An incalculable number of trees have been hewn down recently in order to provide paper for people writing lengthy, largely admiring books about the BBC. There have been at least five since Charlotte Higgins’s eloquent but slightly eccentric study This New Noise in 2018, including The War Against the BBC by Patrick Barwise and Peter York and The BBC: Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills. I suppose it would be both cruel and facile to suggest that ending the licence fee might turn out to be the UK’s greatest contribution to reducing global warming.
David Hendy’s offering is subtitled ‘A People’s History’, but I have no idea what that means exactly. Luckily for Hendy, it was published in the week that the government announced a freezing of the licence fee, together with some vaguely baleful threats about what might happen to this anachronistic tax a few years down the line — thus placing the BBC once again at the centre of the national political debate.
That the government is motivated by an animus against the corporation is without doubt. That the said animus is at least partly justified, and shared by much of the population, is less a matter of contention than would have been the case even ten years ago. Hendy’s book might, then, be an epitaph — a fitting one, too, seeing that the author is as incapable of discerning a left-liberal bias in the BBC’s output as are the employees of that benighted institution, despite study after study and report after report which surely prove the case. That, in the end, is the BBC’s big problem — a lack of self-awareness which verges on arrogance.
It is Hendy’s problem, too. This is a lucid, well-researched, middlebrow account of the corporation’s history; but it is largely devoid of any new insight into what foreigners (we keep being told) consider our country’s greatest asset. We are taken into the dusty cupboards of Savoy Hill, the BBC’s first proper home in 1923, situated off the Strand, where the first producers wrestled with the notion of what the BBC should be about, having been handed a blank slate by the government. There is a parade of its early patrician giants: Cecil Lewis, a pilot who miraculously survived the first world war; ‘Uncle’ Arthur Burrows, who read the BBC’s first ever news bulletin in 1922; and of course the truly magnificent and very strange John Reith, a giant of a man perpetually ‘wracked with a progressive and almost pathological despair’.
As Hendy recounts, back then the BBC was at pains to be uncontroversial. This was partly a consequence of the ‘anti-competitive’ newspaper proprietors blocking it from covering news properly, to the extent that initially the corporation had no journalists working for it whatsoever. News bulletins were allowed only after 7 p.m. and even then they were wonderfully anodyne — if they existed at all. On 18 April 1930, the BBC’s news bulletin at 8.45 p.m. stated simply: ‘There is no news.’ This despite workers on a hunger march from Yorkshire to London and striking millworkers in Bradford — enough to keep Emily Maitlis shrieking for at least a fortnight.
The problem was that by then the BBC was already running into trouble with the government, having been released from its original requirement — under the regulatory administration of the Post Office — to abstain from ‘topics of political, religious or industrial controversy’. In a sense this is the focus of Hendy’s book: a battle between the BBC and successive (largely Conservative) governments that wanted to restrain its political commentary, which even in the 1930s came largely from the left, and all the while a hostile press voicing its opposition to the corporation for both ideological and commercial reasons.
Winston Churchill was the first politician to become infuriated by the BBC, during the General Strike of 1926. He insisted that it echoed the British Gazette — a pro-government rag he had founded. Lord Reith refused. But gentle suggestions by the BBC that they might be allowed to interview the Labour party leader Ramsay MacDonald were dismissed by Stanley Baldwin with the observation that such an item would not be useful. And so only government voices were heard.
During the second world war, the BBC — by this time with a healthy (or unhealthy) contingent of commies within its ranks — baulked at the idea that it should simply be a ‘government mouthpiece putting out unmitigated propaganda’, preferring to ‘tell the truth... even if the truth is horrible’. There was a foretaste here of its difficulties in later wars, most notably the Falklands. The problem which Hendy does not quite tease out, perhaps because he does not want to, is how the BBC slides, sometimes imperceptibly, from its commitment to telling the truth during times of crisis to being an unwitting advocate for our country’s opponents through its relentlessly negative coverage — all enabled by our singular commitment to freedom of speech. It never quite seems to get the bigger picture or understand the nuance.
And so to the present, with the BBC facing its most serious crisis since its inception 100 years ago — one occasioned by the increasingly incontestable left-liberal drift of its drama, comedy, documentaries and news and current affairs programmes, and a changing market in which a straight tax on everyone who wants to be connected to the outside world seems a little de trop. Hendy will have none of it: there was never any bias in the past, and there is no bias now. It is a standpoint so purblind as to devalue his entire undertaking. Yet, as I mentioned, it is a failing shared by almost all who work at the BBC. They do not think they have a bias because the corporation’s vast bubble agrees within itself about more or less everything. In a moving, and I think sincere, postscript Hendy acknowledges the lost opportunities, (non-political) flaws and top-heavy bureaucracy — while reminding us of Joni Mitchell’s line that ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’.
Well, perhaps. But the BBC has latterly been the architect of its own demise: the right has merely helped it on its way. And there are many — including those, like myself, who are not Conservatives — who would concur with Norman Tebbit’s description of the ‘insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of third-rate minds of that third-rate decade, the Sixties’. Oh yea, and yea again.