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The BBC’s moment of peril

A Letter by Jean Seaton, published by Prospect

Alan Rusbridger’s forensic investigation into the implementation of the Dominic Cummings plan to undermine the BBC is great journalism—and deeply alarming. The BBC’s supply of clean information—never perfect—is as much a utility as electricity or clean water. As the bedrock of public service broadcasters, the Corporation has saved us from the mess of American politics. Robbie Gibb’s murky political and commercial deals undermine an institution vital for our democratic survival.

How bad is this compared to the past? After all, Margaret Thatcher cleared the appointment of Marmaduke Hussey as BBC chair with Rupert Murdoch. But Hussey went native and ultimately fought for the BBC. The Gibb affair is on a scale far worse than anything we have seen before: not least because the attempt to cow the BBC is so sustained, distracting and successful. Such behaviour corrodes the nation. It is, after all, our BBC: for us, by us, about us.

The recent onslaught comes amid relentless opposition by commercially interested media rivals, as well as savage cuts, with real funding slashed by a dangerous 30 per cent between 2010 and 2020 and the government now breaking the deal on inflation indexing from April. Rusbridger correctly identifies the cutting of the cables of decency which made this possible.

In this atmosphere, it’s no wonder Lucy Frazer, the culture secretary, allegedly called in the candidates for the BBC chair to demand that they followed her own (narrow) view of impartiality. The BBC’s editorial independence is the cornerstone of everything it does: the detail is none of the minister’s business.

What can be done? You can design rules, but rules cannot always proscribe bad behaviour. Leadership, culture and behaviour are ultimately required. For now, we should demand a thorough investigation by public appointments commissioner William Shawcross (or someone else if he is conflicted). Any incoming administration must resist revenge while cleaning this mess up. The BBC has often been reformed and refreshed following a fine audacious report from an outsider. Well, in Rusbridger’s reporting we have the beginning of one. Now let’s act on it.

Jean Seaton, professor of media history at Westminster University and author of a volume of the official history of the BBC



Photo by Paulina B on Unsplash

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
8 April 2024
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