David Dimbleby says BBC must focus on relationship with modern audience

Corporation celebrates centenary amid questions over its impartiality

Veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby has said the BBC plays an absolutely vital role in today's society, as the corporation marks its centenary. PA
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Veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby has questioned whether the BBC has succeeded in reaching all aspects of its audience.

The former Question Time host, 83, said the BBC plays an “absolutely vital” role in today’s society, as the corporation marks its centenary.

To mark 100 years, Dimbleby has fronted a three-part series, Days That Shook The BBC, highlighting the lowest moments in its history and how the broadcaster responded.

He said he expected the BBC to “heap praise upon itself” during the centenary celebrations, and instead of “just joining in with the eulogies of praise” he wanted to look at how it had responded when things went wrong.

He has focused on trust in the BBC, and controversies such as the Hutton Inquiry after the death of scientist David Kelly and the case of paedophile presenter Jimmy Savile.

“I also wanted to examine whether the BBC has been fairly or unfairly treated in the past, by politicians and by other pressure groups,” he added.

“I wanted to examine the BBC’s relationship with people across the country, given that it is paid for by everybody.

“I wanted to ask whether the BBC has got the relationship with its audience right.”

British journalist and television presenter David Dimbleby commentating on the arrival of the late president Richard Nixon for the BBC at Heathrow Airport in February 1969. Getty Images

Dimbleby first reported for the BBC in the 1960s and has played a central role in its political coverage since, most recently returning to commentate on Queen Elizabeth’s committal at Windsor Castle. Dimbleby retired from the topical debate programme Question Time in 2018, handing the reins to Fiona Bruce.

Since then he has helped produce a number of BBC programmes before his involvement in the queen’s state funeral — following in the footsteps of his broadcaster father Richard Dimbleby.

He said the BBC is as close to an “objective truth-teller” as is possible in the current media landscape, and “the one organisation that can be relied on not to have a political agenda.”

“The BBC’s only agenda is to try to get to the truth of things.

“It doesn’t have a political slant, it doesn’t have particular views it wants to get across.

“It is as near as we can get to an objective truth cashier.

“And I think, in a world where there is a cacophony of voices and a cacophony of different prejudices and opinions and distortions prevailing, it’s absolutely vital to have something where, whatever its faults, its intention is to strive to tell the objective truth.”

BBC though the years — in pictures

The BBC's impartiality was questioned most recently when government minister Jacob Rees-Mogg accused the corporation of speculation over why markets were in turmoil, rejecting the suggestion from Radio 4 presenter Mishal Husain that the chancellor's mini-budget was to blame.

Recent years have seen an escalation in the debate about how the BBC is funded.

Since 1923, it has received money through a licence fee which it says allows it to remain free of ads and “independent of shareholder and political interest”.

Anyone who watches or records programmes on a TV, computer or other device must buy a TV licence — along with those who watch or download shows on BBC iPlayer.

In January 2022, former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced the fee would be frozen at £159 ($177) for the next two years, until April 2024.

She said she wanted to find a new funding model before the current deal expires in 2027 as it is “completely outdated”.

Tuesday marks 100 years since the British Broadcasting Company was officially formed.

Dimbleby said it should not reflect too much on its history and instead look forwards.

He added: “Milestones are obviously a cause for celebration but actually, when you hit 100 years, what you should be looking at is the next 100 years.

“The past is very interesting but it is gone. It’s what it teaches us for the future that matters.”

The broadcaster also faces competition from the rise of streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon.

Reflecting on the milestone, BBC chairman Richard Sharp said: “The BBC is one hundred today – it’s a time to celebrate, but also to embrace the future.

“I believe its best days are ahead. We have always innovated, changed and adapted. Our path has always been guided by the needs of audiences. We are just as mindful of that today as we have always been. By continuing to put the public first, we will continue to inform, educate and entertain for another century.”

BBC director-general Tim Davie added: “With the BBC reaching the milestone of 100 years, our mission to inform, educate, and entertain, has never been more relevant or needed.

“For a century, the BBC has been a beacon of trusted news and programming across the world, as well as being part of the fabric of the UK and one of its key institutions.

“It has been a story of a devotion to public service and constant reinvention – which those in the BBC today remain utterly committed to. We exist to serve the public – doing that will guide the next 100 years.”

Updated: October 18, 2022, 5:12 AM