Jonathan Dimbleby is flying the flag for the BBC with The BBC at War which starts on Sunday night and charts the Corporation’s struggles to report the news truthfully and fairly during conflict and emerge as an international broadcaster of high repute and independence.
The documentary is timely too, lodging the story of one of Auntie’s finest hours in the minds of the politicians who will decide its fate in a year when its Royal Charter is up for renewal – a turning point which could see the government deliver a punitive licence fee settlement to the BBC.
Speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com, Dimbleby said that “the nation would lose massively if the BBC were to face any kind of demise”.
In a wide-ranging interview to promote his new series, the author and presenter said that the freezing of the licence fee – which is capped at its 2010 sum of £145.50 until 31st March 2017 – is already damaging it.
“I believe that while there are powerful vested interests who would like to see the BBC denied a licence fee [and] without a licence fee, the BBC could not do what it does. It’s stressed at the moment.
“There are cuts still coming. And in some parts of the BBC’s output, not least in radio – of which I am very familiar – and in television, those cuts are pretty close to the bone. Of course, more can be done, but there comes a point where that crossover between savings, proper savings, and weakened programmes, means that the BBC really is editorially diminished and weakened. And if you’re not careful you get a vicious circle and people say it’s not as good as it was, let’s get rid of it.
“The BBC has enemies, it has powerful enemies. It has powerful enemies in the press and powerful enemies in Westminster. Some for ideological reasons, some for straight commercial reasons.”
Dimbleby added that his new BBC2 series, which charts the growth of BBC journalism during World War 2, demonstrates the importance of what the Corporation does.
“The essence of the BBC, and this is what the war established, is it has the potential to do top quality journalism. It is widely regarded as doing the best broadcast journalism. At your peril do we bring about a situation in which that is undermined.
“The war was the making of the BBC. It established it could report massive global affairs with authority and integrity.”
Asked whether the government could increase the licence fee when the new settlement is decided at the end of this year, Dimbleby insisted that the vast majority of people in the UK are happy to pay the sum to keep the BBC going.
“The viewers are not anti. You can ask a silly question – do you want the licence fee to be cheaper? – and they won’t say they want to pay any more money. But ask whether they trust the BBC or want the BBC to continue and the answer is an overwhelming ‘yes’.
“Those anti the BBC are noisy people in the media who get a disproportionate amount of publicity in my view. They are very powerful vested interests who know if the BBC wasn’t there they could fill the gap with inferior products that would be cheaper to produce, probably not living up to the standards of impartiality that the BBC aspires to, and would provide a service that would lead people to say they didn’t realise how good it was until we didn’t have it.
“I do not believe the licence fee is toxic. It is toxic to some. The great majority are prepared to pay the licence fee and believe that at around 40p per day it’s cheaper than chips.”
“For me, regardless of what the BBC becomes, [The BBC at War] was a reminder of how the BBC became a globally and nationally trusted institution. It was in the back of my mind, not the foreground. I thought it was a very good story to tell.
“There are things wrong with the BBC. Heaven knows, the bureaucracy can still be slimmed. There are too many individuals who are not doing much who are pushed from one job people don’t want them in into a job that is not vital. Too many bullets of that kind are bitten. But I am sure that is a problem that can be tackled and will be tackled.”
The BBC at War starts on BBC2 on Sunday night at 9pm
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