There are three things everyone knows about the BBC and the Hutton report. First, this has been “the biggest crisis in the corporation’s history.” Second, Greg Dyke was a great director general. Third, the Labour government and the BBC were at each other’s throats over an issue of real substance. All three are wrong.
What we have just seen pales into insignificance in comparison with Margaret Thatcher’s attack on the BBC in the mid-1980s. Re-elected in 1983, with a huge majority of 144, her government went for the corporation. Neil Hamilton successfully sued the BBC in 1984 after Panorama broadcast allegations linking him with right-wing extremists. In 1985, the Real Lives documentary “At the Edge of the Union” was withdrawn by the BBC governors under home office pressure. BBC employees took to the gates of Television Centre with protest placards (sound familiar?). The Peacock committee was set up to consider alternative sources of revenue to the licence fee, threatening the lifeblood of the BBC just to make sure it got the message. When the chairman, Stuart Young, died in 1986, he was succeeded by Marmaduke Hussey in what was widely seen as a political appointment. The same year, Conservative party chairman, Norman Tebbit, attacked Kate Adie and the BBC at the Tory conference over their coverage of the bombing of Libya. Later that winter the “Zircon” affair erupted, ending with the sacking of director general, Alasdair Milne. Compared to this barrage of attacks on coverage, and veiled threats to the financial independence of the BBC, the complaints of Blair and Campbell are as nothing. Yet the history of the mid-1980s has been forgotten.
As for Dyke’s legacy, it is worth looking at the BBC news on the day he resigned. On the Six O’Clock News there was one foreign news story in half an hour: a two-minute report on a suicide bomb attack in Israel. There was six minutes of foreign news coverage during the Ten O’Clock News, but it began only 18 minutes into the bulletin. This parochialism was symptomatic.
Both news bulletins made reference to Dyke’s achievements in bringing sport back to the BBC. This at a time when Grandstand is on its knees, and when the BBC was showing the African Cup while its main rivals broadcast the Champions League and Premiership live. Most seriously, Dyke presided over the dumbing down of BBC television: the virtual…