There’s been a Dimbleby on air since before I was born but last Friday saw the end of that era when Jonathan retired as chairman of Radio 4’s Any Questions after 32 years. It’s a bit like imagining life in Britain once the Queen dies. The Dimbleby family has been intertwined with the history of the BBC, and major national events, since the second world war when Richard, the father, carved out his career as a war reporter, most famously from Belsen in 1945. Mere mention of the name conjures up those Reithian values — clear reportage, an intelligent and fair-minded assessment of what’s going on, and access to that information for everyone.
At the end of his final programme Jonathan reiterated the motto by which the BBC has been governed since Reith was in charge — education, information and entertainment — almost, it felt, as a rallying cry to all those who still believe in its relevance. Rise up and defend this appeared to be his parting words. ‘Radio 4 is the jewel in the BBC’s crown,’ he declared. ‘For all its flaws, the BBC is a peerless public-service broadcaster.’ But, he added, it’s having to negotiate through ‘very choppy waters’. As I write no successor has been announced for Any Questions (or for the job of controller of Radio 4), which is odd. It’s like leaving the bridge of a great cargo ship unmanned.
Listening to his guests, those former political giants David Blunkett and Chris Patten, was also like going back to a time when politicians spoke some sense and had a sense of humour. In an answer to a question about the implications of what President Putin had said at the G20 Summit in Osaka suggesting that liberal values have become obsolete because they conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority, Patten said bluntly and boldly: ‘He’s a killer.’