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25 November 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 2:16pm

“Avoiding debate is not good for democracy”: David Dimbleby on Boris Johnson and the BBC’s future

After 25 years of Question Time and anchoring ten general elections, the broadcaster discusses the government’s “dereliction of duty”, lockdown podcasting, and life after the BBC.

By Anoosh Chakelian

David Dimbleby has enjoyed isolation. A break from the news has been “quite a relief” for a broadcaster who has led coverage of every major rupture in British public life for more than four decades.

Blending old-school BBC demeanour with a fluent, conversational style, the 82-year-old has guided the nation through tumultuous times – including Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 and the EU referendum result in 2016. (“We’re out!” he declared with characteristic energy at 4.40am, sporting a tie patterned with pink sharks.)

After 25 years of Question Time – fielding increasingly impassioned audiences and wrangling motley panels – Dimbleby left the programme in December 2018. With 60 years at the BBC behind him, he watched the 2019 general election from his home in East Sussex: the first time he hadn’t anchored the corporation’s coverage since Margaret Thatcher’s election win in 1979.

“I thought, ‘Will I regret not being there in the chair?’ Actually, I didn’t regret it for a moment,” he told me, over a video call from a converted cow barn at his home. For more than 20 years, Dimbleby has lived with his wife on a farm by the South Downs. The only Question Time episode he missed was in 2009, after he was knocked out by a bullock he was loading into a trailer.

Wooden beams envelope a room crammed with artefacts: index drawers, an easel, figurines and an 1860 printing press from the Richmond and Twickenham Times, the newspaper he inherited from his father Richard in 1966. Born to a family of journalists, David made his BBC debut at 11-years-old in a travel programme.

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Now, however, he is discovering a “new way of communicating”. Having aired a successful six-part podcast about the life and influence of Rupert Murdoch last November called The Sun King, Dimbleby has been recording a new series from his home during lockdown looking behind the scenes of the build-up to the Iraq War: The Fault Line.

“It’s very seductive as a medium,” he smiles. “I was very aware that you’re talking to people who are probably riding the latest speed bike to work with their headphones plugged in, or somebody trying to get to sleep… It’s not like a television interview; it’s not confrontational.

“It’s all designed so that the listener of the podcast feels they’re being brought in, quite informally, into a previously unknown, private, secret world.”

In contrast, Question Time was more of a “crude representation” of news stories, but Dimbleby “never” became disillusioned with its format.

“Right through that period, I was handling angry members of the audience,” he recalled, finding 9/11 and the Iraq invasion “heightened” emotions on the programme. In The Fault Line, Dimbleby contacts an Iraqi Kurdish refugee called Freshta Raper whose moving intervention as a Question Time audience member in 2003 exposed the cruelties of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

[see also: Can the BBC survive in an age of fracture?]

He found the panels became “fiercer” from that period onwards. “The expenses scandal was a burst of outrage… The audience just went berserk with fury,” he recalled. “Brexit became crazy in the end because once the referendum was done, all we got was ‘get it done’. There was genuine anger.”

The BBC’s future is in flux, with a change of chairman next February, and the government currently consulting on the licence fee. A No 10 source warned in February: “We will whack it”. The Prime Minister even favoured the arch BBC sceptic and former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore for the role of chairman (he declined).

“I was certainly going to apply for the job and challenge him to a public debate about the role of the BBC,” said Dimbleby. “I didn’t want to be chairman per se, I wanted to be chairman to stop Boris Johnson” anointing someone who “hates the BBC”.

“Despite what Johnson and his cronies may think, I don’t think a full frontal assault on the BBC is ever going to happen,” he added. “If the BBC is not in conflict with the government of the day, it’s not doing its job properly.”

Nevertheless, he finds the creeping tendency of ministers to evade news programmes “anti-democratic”, noticing a “slight decline in the quality” of his Question Time panels.

Boris Johnson dodged interviews with the BBC’s Andrew Neil among others during the election campaign, and afterwards Downing Street boycotted Today, BBC Radio 4’s flagship political programme. No 10 even used its own in-house TV team for the Brexit night broadcast.

“It’s shocking and appalling,” said Dimbleby. “And a dereliction of duty, and an ignorance about the job of a politician.”

Speaking before the Prime Minister’s top aide Dominic Cummings resigned, Dimbleby said “advisers like Dom Cummings no doubt say ‘don’t do that, don’t do this’, the clever clogs who know how to win by deceit, these kind of propagandist forces around people who crave political power, like Johnson clearly did – it’s just wrong, and I think people should be marked down, actually, by the electorate.

“I hope it will dawn on people that the duty of a politician is to go out there and argue the toss, and you mustn’t trust a politician who won’t,” he insisted. “There must be something murky there, something they’re trying to hide, some sort of cover-up going on if they don’t submit to questions. Playing the game of avoiding debate is not good for democracy.”

During a recent episode of BBC One’s easy-going evening magazine programme The One Show, Dimbleby was cut off by frantic presenters mid-flow as he accused the government of “flailing round” and acting “off the top of their heads” in the pandemic response.

“We seem to be just all over the place here and I think it’s the government’s fault,” he told the show. “They began badly and they’ve gone on badly…” he continued, until he was told “David, we don’t really want to get into that”.

When we spoke, he returned to the topic, saying the government is “seen to be floundering and incompetent in all kinds of ways” in its handling of Covid-19.

[see also: First Thoughts: The right’s long march on Britain’s institutions]

“We were slow off the mark,” he added, reserving particular criticism for Boris Johnson’s triumphalist rhetoric. “A lot of silly analogies were made, the latest one being ‘the sound of the bugle coming over the hill’ or something – I don’t know what he’s talking about.” (In relation to news of a potential coronavirus vaccine, Johnson recently described “the distant bugle of the scientific cavalry coming over the brow of the hill”).

Having covered ten general elections, Dimbleby mused about how the public will feel ahead of the next one in 2024. “I would’ve thought people would be a bit wary of the sort of cheery flag-waving, ‘we’re world-beating’ [Johnson’s description in May of the beleaguered test and trace system]. Do people really think Britain’s ‘world-beating’? I can’t imagine many people do, I mean it’s just rhetoric, isn’t it? It’s nonsense. The idea everything has to be ‘world-beating’ is crazy.”

When the new director-general Tim Davie took over this September, he called the BBC “metropolitan-based”, and claimed parts of the country “don’t necessarily feel the BBC is for them”.

Yet Dimbleby is sceptical. “What Tim Davie hasn’t explained is what he wants to achieve by moving more of the BBC out of London… Time will tell if it’s cosmetic.”

Familiar with this preoccupation, he recalled the decision to move Question Time to Glasgow in October 2008 as part of an “Out of London” strategy. “It was absolute lunacy,” he said. “The politicians we needed to woo for the programme spent five days a week in London… To me, it served no point at all, in terms of broadening the consciousness or remit of the BBC, it was just tokenism.”

Tim Davie’s “real problem” regarding diversity is the “white hegemony” of BBC management, he posited. “That’s a big battle.”

Reflecting further on the challenges faced by the BBC, David Dimbleby – so accustomed to asking the questions – eventually threw up his hands in surrender. “I don’t know! I don’t know! Why do you ask me these questions? I don’t know anything about the BBC!”

The Fault Line: Bush, Blair and Iraq is available on Apple, Spotify, Acast and all podcast providers.

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump