For almost half a century, David Dimbleby was the face and voice of BBC TV for all the great events of state that a national broadcaster is expected to cover – and to cover well. Overwhelmingly, the BBC has covered them well, in no small measure because it could count on Dimbleby’s impartial authority, well-researched knowledge, wide viewer appeal and good humour.
He anchored his first general election in 1979, a tricky debut since it was the seminal watershed which swept Margaret Thatcher to power on a night when a chunk of Britain’s chattering classes thought (or hoped) Jim Callaghan’s exhausted Labour government might still, just, cling to power. He quickly demonstrated he was a safe pair of hands.
He was still at the anchor desk for Theresa May’s car crash in 2017, his general election swan song, by which time he had guided the country through just about every state occasion, royal, constitutional and political, the British system throws up, including results shows for two referenda on Europe. Though others had taken his place for the Queen’s funeral last year, he was still the “voice of the nation” when she was finally put to rest at Windsor Castle in the most moving part of that sad, historic day.
Keep Talking: A Broadcasting Life is Dimbleby’s gentle journey through all of that, and more. His broadcasting spanned an incredible 70 years (he started as a child) so there’s plenty to write about, even if we are not graced with any great revelations or insights in this memoir, more a series of tales and observations than an exhaustive autobiography. When he does show us some leg, the view is fascinating. He reveals himself to be a supporter of proportional representation and something of a closet republican. Neither case is developed in any depth but what he argues is interesting nevertheless. I suspect he wants us to know he is not quite the Establishment Man his on-air persona would have us believe.
He hails, of course, from broadcasting aristocracy – his father, Richard, was the “voice of the nation” before him. He’s unconvincing in arguing this didn’t give him a leg up. He already ticked every box the BBC then required when he began his career: leading public school, Oxbridge, posh accent, a certain air of superiority. Add a well-connected, famous father to that formidable mix and it’s clear it could do him no harm.
But it does not explain why he still dominated the BBC’s coverage of flagship events 50 years later. Connections mattered then (and still do now, if to a lesser extent) to get across the BBC threshold. But once you’re in, the BBC is pretty much a meritocracy. Dimbleby ruled the roost for so long because he was the best at what he did (for the BBC – I still regard my mentor and friend, ITN’s Alastair Burnet, as British broadcasting’s most accomplished anchorman).
His book rightly reminds us that his career has involved a lot more than just being a TV studio frontman. He recalls his time doing what Fleet Street would regard as proper journalism: reporting, often in dangerous situations, from South Africa, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Albania and with a resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the American South.
He was more mischievous that you might think, recalling taking kaolin and morphine into Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is banned, when he was filming in 1965: “Left to settle, the kaolin sinks to the bottom of the bottle and the clear dark morphine rises to the top, a perfect substitute for my favourite malt.” Visiting a nightclub in Miami popular with the Kennedys, he tells us: “I only remember it for being propositioned by a mother and her daughter – jointly.”
He is his own worst critic, which is healthy in a journalist, especially a broadcast journalist. For example, he berates himself for not delving enough in Saudi Arabia into torture, imprisonment without trial or women’s rights: “A grave omission and the BBC were right to comment that it was not the penetrating examination of the country they had been hoping for.”
He laments the loss of the long-form interview, in which a senior political figure is grilled for half an hour or more. It used to be a staple of British public-service broadcasting, from John Freeman to Brian Walden to John Humphrys (BBC1’s On The Record). Like me, he is at a loss to explain why this is no longer the case, since they’re cheap to do, there’s an audience for them, and they should be a core competence of public-service broadcasting. An inexplicable lacuna.
He was annoyed the BBC picked up David Frost’s breakfast show when TV-am lost its licence because “the BBC would never again persuade senior politicians to come to Panorama, which I was presenting at the time – if they were offered the easier option of talking to Frost … Sure enough, our supply of politicians to Panorama began to dry up.”
In fact, though he rightly argues that “the brief and breezy chat on the breakfast sofa plays into politicians’ hands”, it is unfair to include Frost in that. His interviewing style was very different from Dimbleby’s and even more so than mine. But, over the years, Frost got politicians to reveal many things they did not intend to reveal.
He is not uncritical of the BBC – “an organisation where advancement comes from second-guessing what the layer of management above you wants to hear, an organisation with layer upon layer of decision-making that can stultify originality and risk-taking” – but at heart he is a BBC man, as you would expect of a BBC lifer. He shares the BBC’s world view on most matters, from a distaste for Fleet Street proprietors (though once a minor newspaper proprietor himself ) to a detestation of Boris Johnson. Unlike newspapers, he claims, “the BBC is different. It cannot be squared” by politicians.
There is some truth in this, but it is not the whole story. He clearly hasn’t run the idea of how easy it is to square the Tory press past Theresa May, Boris Johnson or Rishi Sunak. Nor is the BBC quite as “unsquarable” as he makes out. It can buckle to political pressure too.
It’s a great pity Dimbleby never became director-general or chairman of the BBC. He would have given it clarity of purpose and direction. But, self-deprecatingly, he says they thought “I could not be trusted to run a whelk stall”. Whatever the truth of that, the BBC will need someone of Dimbleby’s stature in the years ahead if it is to survive the travails that await in the rest of this decade and the next.