By Oscar Jelley
The BBC: A People's History
David Henry, Profile Books, 2022
This is the BBC
Simon J. Potter, Oxford University Press, 2022
The BBC turns 100 later this year, but the government has wasted no time in ruining its party. Culture secretary Nadine Dorries announced in January that the licence fee, the Beeb’s primary source of funding since its inception, would be frozen for two years, telling the press that it could be scrapped when the BBC’s royal charter runs out at the end of 2027. This latest threat to the Corporation’s future invests the centenary discussions of its past with a particular urgency.
Readers of two new histories of the BBC by David Hendy and Simon J Potter will be anxious to know how they should view the Beeb’s legacy, and whether they should be concerned that its status as a publicly funded broadcaster is now at risk. Though neither book was written in time to register the significance of Dorries’ ultimatum, their assessments of the BBC’s present predicament are no less gloomy for that. The Conservative Party has had the Corporation in its sights for long enough that both histories have been written with a keen awareness that, pretty soon, the past could be all that the BBC has.
Hendy, a former BBC employee turned media historian, claims to have written an ‘authorised’ history of the Corporation. Nevertheless, he is keen to emphasise that this does not make him the BBC’s stooge: it may have put a few useful archives at his disposal, but at no point did it force his hand. While Hendy’s claim to relative autonomy is believable, it’s unlikely that higher-ups in the Corporation would find much in his book to take issue with anyway. His tone is generally conciliatory; when he addresses one of the many recent scandals that the BBC has had to contend with, his own authorial viewpoint disappears in a welter of other people’s accusations, apologies and tentative mitigations. Even when he does take it upon himself to criticise, say, the BBC’s current affairs journalism for its habitual political bias, he makes sure to bolster his position with defensive quotes from Corporation insiders.
Of all the sources that Hendy was ‘authorised’ to examine, the Corporation’s Oral History Collection receives special praise. This treasure trove of filmed interviews with former staffers is invaluable to ‘a people’s history’, a subtitle indicative of the book’s preoccupation with both the BBC’s employees and its audience. In practice, the former hog the limelight. Whenever possible, Hendy tries to tell the Beeb’s story through the people who have worked at the Corporation across its 100-year history in all kinds of capacities: ‘Director-Generals, yes,’ as he puts it, ‘but also editors, producers, presenters, engineers, secretaries, even telephonists and lift attendants.’ This conceit lends the book a sense of vitality that an institutional history might otherwise lack, but all too often, it also leaves it feeling like little more than a patchwork of anecdotes. Hendy may think this appropriate; he makes a convincing case for the BBC itself as an organisation that performs best under conditions of unruliness and sprawl. Applied to his own tome, however, this commitment to letting it all hang out mostly renders the timeline hard to track and the author’s views on the Corporation’s changing character frustratingly scattershot.
If A People’s History is a patchwork, then Hendy’s stitching also leaves his material bunched in some places and baggy in others. Of the book’s not-quite 600 pages (admirably compact considering how much ground there is to cover), over 100 are lavished upon WWII – roughly the same amount given to its account of the past four decades. It’s true that this latter period, in which the BBC has been forced to adapt to the new neoliberal order under Thatcher, is a less thrilling narrative than the Beeb’s fight against fascism, but it is also far more relevant to an understanding of the Corporation’s current state.
In 1993, Hendy tells us, then Director-General John Birt ‘turned the BBC’s entire operation … into hundreds of separate “business units” that were then required to buy and sell each other everything from programmes and services to studio slots and office stationery’. This was followed by the decision in 1996 to draw a dividing line between the programme commissioners and the production departments, freeing up the commissioners to solicit programmes from commercial production companies. Though pessimistic about these developments, Hendy declines to explain whether he thinks that they have had a negative impact on programming, or why, despite his insinuations that Birt’s neoliberal reforms transformed the BBC, he remains a fan of the Corporation. I would have been more than prepared to forfeit a few anecdotes about the Blitz for a fuller treatment of these issues.
Potter’s book is about half as long as Hendy’s, and so, at first, I suspected to find it either grossly truncated or possessing TARDIS-like properties. As it turns out, This is the BBC is leaner because its author takes the opposite approach to Hendy, almost completely ignoring the Beeb’s day-to-day operations, and providing instead a general characterisation of the attitudes and programmes defining the Corporation across a series of neatly delineated historical periods. The result is a work that is evenly paced, quite impersonal, clear, sober and, ultimately, arid. Reading Potter’s book before Hendy’s is a bit like watching the same TV programme twice: the first time on a black-and-white set, quiet, small and unspectacular, the second on a full-colour widescreen with the volume cranked up.
All the same, Potter’s clinical account has its strengths; like a good physician, he is not squeamish about sticking in the scalpel to reveal some grisly realities. Distinguishing his book from Hendy’s is a consistent focus on the historic propagandist role of the BBC’s overseas broadcasting. Potter explains with clear concision how the Corporation began to collaborate with British civil servants during WWII to create propaganda for the Allied war effort, its international programming funded for this purpose through a direct government grant-in-aid rather than the licence fee. Potter claims that this programming rarely distorted the facts; to me, the Beeb’s behaviour during this period seems both unsurprising and defensible. Yet the British government realised that the reputation for reliability that the BBC had built during WWII could be exploited for other ends, continuing the grant-in-aid during the Cold War period, when overseas services aimed to undermine existing Communist regimes and promote democratic, capitalistic values behind the Iron Curtain. However one feels about the Soviet Union, most readers will surely be left discomfited by the fact that the BBC, an organisation which has always trumpeted its own impartiality, was for many decades so effective an instrument of British foreign policy that Potter labels it a ‘Cold War weapon’.
In recent years, the BBC’s role in domestic politics has also become a thorny issue across both sides of the political spectrum. To somewhat oversimplify things: left-wingers think the BBC is too right wing, right-wingers think it is too left wing, and thus, as anyone in the centre can tell you, impartiality reigns. Yet, in his book Hendy points to a Cardiff University study suggesting that, in 2015, right-wing think-tanks were referenced with far greater regularity than left-wing ones in the BBC’s news and current affairs programmes. He also alludes to ‘an unhealthily busy trade in personnel between the upper reaches of the BBC and the Conservative Party’. That dig would certainly apply to the BBC’s current Director-General who, both writers point out, served in the 1990s as a Conservative councillor. Hendy also laments that the BBC’s journalistic wing increasingly takes its cues, and indeed its staffers, from Fleet Street, which is famously right-leaning. None of this means that the BBC has become a straightforward mouthpiece for the government or the Tories; indeed, like much of the press, it finds plenty to criticise, particularly about the Prime Minister. But it does seem clear that a combination of a tabloid mindset and a complacent acceptance of certain ruling-class assumptions are reflected in much of the BBC’s journalism, which often seems obsessed with parliamentary theatrics and comparatively indifferent to the profound inequalities within British society.
With all this in mind, the obvious question remains: why are the writers of these books, who both appear to be left-wing progressives, dismayed by the prospect of the Beeb’s demise? One plausible reason is that their faith in the BBC’s role as a force for good in the realm of education and culture outweighs its political failures. Perhaps the most important luxury granted to the Beeb by the licence fee is a degree of insulation from the vicissitudes of the market, which have freed it up to worry less about ratings than its commercial rivals and to hold its output to other standards. Historically, one of the BBC’s priorities most clearly benefitting from this arrangement has been ‘paternalism’, the belief that audiences profit from being given not just what they think they want, but also what they do not think to want, and sometimes even what they think they do not want. This attitude can, of course, go hand in hand with po-faced snobbery and an underestimation of the average person’s powers of discernment. But it can also be viewed positively as a desire to take audiences seriously, to broaden their horizons. Hendy’s enthusiasm for the democratic and egalitarian thrust of such an ethos is apparent throughout his book, an air of optimism that Potter, too, exudes when he writes in his conclusion of the BBC’s ongoing mission ‘to create a more interesting, challenging and inclusive society and culture’.
Indeed, for armchair idealists like myself, one of the great pleasures of reading these books is the infectious sense that there truly are possibilities in TV and radio broadcasting that the Beeb is uniquely poised to realise. I began to daydream about an ideal Corporation: an organisation committed to developing the cultural, intellectual and emotional sophistication of its viewers and listeners in all directions, by commissioning programmes ranging from the popular to the recondite, the humdrum to the surreal, the tried and true to the wildly experimental, with no time for the outmoded distinction between high- and lowbrow.
Its output would represent life in Britain as it is, emphasising both what is good in our nation and what is deeply wrong, as well as giving audiences a window into new, different and better ways of doing, thinking and being. Importantly, it would also acknowledge that there is more to life than what any broadcaster or streaming service has to offer, a priority I found charmingly emblematised by the desire of Doreen Stephens, a 1960s department head, quoted in A People’s History, to aim for ‘a constantly diminishing audience’ who would be ‘so stimulated to new activities that they had no time to turn on their sets’.
At this point, I was jolted out of my reverie: who can really imagine anyone at the BBC saying this today? The tricky thing about harbouring ideals is that it is hard to know when you have left the realm of ambition and crossed over into fantasy land. Though Hendy and Potter’s books both make clear that the BBC has never had a de facto monopoly on British TV and radio listeners, it is arguable that, until recently, it did command enough of an audience to risk alienating a few people from time to time in the name of challenge and stimulation, without really needing to worry that they would not come back. Paternalism made sense in this context, as did the aspirations of Doreen Stephens.
But in a post-internet era, how much mileage do these ideas really have? What would be the point in the BBC producing the kind of universal programming catering to all tastes and reflecting Britain in all of its diversity and possibility if it were only to go unheard or unwatched? Perhaps it makes more sense, as the government has recently suggested, for the Corporation to focus on creating the kinds of programmes that make it ‘distinctive’, and to leave Netflix and its ilk to take care of the rest?
There is no doubt that these are relevant and pressing questions, and it is frustrating that the people currently posing them most insistently are those, like Nadine Dorries and her Conservative colleagues, who are clearly hostile to the idea of a publicly funded national broadcaster. Anyone who thinks that the BBC still has something to offer in the age of Web 2.0 needs to think hard about how its values can best be served in a broadcasting landscape that bears about as much resemblance to that of a hundred years ago as the iPhone does to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. If they do not, they risk looking like fogeyish nostalgics, while the Beeb’s adversaries are allowed to command a monopoly on the language of modernity and innovation.
Thankfully, some BBC hopefuls are already thinking of improvements. The Media Reform Coalition recently outlined an extensive plan for what they call a ‘People’s BBC’: a radically democratised Corporation, severed entirely from the government and directly accountable to the British electorate. One of their proposals is to replace the licence fee with ‘a progressive licence pegged to household council tax bands, so that wealthier people contribute more,’ an aim that puts them in the advantageous position of being able to advocate public funding without having to defend a regressive flat tax. One might dare to hope that British viewers and listeners would be more inclined to choose the BBC over commercial broadcasters and streaming services if, in a meaningful political sense, it actually belonged to them. Although at the end of his book Hendy calls for ‘an outbreak of people power,’ he does not mention the MRC, and neither he nor Potter, whatever their enthusiasm for the Beeb’s historic values, entertain any especially fresh ideas as their narratives reach the present. Readers of both books are likely to conclude that the BBC needs to draw on more than just its past if it is to secure its future.
Oscar Jelley reads German and Philosophy at Christ Church. He is not appreciated.
Artwork by Nia Large