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The BBC and Downing Street, a history

THE Herald’s Letters Editor will be horrified, but the only time I ever sent a letter to a newspaper I hadn’t even written it. This was back in the 1980s at the height of the miners’ strike and a couple of my fellow film and media students at Stirling University wanted to challenge the idea that media coverage of the dispute was in any way objective towards the miners. I was more than happy to sign.

I thought of that letter for the first time in years while reading David Hendy’s fine new history of the corporation, The BBC (Profile Books, £25), a not uncritical but compelling account of the organisation’s story in this, its centenary year. Inevitably, in its pages claims of bias in the BBC coverage of news events is a regular occurrence.

From the General Strike to Partygate, political leaders from all sides have always enjoyed having a pop at the institution. Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher in particular had an animus for Auntie Beeb, and the current hopeless incumbent of Number 10 – for reasons of ideology, political expediency, malice or deflection – is following in their footsteps. The government’s ongoing culture war – led by culture secretaries Oliver Dowden and now Nadine Dorries – has found the BBC a very handy whipping boy. But then the organisation has long been painted by Tories as a den of lefty liberals or “woke warriors” in the parlance of the day.

It’s always been mostly nonsense. The BBC is at heart a conservative (with a small C) organisation. Hendy even quotes Lord Reith welcoming the news that the opening of a service in Cardiff in the BBC’s early days would, he hoped, “do much to combat the doctrines of Communism and Bolshevism so sedulously preached there.”

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There has also always been a tendency amongst politicians to conflate BBC News – just one part of the organisation – with the BBC as a whole. For most of us, the BBC is as just as muchRadio 1 and 2 (and Radio 3 and 6 Music and Radio Scotland) as the Today Programme and more Strictly than Panorama. Indeed, Strictly is the ultimate BBC programme, you could argue, something that is both socially progressive in terms of some of its contestants, but ultimately a deeply old-fashioned, even nostalgic format, dressed up with a bit of glitter and celebrity. “America has Hollywood and Britain has the BBC,” former BBC One controller Bill Cotton once said.

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In short, you do wonder when politicians start to threaten the future of the BBC if they really understand what they are threatening? As Hendy points out, in 2020 91 per cent of UK households were still using the BBC despite all the alternative options we now have in this multimedia digital world we live in. The licence fee may be a historical anomaly but the public service ethos that has gone along with it has done much to drive the quality of British television. Last year, Hendy reminds us, economists calculated that for every £1 the BBC spends it is worth £2.63 to the wider economy.

But there is a bigger question you have to ask about the ongoing Tory attacks on the BBC. For a party that makes such a huge play on its patriotism is it not bizarre to attack one of the few proper symbols of Britishness the country has left? One could even ask where does the idea of Britishness exists outside the NHS and the BBC? Right now, it’s certainly not in 10 Downing Street.

The BBC: A People’s History by David Hendy, Profile Books, £25

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