate into a much wider Middle East conflict. This combined with the primacy of news and  current affairs within the BBC at the time led to the establishment of a rolling TV news service. This, initially, ran for most of the daytime on BBC One and from around 11.30pm until the early hours of the morning.

VIDEO: Martyn Lewis presents the first Gulf War news report on BBC One in January 1991; followed by BBC One closedown and Pages from Ceefax. TX DATE: 17th January 1991. SUPPLIED BY: YouTube Channel – Anthony C. COPYRIGHT: BBC.
VIDEO: Nicholas Witchell closes an extended edition of BBC Breakfast News; followed by War in the Gulf (news coverage), presented by David Dimbleby. TX DATE: 17th January 1991. SUPPLIED BY: YouTube Channel – Anthony C. COPYRIGHT: BBC.
VIDEO: David Dimbleby closes War in the Gulf (news coverage); followed by BBC One continuity, detailing further schedule changes. TX DATE: 17th January 1991. SUPPLIED BY: YouTube Channel – Anthony C. COPYRIGHT: BBC.

Pages from Ceefax was shown overnight – partly to keep the network alive in case of an emergency. The flop of Daytime UK was conveniently dropped while CBBC moved to BBC Two. Meanwhile ordinary news programmes were extended too.

Interestingly, the conflict also saw the first regular use of the BBC corporate logo in news programmes since the early 70s – notably the ‘BBC Live’ DOG which appeared during two-ways.

But note too the effect on what remained of the regular schedule – on the first day of the war, all light entertainment was dropped. Top of the Pops was replaced by the regional news and an unscheduled Wildlife on One replaced a comedy.

This was down to a fear that developments in the Gulf – including, perhaps, large numbers of British casualties – would have rendered light entertainment inappropriate or tasteless.

Luckily, as the conflict progressed, it became clearer that Operation Desert Storm was not going to escalate into the conflagration some had feared.

The evening schedule returned to normal, save extended bulletins. The late-night programme became a simple news summary before closedown.

Gradually some daytime programmes returned – a handy excuse for the revamp of Daytime UK. And a month later BBC One and BBC Two’s new idents were introduced as planned.

Together these are a reminder of the conflicting demands on the national broadcaster during a time of crisis.

The demand for news can clash with the attempt to preserve normality. The need for entertainment or cheerful programmes – so important for mental health in disturbing times – can be awkward when there are fears for lives.

As a footnote, the conflict led to a new service from BBC News – early morning bulletins at the weekend started that autumn.

But until this year, 1991 marked the biggest amount of ongoing disruption to BBC TV caused by a news event.

Acknowledgements

FEATURE IMAGE:

PICTURED: Martyn Lewis presents one of the first Gulf War news reports in 1991. SUPPLIED BY: Online. COPYRIGHT: BBC.

Posted by Andrew Nairn

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