Joan Bakewell: We need to keep the government’s hands off BBC news

"The government always continues to be outraged by the BBC and is intent to squeeze it. Never more so than now"

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It is “absolutely essential” to keep the government’s hands off BBC news programmes despite increasing attempts to “squeeze” the broadcaster, veteran broadcaster Joan Bakewell has claimed. 

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Bakewell, 83, called on the public to help safeguard the broadcaster’s flagship news coverage. 

“It continues to be the jewel in the crown of BBC reputation throughout the world,” she told an audience at Cheltenham Literature Festival.

“I mean the Americans are in awe of it, the Russians are in awe of it, the East European states, the Baltic states, Africa – they all know that BBC News is the gold standard of broadcasting.

“It is absolutely essential that we keep the government’s hands off that, without doubt – and you may be called on to support various moves to sustain the BBC.”

Bakewell, who has previously slammed the government for “foisting the cost” of the free licence fee for over-75s on the BBC, said the broadcaster had never been under such pressure. 

“The government always continues to be outraged by the BBC and is intent to squeeze it. Never more so than now,” she explained. 

“Government, of course, has its interest in the purse strings – always has had the purse strings of the BBC. And always, has always used those purse strings to leverage concessions from the BBC. Always.

“Churchill demanded of [BBC Director General] Lord Reith that, during the general strike in 1926, he should allow the government to come in and take over. And Lord Reith refused.

“So there has always been tension there about the government wish to control the news. Of course, because it affects their destiny.”

But with many BBC programmes now made by independent companies (the Great British Bake Off by Love Productions, Pointless by Endemol UK, Poldark by Mammoth Screen…), Bakewell is concerned that something vital has been lost.

“The core of BBC, the programme-making factory, dramas, light entertainment, quizzes, all that kind of thing – that is fading, that is virtually over now,” she said.

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“So change has really seized hold of the broader BBC. But what we are now finding we cherish is this hard core of inalienable current affairs.”