Book review: The BBC: A People's History, by David Hendy

David Hendy’s history of the BBC is both engaging and fair, writes Allan Massie. It is very much the case for the corporation, but it is a case which needs to be made

David Hendy PIC: Tim Stubbings
David Hendy PIC: Tim Stubbings

David Hendy puts the question in his first sentence: “Is a history of the BBC even possible?” One sees his point. More than 60 years ago the historian Asa Briggs was commissioned to write an official history of the corporation. It took him five years and five volumes. Hendy has dealt with a much longer period in a fifth of the length. There are inevitably omissions – BBC Scotland, for instance, is ignored, though the relationship of the BBC to the question of Nationalism and the Union surely requires some notice.

For most of us the BBC means the programmes we watch and listen to. No coherent history of programme-making is possible. Hendy remarks that the BBC has transmitted “somewhere between ten and twenty million programmes”. All the historian can do is pick out some of the more popular plums and comment briefly on them, and also consider a few which provoked public and political concern or anger. He does this sympathetically, but many will look in vain for his view of things they have enjoyed or disliked, approved or been angered by.

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Much of his history deals with the internal politics, structures and ambitions of the corporation, much also with its relationship to the state and especially the government of the day. It should be said that in trying to please everybody and act as a national institution the BBC probably irritates everybody, some of the time anyway. That said, it remains a largely popular national institution, in this being like the NHS, widely criticised and yet highly valued.

The BBC: A People's History, by David Hendy
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The BBC was granted operational independence from the start. It has never been a state broadcaster. Consequently politicians have always tended to view it with suspicion. Governments resented its policy of even-handed balance. Though Conservatives regularly charge the BBC with left-wing bias, Labour Prime Ministers, especially Harold Wilson, have been just as critical. If the BBC is indeed left of centre in its political attitude, this is partly because there have been more Conservative than Labour governments, partly perhaps because of the imbalance of the predominantly right-wing British press. Hendy treats this question fairly.

How the BBC should be financed has been a question for years. It is easy to see why many resent and disapprove of the licence fee. It made better sense – good sense indeed – when radio and television were all but a BBC monopoly. Now, with the proliferation of media channels, it is more difficult to justify what is seen, with some reason, as a sort of poll tax. Nevertheless no satisfactory alternative – that is, one which protects the independence of the BBC and also its commitment to quality programmes – has been found.

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The recent announcement by the Culture Minister, Nadine Dorries, that the licence fee will be scrapped in 2027 is no more than kite-flying, since neither she nor her party may be in office then. Hendy’s book was of course already in print, but, usefully, he recalls that Margaret Thatcher had the same intention. She set up a committee, chaired by Sir Alan Peacock, described by Hendy as “a Scottish economist of unimpeachable free-market credentials.” It was expected to recommend that the BBC should be financed by advertising. It declined to do so. Sir Alan’s report “proved a bitter personal disappointment to Thatcher.”

Hendy has written an engaging and, to my mind, very fair book. He isn’t blind to the BBC’s failures or to the follies, misjudgements and sometimes misdemeanours of some BBC employees. If the earlier chapters, covering the early years when John Reith was director-general, are of particular interest and have a narrative sweep missing in the later parts of the book, this is surely because it was then a much smaller organization with a more clearly-defined character than the great sprawling animal the corporation was to become.

I suspect that many readers may baulk at reading the book from beginning to end as the story becomes more detailed and often confusing, but most will surely find pockets of interest throughout, dipping in how here, now there, perhaps with recourse to the index. It is very much the case for the BBC, but it is a case which, with things as they are, needs to be made; and Hendy makes it well.

The BBC: A People’s History, by David Hendy, Profile Books. 538pp. £25

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