Knowing when to quit is important in politics, as we’ll discover in the aftermath of this general election. But it’s true in political broadcasting too; and this election is likely to see the last outing for David Dimbleby as anchor of the BBC’s results programme. It has been a remarkable run: this is his tenth general election, and he first presented the show when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979.
I say ‘likely’ to be his last because we’ve heard that before. When I was still a BBC executive, it was widely believed that he had agreed, perhaps reluctantly, with the then-director general Mark Thompson that a successor would take over for the 2015 election. But after Thompson departed, Dimbleby was among those hailing the appointment of Tony Hall to replace him: “A brilliant choice,” he proclaimed. “It feels like being in the Royal Navy when they were told, ‘Winston is back!’” Winston duly reinstated Dimbleby to the election hot seat.
When the 2015 campaign started, the BBC announced that it would be his last results programme; and Huw Edwards, who already handles royal events in addition to the flagship News at Ten, would take over in future. This still seemed to be the position of the BBC press office up until the moment when the 2017 snap election was called, at which point there was a reverse ferret and a 78 year-old Dimbleby was once more called into action.
Dimbleby is, of course, one of the all-time greats of broadcasting. He has lived up to the name of his father, and he has managed any rivalry with his younger brother Jonathan in a way that has ended up with one presenting Question Time each week and the other Any Questions. But David’s admirers should be hoping that this really is it, and that there might be a graceful farewell in his closing script on Friday morning.
This isn’t because he’s in any sense losing it. It’s about leaving while you’re still near the top of your game, and allowing fresh talent to come through. There’s a perpetual challenge in broadcasting where as an editor you want to retain the faces and the voices that are known and loved, but you equally want to do justice to the next generation. For managers, navigating through this minefield of ‘who does what’ can provoke accusations of ageism or sexism; but what matters most is the quality of the programmes, and the ambition you can offer to audiences. That isn’t achieved by retaining every octogenarian who still might want to broadcast.
There is already one example of how Dimbleby’s presence affects the rest of the casting. Andrew Neil, the interviewing star of this campaign, has been shunted into the Friday daytime coverage. Although his replacement Mishal Husain is excellent, my bet is on there being a bit less edge to the political drama than if Neil were there; and the decision was almost certainly taken to avoid the programme being dominated by two elderly men.
But for Dimbleby there is, happily, a role that should continue anyway. The stand-ins on Question Time, including this week’s appearance by Nick Robinson, have shown that it’s a show where Dimbleby remains the master. It’s a tricky balance between challenging the panel and enabling the audience to have their say, and Dimbleby gets it right. His handling of the May and Corbyn special was exemplary. So let him continue to be a weekly presence on the BBC; and this Friday we can raise a glass, too, to an election presence in five different decades that will almost certainly never be seen again.