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It’s the news, stupid

An Opinion Piece by Jean Seaton, published by Progressive Review

How war and the battle for truth shaped the BBC

“Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth. Without prompting the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run would be more effective… Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.”1

Impartial news that seeks to serve us is the only thing that steadies national life; this is what the BBC is for. At home and abroad, news and information are now in real time merged in the Ukrainian conflict. After decades of a kind of security, we now live in vertiginous, unstable times: the international order is topsy-turvy. Democracy is facing a tough test, by a new divisive nationalism, based on the opportunistic weaponisation of resentment against any available ‘other’.

“Impartial news that seeks to serve us is the only thing that steadies national life”

During wars and crises, impartial candid news is the glue that binds, the frank appraisal that prompts realistic strategy, the beast that slays fantasies and the touchstone of common facts and shared humanity. The most important thing the BBC does is tell the news as well as it can; the project is to investigate reality and show people what has happened without fear or favour. Public service news does not seek to monetise our attention, sell us to interested parties or shape us into fodder. And while the BBC may be the cornerstone, Channel 4 and ITV News are key parts of this, in an ecosystem based on the simple, but difficult to achieve, principle of reaching the widest possible audience with reliable and trusted information, allowing people to make up their own minds. We have never needed to ‘level up’ understanding more urgently than now.

“We have never needed to ‘level up’ understanding more urgently than now”

Jean Seaton

About Jean Seaton

Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History and the Official Historian of the BBC. She will publish in the Autumn of 2024 the next volume of the Corporations story, Holding the Line: the BBC and the Nation, taking Lord Asa Briggs work forward for Profile Books. This involves everything the BBC did in a tumultuous decade from the conflict in Northern Ireland, to the invasion of the Falklands, to Not the Nine O'Clock News, the Proms, the early music revolution, devolution, Dennis Potter's greatest plays, Attenborough's revolutionary series Life on Earth, and Radio 1s most influential moment, as well as the role of women in the Corporation, programmes for children and a tense and complicated relationship with the government. The historian was given privileged access to BBC archives, but also gained privileged access to state papers. For the first time the Corporation's history is seen in the round. It has depended on several hundred interviews, and explores both the programme making decision that go into the making of an iconic Television series like John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but also the high politics around the imposition of the broadcasting ban.


Jean Seaton
11 October 2022
Research Area
Published By
Progressive Review
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