The Listening Post

Battle for the BBC

With BBC in the crosshairs of Boris Johnson’s government, we look at network’s century of struggle with British state.

Within weeks of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s sweeping election victory last December, his aides were warning of a plan to “whack” the UK’s public broadcaster. The government would, they said, abolish the BBC’s main source of income, the TV licence. Coming off the back of a decade of budget cuts, supporters of the BBC fear that, if Johnson gets his way, it could soon be disfigured beyond recognition.

As serious as the government’s warning shots appear to be, they are far from unprecedented. Rather, they represent the latest flare-up in a century-long tussle over the BBC’s independence from the British state – one that remains little-known to most of the network’s audience. The source of this struggle is a tension between two competing impulses: on one side, there is the journalistic imperative of holding the government to account; on the other, the BBC’s dependence on that same government for its livelihood. At times of crisis, the confrontations created by that tension – particularly over the BBC’s domestic news and current affairs programming – have threatened its very existence.

In this special edition of the programme, The Listening Post’s Flo Phillips takes a look back at some of the pivotal flashpoints between the BBC and the British state, the wounds they have inflicted on it, and the lessons they hold for the present-day battle for the BBC.


David Dimbleby – presenter, BBC; former presenter, BBC Panorama and BBC Question Time

Greg Dyke – former director-general, BBC

Paul Mason – former economics editor, BBC Newsnight

Martin Bell  – former correspondent, BBC News

John Humphrys – former presenter, BBC News and BBC Radio 4

Jane Martinson – media columnist, The Guardian

Tom Mills – author, The BBC: Myth of a Public Service

Hayden Phillips – former permanent secretary, Department of National Heritage and Department for Constitutional Affairs