Book Review- “The BBC- A People’s History”

by Hal Conte In Peter Pomerantsev’s book on Russia and so-called “post-truth politics”, he recounts how his father and other Soviet dissidents considered the British Broadcasting Corporation as a light of unshakable truth in a society that could only consider its own, propagandistic media through a cynical and post-ironic lens. David Hendy’s new book on […]

by Hal Conte

In Peter Pomerantsev’s book on Russia and so-called “post-truth politics”, he recounts how his father and other Soviet dissidents considered the British Broadcasting Corporation as a light of unshakable truth in a society that could only consider its own, propagandistic media through a cynical and post-ironic lens.

David Hendy’s new book on the BBC, “The BBC- A People’s History” (2022) aims to remind readers, in the year of the Corporation’s centenary, the reasons it has become a trusted, almost familial presence (“Auntie”) in the lives of people across Britain, and like Pomerantsev, in locales across the globe.

Although a not-inconsiderable 638 pages long, Hendy’s book is a breeze to read, starting by evoking the coming of radio and the forceful personalities- above all, Lord Reith- that created the initial British Broadcasting Company as a group of start-up geeks might assemble a killer social media app.

Attempts to hint at parallels between issues the BBC confronted in its early history, including regulation, content moderation, and steering listeners away from charlatans such as Nazi-backed propagandist Lord Haw-Haw, and the challenges information researchers and society are trying to answer today, run through the book.

It is wonderfully detailed even as it retains this larger historical perspective, granting the reader access to the headquarters and lives of the Corporation through the early years of radio through the Second World War.

The BBC’s wartime role is convincingly presented as a European story, not just a national one. A cast of refugee intellectuals, political leaders, and charismatic personalities – above all, Charles De Gaulle – gave a flame of inspiration and crucial tactical information to resistance fighters across the Continent.

This combination, and occasional clash, of hard-nosed officials and national imperatives with egalitarian-minded, daring individuals in and out of Broadcasting House, is another red thread that runs through Hendy’s history.

One might think such a combination could end disastrously, and at various points throughout the BBC’s history, Establishment government imperatives and the BBC’s ideal of presenting a neutral public service appear  to strain against cultural revolutionaries and prophets of private industry alike.

The network kept overtly racist, minstrel-inspired programming on the air until long after it became unacceptable after the racial recognitions of the the 1960s, a particular stain among a litany of cases in which the Corporation became stuck in habit. At the same time, Alasdair Milne’s oversight of provocative documentaries and TV episodes aimed at the Thatcher government resulted in his sacking — and the move by the Beeb to adopt a more market-friendly, less high-minded agenda.

The global imperatives of the BBC, as a tool of the Atlantic alliance and liberal international order Pomerantsev views through a sepia-coloured pair of spectacles, might be seen differently in some countries, such as Iran, where the network acted as an instrument of disruption by the CIA.

Hendy is not uncritical of the BBC’s darker moments and times it has capitulated to government pressure. But in recounting the Corporation’s coverage of the undoing of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, he demonstrates to readers that didn’t live through those events the importance of the BBC on both sides of the Iron Curtain during that pivotal arc.

Many of the stars are here – David Attenborough, Richard Clark – (although not Adam Curtis) – and Hendy provides an intriguing inside view of how then-Director-General John Birt’s journey to California and meeting with technology theorist Nicholas Negroponte, author of “The Daily Me”, resulted in the corporation’s smashingly successful internet services, culminating in iPlayer.

Although not timed as such, the book is a timely intervention in public debate over the BBC’s future, as Conservative Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries threatens to eliminate the licence fee and replace it possibly using ads or a subscription model.

These two ideas are discussed, and rejected, by Hendy. He argues passionately that the Beeb provides a service that no analagm consisting of a paid “public” TV, populist private networks, partisan papers, and social media sewage could.

Yet based on the book’s organisational structure, readers might be forgiven thinking that the BBC’s heyday ended decades ago. Of 571 pages devoted to the text, 289 are discussions of the network between the 1920s and the end of the Second World War. The eight decades since are given over to the years since then. Although cat-and-mouse games of evacuation and occupation of a Blitz-bombed headquarters make good story material, the Germans occupy too much of the book as they occupied too much of Europe. As a result, discussions of how the Corporation covered key events such as the 1970s “Winter of Discontent” and the Miner’s Strike are overlooked.

Additionally, constraint refrains by the author that the Corporation, at each crossroads and issue of controversy, has continued aligning to Reithian principals, appear so frequently as to raise a twinge of doubt in the reader. As a “people’s history”, the book should arguably have been released as a paperback, as the £25 price is going to turn off some from purchasing this authorised study. That would be a pity.

At the present moment, the BBC appears to be at a crossroads. Conservatives and Brexiteers alongside Labour’s remaining Corbynistas criticise its programming, not always inaccurately, as hopelessly biased against populism and Establishment/City-and EU/”Blob”-aligned. Traditionalists consider the concentration on racial and LGBTQ topics “woke” and tiresome. At the same time, the relaunch of BBC 3 as a youth-demographic channel has been met with a shrug among many in its intended audience.

But especially amid crises- which seemingly have come one after another since the 2008 financial crash- the BBC has time and again reminded the people of Britain, the West, and globally, of its irreplaceablity.

Students forced into “zoom school” by the government’s coronavirus mandates received essential education over the service. BBC reporters have, without fear or favour, gone into the most dangerous locations such as Afghanistan and Ebola-impacted Africa, and regularly shine a light on secretive organisations including Stonewall, contradicting claims the channel cannot honestly challenge the preconceived beliefs of metropolitan listeners.

Radio 3 and Radio 4 especially carry on high-class production values unmatched by commercial channels or personalised podcasts.

In their twilight years, Attenborough and Curtis continue to produce epic documentaries on the age’s most important topics- climate change and the impact of finance and technology. There is little doubt they won’t be followed by equally skilled successors. The question is, in an environment of splintered, rather than centralised, media, if they are going to be able to replicate the widespread trust across society their predecessors achieved and remarkably maintain despite intensified politicisation of environmental and social issues.

Underscoring Hendy’s argument is that the BBC, amidst an information glut as much as it did during periods of information scarcity must be able to act as this service of last resort. His book admittedly veers into hagiography at times, and may be unlikely to convince those predisposed to bash the Beeb. But regardless of one’s opinions on particular aspects of the Corporation’s contemporary output, it is undeniable it is the only entity in the UK capable of fulfilling this public-interest role.

“The BBC- A People’s History” is available here on the publisher’s site

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