As he prepares for charter renewal, Director General Tony Hall could learn a lot from two new histories of the national broadcasterby John Tusa / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
Pinkoes and Traitors: the BBC and the Nation, 1974-87, by Jean Seaton (Profile, £30)
The New Noise: the Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC, by Charlotte Higgins (Guardian Books/Faber & Faber, £12.99)
When the BBC’s charter—the document that sets out its public role—comes up for renewal next year, its managers will have to define the purpose of a national broadcaster to a sceptical Tory government. How will they justify the licence fee in an age of media fragmentation, where the BBC is competing not only with fellow broadcasters ITV and Sky, but also with websites such as YouTube and Netflix? Are its most successful services—notably the BBC news website—unfairly dominating the media landscape? What kind of relationship should the BBC have with the government of the day? How does it get the balance right between elitism and populism, the familiar and the original, the unpredictable and the stale? More broadly how can it steer between its own tendency to smug complacency and compulsion for neurotic self-criticism?
Two new histories of the BBC offer a long perspective on these questions. Jean Seaton’s Pinkoes and Traitors: the BBC and the Nation, 1974-87 is the sixth volume in the official history of the BBC begun by the historian Asa Briggs. The book’s title is a problem. Denis Thatcher never called the BBC “a nest of Pinkoes and Traitors.” That’s what Private Eye imagined him saying. More importantly, Seaton records the post-Falklands War dinner when Margaret Thatcher accused the BBC’s Board of Management of “failing the nation.” Bill Cotton, the Managing Director of BBC Television, challenged her. “Prime Minister, are you calling the BBC traitors?” Thatcher was silenced. Is the title the publisher’s catchpenny fabrication?
Charlotte Higgins’s The New Noise ranges from John Reith to the present rule of Director-General Tony Hall. While lacking the analytical depth or originality of Seaton’s work, it is a useful reminder of some of the more lurid contemporary BBC crises and offers a broader framework for Seaton’s study of 1974-1987. How has the BBC survived the rows—with governments, the audience, itself? And the resignations? Each book ends with the fall of a director general, Alasdair Milne in 1987 and George…