How sinisterly Orwellian is the BBC at projecting and protecting its own image? The BBC: A People’s History, a Corporation-commissioned book marking its 100th anniversary on October 18, provides abundant clues.
Investigations reveal that the Corporation, chillingly echoing Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, has maintained for decades a shadowy network of so-called ‘official historians’, perhaps centred in the Director General’s office, to sing its praises and to belittle and undermine its critics.
In January 2016, a press release from the University of Sussex trumpeted that former low-to-middle-ranking BBC producer David Hendy, then Professor of Media and Communications at Sussex, had been appointed ‘as [sic] the BBC’s latest official historian’ and would write an ‘authorised history’ of the Corporation to be published in 2022. Press officer Jacqui Bealing said that Professor Hendy was particularly proud to be following in the footsteps of the late Asa Briggs, a Sussex Vice-Chancellor who wrote a gargantuan five-volume history of the Corporation covering the years 1922-1974. These books, too, were commissioned by the BBC. The 2016 press release was rounded off with a quote from Robert Seatter, said to be Head of BBC History, who declared grandly that the book would ‘capture the transforming power of the BBC broadcasting in Britain and the wider world’. How Mr Seatter came to be appointed to his role and the exact job remit is a mystery, though a profile of sorts here describes him as a ‘reader, actor and animator.’ According to LinkedIn, in BBC Director General Tim Davie’s office there is also a ‘history manager’ named John Escolme.
In becoming a BBC ‘official historian’, Hendy joined another Professor of Media Studies (at Westminster University), Jean Seaton, who in 2015 published a sixth volume of history of the BBC, covering 1974 to 1987. I described it on TCW as ‘a claws-fully-out attack from someone who clearly hates Margaret Thatcher’.
In that leftist-hagiography sense, Hendy’s 638-page tome does not disappoint. This ‘official historian’ pulls no punches when it comes to describing Mrs Thatcher’s approach towards and impact upon his beloved BBC. He asserts that when she came to power in 1979, despite the BBC offering such ‘golden era’ programmes as Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff, Mrs Thatcher wanted ‘drastic reform’ and for a decade created an atmosphere in which the Corporation operated which was a ‘a potent brew of political, commercial and personal hostility’.
Also in Hendy’s sights is Winston Churchill. Almost every reference to him, beginning with his alleged assaults on journalistic freedom in the BBC’s handling of the General Strike of 1926, is peppered with insults, including that he was a ‘blustering’ bully. Hendy claims that Churchill thought the Corporation was a ‘hotbed of Communists’ and then contends that the BBC broadcast of his ‘finest hour’ speech in 1940 was not his finest hour at all and showed an ‘obsession with Empire and British race’. Hendy adds that wartime listeners preferred radio talks by the socialist writer J B Priestley.
Space does not permit detailed exploration of Hendy’s book, but it can it can be distilled as follows:
- Nasty forces of conservatism conspired throughout BBC history to muzzle its journalism and limit unreasonably the licence fee, with Thatcher and Churchill heading the rogues’ gallery. Special opprobrium is heaped on Lord Rees-Mogg, ex-editor of the Times and a BBC trustee in the Thatcher era, with a quote from Deputy Director General Alan Protheroe that he was a ‘malevolent man’ who disliked the BBC to his very core and soul – ‘if he had one’.
- For a century, the BBC has heroically fought – after a shaky start until it became a Corporation funded by the licence fee – to champion the authentic voice of the British people, and to the disgust of the ruling class, has managed to do so with landmark programmes such as Cathy Come Home and Boys from the Blackstuff.
- The Corporation is a national treasure which must be preserved at all costs.
These broad-brushstroke propaganda arguments are supplemented by a self-congratulatory 100th anniversary section of the BBC website comprising 100 faces, 100 voices and 100 objects which was partly curated in association with Professor Hendy.
Back to the book, and Hendy proselytises throughout his narrative that the BBC is popular and meets audience needs. He avoids contemporary evidence of rapidly falling audience figures and a huge decline in public trust in its impartiality, reflected for example in an Ofcom News Consumption survey in 2021, in which only 55 per cent of those surveyed rated the Corporation’s record on impartiality to be satisfactory.
His approach towards those he sees as enemies of the Corporation is particularly simplistic and egregious. He claims that ‘academic study after academic study’ has established that the BBC output in recent years has tilted to the right rather than the left. Close scrutiny reveals that his findings are based on just three carefully selected surveys, each of which News-watch has demonstrated is based on deeply flawed methodology: for example. here in a Civitas paper.
Footnote: True to form, no financial or other contractual details were disclosed when Mr Hendy was appointed ‘official BBC historian’. To remedy the deficit, News-watch is filing a Freedom of Information request about the deal.