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The BBC: Guardian of Public Understanding

A Book Chapter by Jean Seaton, published by Palgrave Macmillan

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has endured as institution over the decades, surviving many challenges. Launched in 1927 as a British public service institution that would ‘inform, educate and entertain’, it has become a British institution that served the world. It enriched democracy by serving audiences, irrespective of class, wealth, age and any other division, all over the nation, as equal citizens. It has served the world by reporting expertly and fairly into many closed and authoritarian political systems and by displaying cultural ingenuity and sensitivity in doing so. It has held power to account and represented the interests and voices of the less powerful. The founders saw the BBC as an institution that would create informed public opinion as the basis for functioning democracy at a time of risk. They thought the Corporation needed to accumulate authority and trust to be an independent arbiter of information. The first and founding principle was editorial independence. Yet the trust and reliability that this engendered had to be remade time and again throughout its history.

These words open a new chapter on the BBC by Jean Seaton. The chapter, entitled The BBC: Guardian of Public Understanding is included in the new open access volume Guardians of Public Value, edited by Arjen Boin, Lauren A. Fahy and Paul ‘t Hart. The book as a whole presents case studies of twelve organisations which the public have come to view as institutions. From the BBC to Doctors Without Borders, from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra to CERN, this volume examines how some organisations rise to prominence and remain in high public esteem through changing and challenging times. It builds upon the scholarly tradition of institutional scholarship pioneered by Philip Selznick, and highlights common themes in the stories of these highly diverse organizations; demonstrating how leadership, learning, and luck all play a role in becoming and remaining an institution. This case study format makes this volume ideal for classroom use and practitioners alike. In an era where public institutions are increasingly under threat, this volume offers concrete lessons for contemporary organisation leaders.


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
18 November 2020
Research Area
Published By
Palgrave Macmillan
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