Taken for granted by millions across the globe to be an objective, neutral source of information, the BBC has struggled to retain this image of impartiality for the public good. It has recently been at the centre of a number of controversies, from whether to broadcast an appeal to generate aid to those in Gaza to discussions surrounding the sacking of Carol Thatcher for her inappropriate comments made ‘in private’. Speaking to Jonathan Dimbleby, a BBC veteran of 40 years, recently provided an insight into this institution.
Dimbleby was largely responsible for activating the first ‘television’ catastrophe, which raised over $150 million in relief funds for the Ethiopian famine that had claimed upwards of 100,000 lives by 1973. Since this appeal our screens have seen countless disasters and corresponding relief efforts and I wondered if he thought that viewers had become jaded. ‘They are, but I think it’s inevitable because that was more than 30 years ago.’
He still believes in the dominance of television to shape public opinion through the power of its images, although concedes that the press determines the opinions, thoughts and feelings of those who are in power, so ultimately has more influence. Ever the optimist, Dimbleby insists that ‘continuing catastrophe, war, disaster and poverty does make people weary, but they simply can’t bear to see the suffering.’
The level of protests against the BBC over the decision not to broadcast the Gaza appeal shows that the general public do care. Within three days the BBC had received 11,000 complaints over the decision, and thousands more followed. The assessment by the BBC that this would compromise its impartiality has been fully understood by few, a fact emphasized by Dimbleby.
‘If I was asked to defend the BBC’s position I would simply have to repeat what the DG has said. And I’m afraid I don’t understand it anymore than that. Do I feel passionately that the innocent victims of conflict should be in receipt of funds to help them get back on their feet again? Yes. Do I believe that impartiality is important in the BBC? Yes. Do I believe that there was some conflict between helping deliver those funds and obtaining the recognition of impartiality? Over to the BBC.’
Quick to defend the BBC from actual Israeli influence, Dimbleby reiterates that he’s seen no evidence to support allegations that ‘the BBC was running scared of the Israeli government and Zionist pressure. I hope very much that there wasn’t any pressure because I think that it would be quite disgraceful of any government that says that it is seeking to help the victims of a war which it describes as a necessary war, to then put pressure on the BBC.’ Jonathan Dimbleby has defended the BBC from allegations of bias before, most recently over accusations of its favourable representation of the royal family. A friend of Prince Charles since the early 1990s when he wrote his biography, Dimbleby insists that the BBC scrutinises the monarchy just like any other institution.
But back to the million-dollar question of the role of the BBC. The public service mandate that the BBC uses to justify the licence fee requires the BBC maintains accuracy and impartiality as well as high standards for a broad range of audiences. Dimbleby broadly supports this remit, agreeing that ‘the quality of the programmes is indeed supreme.’ He is also in favour of the public service element of the mandate, and as presenter for ‘Any Questions?’ for the past 20 years he has been able so see the way in which this has developed within the BBC.
A large part of the public service grant of the BBC involves the opinions of viewers and listeners, leading to the introduction of ‘Any Answers?’, the follow up program to ‘Any Questions?’. This relies on so-called ‘green ink,’ a term that is used to refer to the somewhat unconventional views of some listeners. ‘Green-ink’ is something he defends under the umbrella of public service and recognises the added benefit that listeners with life experiences of some issues can bring to the discussion. Although he does recognises that this can sometimes be a ‘mixed bag.’
The meaning of public service is a cause for debate; should it give the public what they want, or should it provide an opportunity for new additions to the broadcasting spectrum? ‘Public service can’t be defined by the fact that it reaches a larger audience. That’s the sort of, the lowest common denominator viewer, and anyone can reach a large audience.’
The competition among other broadcasters for viewers however, has left the BBC in an awkward position. Ratings have become relied upon and some see them as a justification for the idea of public service, while others have criticised the BBC for appealing to the mass market. ‘There is a permanent tension between delivering high quality programmes that may be attractive only to a minority on the one hand, but on the other the need to maximise ratings to demonstrate it justifies the licence fee.’
Obligated as we all are to pay the licence fee, commentators such as Charles Moore have voiced their disgust at the use of it to fund £6 million per year salaries for the likes of Jonathan Ross who, he believes, betray the values the BBC is supposes to uphold. So how should the licence fee be justified?
‘My own view is that in the short term, medium term and long term the BBC will only survive if it is absolutely distinctive, even if that means that its audiences are not maximised. Anything the BBC does that could be done equally well elsewhere is not a good argument for the licence fee.’
Cynics may criticise Jonathan’s idealistic faith in the future of the BBC and its remit, but the BBC undeniably needs supporters with strong, positive vision to ensure its values are retained. For the BBC to defend itself to politicians, and the general public, it must achieve something different. Without promoting a new purpose the heritage of a state funded broadcaster becomes questionable. ‘The essence of the BBC is quality and distinctiveness and the courage of what it does. So that everyone looking at the BBC says ‘no one else would do that, and it’s very important that they do.’’