Don’t carelessly jettison the European inheritance of the BBC in trying to modernise it (Part 2)

Part 1 can be read here.

The clinching factor for all continental Europeans from 1939 was the role of the BBC World Service during the Second World War; and the fact that the BBC World Service on medium wave could be received on car radios, and on transistors on European beaches and gardens in many of the present EU member states. The stupidest budget cut of the Coalition Government in 2011 was, in my eyes, cutting this medium wave availability, restricting the BBC World Service to local DAB+ stations, and to BBC4 at 4.00 o’clock in the morning.

Don’t underestimate the prestige and love that the impartial, objective reporting of news by the BBC (from disasters like Dunkirk to victories like El Alamein) acquired in occupied Europe, where all peoples suddenly lost freedom of speech and got 1984-like manipulated news. The BBC in 1939-’45 also hosted national exiled broadcasters in their own time slots, like Radio Orange for the Dutch. In so doing the BBC even helped establish an obstreperous French officer (marginalised in his army top brass; a political nobody) with a battlefield commission as a lowest tier general, as a pivotal figure in all French politics from 1944 until his death in 1969. The BBC thus helped form EU postwar history; ITV or Sky can’t possibly claim that.

The BBC programming and drama meantime had a huge influence on the continent; smaller national broadcasters such as those in the Benelux countries readily bought BBC programs and directly rebroadcast them or reworked them. I learned my first English from the BBC “Walter and Conny” language course around 1967. The socialist broadcaster VARA put out the Onedin Line; and the daily NTS/NOS radio and TV news readily quoted and quotes the BBC on British and international events.

The BBC has carried on the prewar role of The Times as a Dutch standard of quality journalism. The Times, often quoted before 1940, got too partial in Dutch eyes (we got to know British media better); the BBC kept its Dutch preference by its impartiality. Series like Dad’s Army, The Forsyte Saga (the 1967 BBC version), ‘Allo ‘Allo and formats like Have I got News For You and Newsnight were and are prominent on Dutch public TV. Monty Python was so popular here; John Cleese did an acclaimed string of TV commercials for our postal service, and Michael Palin has a ready-made audience for his travel stories.

Now that the American “Powers That Be” (David Halberstam’s 1979 book about Time,  CBS, Washington Post, LA- & NY Times) have been cast in the “enemy, fake news” category by the Trumpians, they have also lost traction among left and right wing populists here. But those populists and isolationists hesitate denigrating the BBC, because Roger Scruton, Malcom Muggeridge and liberal cosmopolitans like Ludovic Kennedy and Isaiah Berlin got and get equal billing. If the BBC were to turn into Cumming’s parrot, many centrist, liberal and leftist Europeans intellectuals and politicians will feel abandoned and orphaned, and Boris would lose big audiences.

ITV drama series like Coronation Street, Upstairs Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited and Downton Abbey taught us about British class culture, but lifted along on the Dutch success of the older BBC drama tradition.

So if Boris Johnson wants to be influential in the continental political and social debates, he better not tinker around too much with the present-day BBC; if he does, it’s at Britain’s peril.

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Dunkirk was not a disaster. It was a surprisingly successful rescue mission of an expeditionary force after the total failure and disaster of the Battle of France, inflicted by Germany on France.

  • Innocent Bystander 24th Jan '20 - 4:00pm

    I have always had a great admiration for the friendly hard working Dutch, with whom Britain has only had a few wars (mostly short and often ended in a draw) and I am grateful for the kind words about the BBC’s support when the Continent was in the thrall of the worst regime the world has ever seen.
    However, that was a long time ago and this affection hasn’t turned into any advantage to us in peacetime. The notion of ‘soft power’ is worth nothing to us, in fact it’s a poison, lulling us into a false sense of worth when our economy is collapsing around us.
    Boris does not need that influence, nor are we in peril. We won’ t sell one extra item of our production ( what little there is left) because of any interest in our TV shows. But thanks anyway, the BBC is doomed It only appeals to the elderly and the metropolitan left. Youth ignores it and it lurches from one self induced own goal to another.
    It will soon be part of our history.

  • richard undehill 24th Jan '20 - 4:05pm

    I have just finished reading “The Struggle for Europe” by Chester Wilmot (an Australian was correspondent attached to the BBC, travelling with the troops starting on D-Day for the Normandy landings. I notice that the Dutch resistance took control of a central telephone exchange, but there was also a Dutch SS. Flooding ‘polders’ was an available tactic. There is a detailed examination of Operation Market Garden (the film was
    A Bridge Too Far). Nine bridges out of ten were captured, not two out of three. Fog at airfields in England was an issue preventing air cover for long periods. The personalities of generals, Montgomery, Bradley and Patton are also explored.

  • richard underhill 24th Jan '20 - 4:29pm

    “Wars are not won by evacuations.” French evacuees were treated equally (PM WSC).
    An equivalent and opposite event happened on the Rhine, the Wehrmacht leaving equipment and ammunition behind.

  • richard underhill 24th Jan '20 - 4:43pm

    President Roosevelt’s terms of Unconditional Surrender were agreed by Churchill but stimulated German morale and played into Stalin’s hands postwar.

  • Bernard Aris 24th Jan '20 - 4:44pm


    the Dutch fought like hell to get the UK in the EEC (as it then was) when Macmillan and Wilson asked for admission (our Foreign Secretary Luns at times sounded like a EU Federalist fighting the Westphalian conception of Europe of De Gaulle); and every prime minister since John Major can vouch for reliable Dutch support in big EU debates; our navies (which as you know once burned each other down) work closely together. In Afghanistan we worked right next door: Uruzgan and Helmand.
    To keep that closeness going, Dutch ministers and policy makers continue to need a broad Dutch fundament of well-informed sympathy; and that fundament wiil erode once the BBC falls from its throne of journalistic excellence and using its worldwide correspondents network like Hanrahan, Mark Tully and Alastair Cook into a bucket of propaganda, Trumpisms and libertarianism.

  • Bernard Aris 24th Jan '20 - 5:01pm

    Don’t underestimate the influence of military preparedness. The Dutch were woefully badly equipped, and do I have to remind you that most Tory governments from 1933 totally laughed off warnings of Winston Churchill MP (and his network of Civil Service informants) about the speed and scale of German rearmament? The British in May 1940 had just started taking delivery of the first Spitfires being produced (a wonder that project wasn’t scrapped in the 1930’s).
    If I take your frame, the five (or four and a half) days the Dutch armed forces managed to resist a German onslaught (with Napoleontic canons blowing German armed trains from the rails) would be a source of immeasurable national pride.
    The well-informed German HQ reckoned they just would have to fight until midday on their Benelux invasion day May 10th (the day Churchill became PM); we got them a bloody nose, shooting down so many Junker passenger/paratroop planes they had trouble replenishing their arsenal.
    The present Dutch consensus is that it is a warning precedent to keep your defense equipment and apparatus up to date. Dutch troops are semi-permanently stationed in Poland and the Baltics…

  • Bernard Aris
    I have no doubt that the Dutch and the French acted with bravery, fought hard and should be proud of their troops. My point is simply that Dunkirk was the result of a disaster, but was not itself a disaster. Preparation, is not just a matter of equipment. The French had good tanks, good training, and good defensive instillations, but as is often the case they were tactically prepared for the previous war. Britain was not geared up for a war on European soil or as it turned out in Singapore (a very British disaster). I do think in both the Battle of France and against Japan there was a sort of imperial arrogance. The real myth of WWII is that Britain was a plucky underdog, when really it was, for its time, an advanced military power, with a huge navy and things like radar. America was also not prepared for WWII. Tactics and armament developed during the conflict as more was learned.

  • Innocent Bystander 24th Jan '20 - 7:35pm

    Bernard, and many thanks for all the friendship over centuries (overlooking of course, the 335 year long war between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly which thankfully ended in 1986).
    I voted with enthusiasm for the EEC and if it still existed we would still be in it.
    However, I, and many others, don’t want to have that soft power anymore. It’s illusory, not beneficial and gives us the wrong attitude to ourselves and hides us from the way we must change for a new century far away from the Blitz.
    If we have to have PBS it should be much smaller and not be involved in any way with entertainment. We can find that for ourselves without their advice.

  • I’m surprised by the hostility to the BBC revealed in comments on Bernard’s two posts. My observations under several heads:

    TORY CAMPAIGN: We are seeing a long-term campaign against the BBC by the Tories, one that reminds me of their campaign against domestic rates and for the Poll Tax.

    The strategy is to bad-mouth the BBC’s management and the licence fee. Neither is a necessary part of the BBC in particular, or public service broadcasting in general. Management can change and funding can be done in other ways if they really are a problem. But government doesn’t want to do that; they want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    By attacking management and funding, Tories aim to move the Overton window and give themselves a free hand to introduce whatever they like – on past form likely to be a privatised, dumbed down and more expensive option that’s lightly regulated meaning not really regulated at all. Oh! And while about it, why not abolish PPBs by accident on purpose? They could be replaced by paid political advertising on TV. Guess who that would help…

    TV is effectively a utility – something everyone must have access to on affordable terms. The licence fee is currently £154.50/year, under £3 per week which is fantastic value even for light users. For comparison Sky’s homepage offers packages *from* £22/month for 18 months (£264/year and 70% more than a TV licence) for a presumably basic service. The poor, including especially the elderly with limited mobility etc, would be very hard hit by any increase in costs. Are LDs again going to hold the Tories coats while they ratchet up inequality even more?

    Also, the much-touted ‘problem’ of pursuing non-payers through the courts is a problem of the government’s own making. In Scotland very few non-payment cases reach court. In England & Wales many do and 32 were jailed in 2013. That’s the fault of the government that could change the system if it wanted but hasn’t.

  • ECONOMIC: IMO one of the few useful things Thatcher did was to make the BBC commission much of its content from independent providers. The access to market so provided caused a huge boom in independent content makers and creative output, a sector that’s become an important employer and export earner.

    Absent the BBC, commercial broadcasters would very likely move to use monopoly (strictly, oligopoly) power take all the profit in the supply chain at the expense of its creative end.

    Also, don’t discount soft power. It’s by far the best and cheapest way of spreading influence and that has monetary value.

    POLITICAL: Most here will know how subtle changes to the phrasing of questions can lead to very different opinion poll outcomes. But while opinion polls merely *survey* thinking, the media *shapes* it. So, the importance of a friendly media – which may mean anything from blanking ‘difficult’ subjects to stressing helpful ones – is immense.

    Also, politicians tend to be rather skilful are making arguments which sound good but don’t hold water. Spotting the fallacies often needs background that most don’t have so if the media don’t call them out, they can get away with all sorts of nonsense – up to and including war.

    So, whatever politicians may say in public they have a huge interest in CONTROLLING the BBC as do press barons who see it as a competitor for revenues and influence alike. Yet the mere presence of the BBC acts as an anchor, limiting how far they can go; how far they can move the Overton window.

    Yet even with laws and regulations in place political pressure can be huge particularly when, as now, opposition is weak. This is already happening so regulations that theoretically anchor things subtly fail and the anchor drags. For example, Barnier’s speech in Belfast yesterday denying Johnson’s claim of frictionless trade between GB & NI has been hidden in the ‘NI politics’ section on the BBC website. This is convenient for the government, bad for good governance and terrible for the people.

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