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On this day 100 years ago, the BBC transmitted its first radio programme.[1] ‘Designed to represent the nation to the nation, the world to the nation, and the nation to the world’, the BBC had grandiose aims from its inception.[2]

Funded by a license fee, the BBC was able to avoid ‘the damaging limitations of commercial advertising and direct dependence on state revenue’.[3] It was therefore well positioned to fulfil its mission to ‘inform, educate, and entertain’ the public through impartial broadcasting.[4]

Vital to the success of the BBC was that its listeners and viewers considered its claim to represent the nation to be legitimate. The British public had to feel seen and heard by the company; after all it was their money that was funding the service.

Some believe that the BBC has been successful in such a task over its 100 year history. According to media historian Jean Seaton the BBC ‘has enriched democracy’.[5] ‘In serving audiences, irrespective of class, wealth, age […] as equal citizens’, Seaton argues that the BBC has acted as a representative for those otherwise lacking influence and, on their behalf, ensured the powerful were held to account.[6]

However, despite its seemingly positive implications for democracy, in recent years the BBC has been under increasing scrutiny.

For example, in 2020 the BBC faced claims that staff were irresponsibly posting their own personal views on issues such as Brexit on media platforms such as Twitter, breaking the corporation’s impartiality rules.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/, Today Testing.

This led to the belief that BBC content was being shaped by particular political perspectives, obscuring the opinions of those who disagreed.

The legitimacy of the BBC’s representative claims has therefore been challenged. This begs the question: does the BBC still fulfil its aim to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ the public? And has it indeed “enriched democracy”?

In the early years of the BBC, discussion of politics was a rare occurrence. However, this began to change during the 1950s. This decade marked a period of transformation in British political culture, with traditional forms of interaction between representatives and the represented, such as town hall meetings, being displaced by mediatized communication.

Faced with competition from the newly established Independent Television Authority (ITA), during the 1950s and 1960s, the BBC broadcasted innovative programmes that more openly held political representatives to account, and even facilitated mediated interaction between politicians and the electorate.[7] This reflected what Martin Conway has identified as the move away from ‘formal democracy’ to a more pluralistic, participatory notion of democracy.[8]

However, with this more critical political coverage came questions regarding the legitimacy of the BBC as a representative of the British people. A prominent example of this can be seen in the public’s response to the BBC’s coverage of the Falklands War in 1982.

The tabloids published readers’ letters through which we see the public grappling with what they perceived as the BBC’s democratic duty. Many expressed feeling let down by the BBC’s coverage of the Falklands, due to it not being considered as representative of their beliefs.

For example, Mrs Norma Edwards told the Daily Express that she was ‘one of many people who rang the BBC to voice [her] complaints’ regarding their Panorama programme on the crisis. Edwards’ grievance was with the ‘so-called “fair” and “balanced” view’ of the BBC, which she considered to be inappropriate during this ‘worrying time’.[9]

A similar sentiment can also be seen in the Mail, who published an article questioning ‘whatever happened to the BBC voice of Britain?’.[10] Immediately, we see how the role of the BBC was understood as a representative of popular opinion. Thus, when its reporting was considered to be not ‘in the least bit representative’, it follows that the BBC had failed to fulfil its democratic duty.

The hypocrisy of the BBC, according to the Mail, of taking pride ‘in being the “voice of Britain”’, but to proceed to ignore ‘the opinion polls and everyday experience’ of the people was ‘a political decision of the gravest and most far-reaching kind’.[11]

Ultimately, the BBC was presented by the tabloids as undermining democracy as it had failed to place the voice of the people at the centre of its coverage. It therefore could not be considered as a legitimate representative. However, the obvious problem with this perspective is that it implies “the nation” can be conceived as homogenous, therefore not making room for the complex, pluralistic nature of society.

The crux of the issue here, and indeed in criticism of the BBC today, comes down to the question of what it means to be impartial. As Jim Waterson, media editor for The Guardian has noted, ‘who exactly gets to define what impartiality means? Which topics […] no longer require dissenting voices in the eyes of the BBC’?

Due to the idea of ‘due impartiality’, the BBC has been able to confidently ignore climate crisis deniers. Yet questions as to ‘whether staff can supportive active anti-racism campaigns or transgender rights’, remain under contention.

When discussing democracy, I prefer to avoid speaking of either success or crisis. Rather, I believe that it is better to speak of change.  

What is evident is that since 1922, when the BBC first began broadcasting, people’s understanding of democracy has certainly changed to become a more constant part of our lifeworld. Representation is therefore also considered as a more continuous process of claim making.[13] The current debates regarding the legitimacy of the BBC provide a lens through which we can better understand wider societal and political discussions regarding definitions of democracy today.


Jamie Jenkins is a PhD Candidate at Radboud University working on the Voice of the People project. Her interests include media history, political history and popular expectations of democracy. She is also the Assistant Editor of this blog. She tweets at @jenkinsleejamie.

Header image: The BBC logo used in the 1980s, https://commons.wikimedia.org/


[1] Simon J. Potter. The is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain? (Oxford, 2022).

[2] Jean Seaton, ‘The BBC’, in A. Boin et al. (eds.), Guardians of Public Value (London, 2021), p. 88.

[3] Ibid., pp. 89- 90.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 87.

[6] Ibid.

[7] For further information on this, see: Lawrence, John. (2009). Electing our masters: The Hustings in British politics from Hogarth to Blair. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Stephen Wagg, ‘You’ve never had it so silly: The politic of British satirical comedy from Beyond the Fringe to Spitting Image in Strinati, Dominic., & Wagg, Stephen. (n.d.). Come on down? Popular media culture in postwar Britain. London / New York: Routledge. (1992), pp. 254 – 284.

[8] Martin Conway, Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968 (Oxford, 2020), p. 8.

[9] ‘Letters’, Daily Express, May 17th 1982, p. 23.

[10] Anthony Lejeune, ‘Whatever happened to the BBC Voice of Britain?’, Daily Mail, May 12th 1982, p. 6.

[11] Anthony Lejeune, ‘Whatever happened to the BBC Voice of Britain?’, Daily Mail, May 12th 1982, p. 6.

[12] Jean Seaton, ‘The BBC’, in A. Boin et al. (eds.), Guardians of Public Value (London, 2021), p. 88.

[13] Saward, M., ‘The Representative Claim’, Contemporary Political Theory 5 (2006), pp. 297-318.

Tags : 100 years of the bbcbbcbbc at 100british historydemocracypolitical history
Jamie Jenkins

The author Jamie Jenkins

2 Comments

  1. If for no other reasons than its unceasing attack on the greatest democratic decision ever made by the British people and its uncritical adoption of the new religion of climate change, the BBC has irrevocably lost its right to claim to be an impartial reporter and should be de-funded.

  2. The left-wing BBC should be privatised along with Channel 4.

    There is no excuse for having a licence fee now that we have hundreds of television channels and the Internet.

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