Politicians come and go, but there is always one reassuring constant - the calm and professional coverage on BBC’s Election Night, headed up as always by Polegate’s David Dimbleby. Country Life once described Dimbleby as a man who “holds the nation steady when the waters get choppy.” Fortunately he will be keeping us all on a steady keel again on the night of June 8th...
“The British people have spoken and the answer is: we’re out!” It was the moment that confirmed that Britain changed forever, and typically it was summed up in a single succinct and authoritative sentence from the most trusted man on TV. Whether it is the Brexit referendum, a general election or the weekly bunfight that is Question Time, few people, if any, are seen as impartial or as fair as David Dimbleby.
This is no accident. This is something that Dimbleby has worked on all of his life. “I never tell anyone how I vote. Not my children. Nor my wife,” he says, when asked about his political leanings.
You can find online debates speculating on the political views of the top political broadcasters and there is a general consensus about most. Nick Robinson - Tory; Andrew Marr - Labour; Jon Snow - Liberal/Labour, Remainer; Andrew Neil - Tory; Laura Kuenssberg - Tory. And so it goes on. All of the mentioned broadcasters are excellent journalists, and these labels could be completely false. But people have formed these opinions, rightly or wrongly. When it comes to Dimbleby I could find only a few lukewarm suggestions that he was a Conservative but with no explanation as to what informed this opinion - i.e. it was just pure guesswork.
Dimbleby is known to be a gregarious, warm, chatty person - except when it comes to talking about himself. In 2009, Telegraph journalist, James Delingpole was invited to interview Dimbleby on his East Sussex farm, but was informed in advance that off-limit topics were: His first wife Josceline; their three grown-up children (including successful restaurant entrepreneur Henry); his second wife, Belinda; their 11-year-old (now 18) boy Fred; his little brother (and alleged massive rival) Jonathan; the BBC; his personal politics; his hobbies; pretty much any other aspect of his private life whatsoever.
Can you imagine Dimbleby the interviewer accepting such limitations? So presumably the interview was a bore? Not in the slightest, and Delingpole was utterly charmed by his subject’s mischievous manner and the knowing twinkle in his eye. The picture he painted of Dimbleby was not unlike Kevin Spacey’s brilliant Machiavellian hero Frank Underwood in the US version of House of Cards.
“‘Crikey, what an operator!’ I think, at the end, when he engages me in some mildly flattering banter about an article of mine, ” writes Delingpole. “He charms but never lays it on so thick that you feel you’re being practised on.
“Imagine if he’d gone into politics: he could have been so devastatingly manipulative that he would have made even Lord Mandelson look like a clumsier version of John Prescott. Thank the Lord that instead he stuck to television.”
Kirsty Young has also been floored by the flirtatious Dimbleby. He was the castaway on Desert Island Discs on 24th February 2008 and when asked by Young what luxury he wanted, he replied: “I’ll take you.” “I nearly fell off my bloody seat!” Young said later. She rejected the idea, so he took pencils and drawing books instead.
Despite such cheekiness, Dimbleby is a true gent, at least according to Country Life who named him the ‘Gentleman of the Year’ in 2014. Hannah Ellis-Petersen commented in The Guardian: “According to Country Life magazine, a true gentleman is always on time, makes love on his elbows and never wears fuchsia trousers – all commandments David Dimbleby will have to abide by if he is to live up to his newest accolade.
“The magazine has named the broadcaster Gentleman of the Year in its annual rankings, saying he is a man who “holds the nation steady when the waters get choppy”. Despite Dimbleby breaking several of Country Life’s gentlemanly codes – a gentleman supposedly never tweets or writes with a Biro – the magazine stood by him as a “worthy winner”.
“Jilly Cooper, the novelist, who was on the judging panel, paid tribute to Dimbleby, saying he showed fairness and humour. She added that he had a beautiful voice and was a marvellous commentator, “adding lustre, knowledge and gravitas to any state event”.
“The magazine noted that Dimbleby had only missed a Question Time broadcast once in 20 years, and that was only because he had been knocked out by a bullock at the time.”
The magazine even forgave him for getting a scorpion tattoo at the age of 75, deeming that “body ink is to be embraced on a modern gentleman.”
Dimbleby, it seems, can be forgiven almost everything and he is regarded as a national treasure, a position he shares with another BBC stalwart, David Attenborough.
The Family Business
Broadcasting and journalism runs through the Dimbleby family’s veins. His father, Richard Dimbleby CBE, was the best known broadcaster of his generation. He was the BBC’s first war correspondent, and then its leading TV news commentator. He hosted the long-running current affairs programme Panorama, in which he pioneered a respectful but searching interview style.
He was the voice of the biggest major public occasions, including the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and the funerals of George VI, John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill.
David, like his brother Jonanthan, followed in his father’s footsteps. Educated at Glengorse School in Battle, East Sussex, and Charterhouse School, he went on to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Christ Church, Oxford. While at Oxford he was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club and edited of the unfortunately named student magazine, Isis.
Dimbleby joined the BBC in Bristol as a reporter in the 1960s and reported on his first election in 1964, when his father was the main presenter. He became an respected reporter and documentary maker, and in 1971, he had a rare episode where he was accused of political bias. The film, Yesterday’s Men, was less than complimentary about the Labour opposition, and the BBC noted that it had ‘ridiculed’ the Labour Party. There was no lasting damage to his career and in 1974 took on his father’s old job of presenting Panorama.
In 1979, he took over as the anchor for the BBC’s Election Night coverage and has remained as the frontman ever since. He was a regular on current affairs programmes such as the early evening slot on Nationwide. In 1983, he bought out the family business, Dimbleby Newspapers, which published nine newspapers within Greater London including the Richmond & Twickenham Times. He sold the group to Newsquest in 2001 for a figure believed to be around £12m.
In 1994 he took over as chair on Question Time, the role for which is best known.
It was never meant to be enjoyable. The powers that be at the BBC decided that the public could only have so much fun, and Question Time was certainly not intended to entertain.
The Telegraph’s James Delingpole, tells the story of how it all began:
“It was born on September 25th 1979, more by accident than design, and was never intended to last. The BBC had block-booked a London studio for the Parkinson show.
“But, by Roy Hattersley’s account, ‘the governors decided that five consecutive nights of Michael Parkinson was more entertainment than the viewers could stand. So two days were set aside for something solemn. Robin Day – out of fashion but with years of his contract still to run – had nothing to do except write angry letters to the Director-General denouncing the declining standards of British television. Question Time was invented to make sure that for a week or two neither the theatre’s rent nor the performer’s retainer were paid in vain.”
It it is now an much loved institution and has provided some of the most memorable TV moments. Day got the ball rolling in his own combative and impatient style.
Dimbleby recalled Day’s impact in a Telegraph column in 2004: “He was a prickly figure, both demanding and domineering - the mock humility he occasionally affected on air was, as all his colleagues knew, precisely that. He was a difficult man to like but an easy man to admire. More than any other broadcaster he had set the standard for political interviewing. He had devised a television style that combined lawyerly persistence with theatrical flair to confront politicians, and prise open their shells.”
As an example he recalls one conversation when they were both covering party conferences for the BBC. Dimbleby remembers Sir Robin coming back from an interview he’d done with the Home Secretary and asking what he thought. ‘Well I don’t think he said anything particularly new,’ said Dimbleby thoughtfully. ‘Not his answers, you fool. My questions,’ Sir Robin said.
Peter Sissons took over the helm for four years after Day retired in 1989, before Dimbleby claimed the chair in 2004, beating off a challenge from Jeremy Paxman. He controls the panel in a firm but friendly manner, coaxing out answers from experienced politicians without ever descending to the aggressive approach of Day. Except, that is, when he tries to silence the opinionated historian David Starkey.
For Dimbleby, it is all about the audience. He always strives to let the public air their views, rather than allow longwinded politicians to monopolise the airspace. And the production team work very hard to ensure the audience is a fair reflection of society at large.
“The idea is that the viewer should feel he is watching a true cross-section of the public,” says Dimbleby, “much as would have filled a town hall for a political meeting 100 years ago.”
He is particularly proud that the show is popular across generations. The programme has in the past been accused of lacking in diversity, which is a claim he refutes. He recalls the controversy after the 2001 election which had a low turnout, especially amongst the young.
“The Director-General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, was concerned that the manner of the BBC coverage of politics might itself have been partly responsible for the low voter turnout and the disaffection of the young with Westminster politics.
“It was not a view I shared, but the Director- General is the Director-General and Question Time, with all the other political programmes, duly trooped along to be lectured. The underlying assumption was that the BBC’s coverage appealed only to the white middle class and the middle aged or elderly.
“The young were not being properly served. Nobody dared wonder out loud whether young people as a whole have ever been interested in Westminster politics - and whether it was the conduct of politics itself that was at fault. “We were cheered up by our research, which showed that among young people Question Time was the best-known current affairs programme.”
One way the programme has kept mixing up the audience is by inviting comedians, musicians and other stars of popular culture. While older viewers may rail against the relevance of a young musician on a serious political programme, the policy works. The viewing figures among the young soar when there is a panellist that piques their interest.
A comedian can also make good TV, and the Question Time team clearly have a sense of humour. Booking Russell Brand? Let’s team him up with Nigel Farage. It was no coincidence that George Galloway was invited when the venue was in Finchley which has a high Jewish population. Galloway’s stance on Palestine meant the sparks were bound to fly.
And then there’s David Starkey. It hadn’t gone unnoticed that Mr Starkey had a habit of patronising or ridiculing any comments made by female panellists. So it was surely no coincidence that the devilish producers lined him up with an all female panel of Justine Greening, Harriet Harman, Shirley Williams and Victoria Coren. He didn’t seem to enjoy the experience.
Dimbleby has an instinct for what audiences will enjoy and it takes a certain type of politician to accept the challenge. Prime Ministers, Chancellors or other high ranking ministers rarely take the risk of appearing on the show - the audiences are too dangerous!
Dimbleby says, “One of the excitements of Question Time has always been the appearance of the big beasts of the political jungle on the panel. Michael Heseltine was the first Cabinet minister to risk accepting an invitation, on only the third edition of the programme.
“Afterwards he complained at his treatment by a hostile audience but later, when he had been congratulated in the street by people who had told him how well he had done, he decided it was a forum in which he shone, and he became a regular performer. Other heavy hitters followed.
“What they most dislike is the unexpected, the question that catches them off guard, and worst of all the humiliation of being publicly mocked. BBC interviewers do not mock. Question Time audiences sometimes do.”
It has gone too far sometimes. After 9/11, the audience had an anti-American anger that shocked many, and the Iraq War prompted fierce reactions. It created a problem for the show in that one view was dominating.
Dimbleby recalls, “Remember the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq? The country was divided, but opponents of military action were far more vociferous and articulate than its supporters. We took pains to include a proportion of people who claimed to support the war in the audience, but many were in favour in a vague, muddled way, and were not willing to speak out on the subject.
“We had an obligation to achieve balance, but more than that we desperately wanted the argument for war to be as cogently expressed as that against. We were forced to do something we had never done before: to plant articulate war supporters in identifiable places among the audience so that I could call on them when needed to provide balance.”
The show also has tackled attempts at audience manipulation. Some years ago an over-enthusiastic UKIP official emailed the party’s supporters in Sheffield, where Robert Kilroy-Silk was to appear on the panel, urging them to apply but “pretend you are a Tory or Labour supporter”.
The pressure to be fair, and to be seen to be fair, is intense, and Dimbleby carries it off with humour. But it can backfire. In an episode in Slough in December 2015, during a debate on Heathrow’s expansion, Jacob Rees-Mogg said, “Heathrow is the most convenient London airport. I realise that in Slough this may not please everybody. I used to live not a million miles from Slough with the airplanes going over. I must confess they did not prove too bothersome there.”
Spotting an opportunity to rib Rees-Mogg on his posh background, Dimbleby interjected: “Eton, is that?”
“That’s absolutely right,” the MP replied.
Before adding with impeccable timing: “I was at school with your son.” Touché.
It was a rare occasion where a panellist was sharper than the presenter. And he took the quip with typical good grace.
No matter who wins this year’s election, you can be assured that Dimbleby will be fair and dependable - and no politician will be anything other than respectful to him, win or lose.
He is in the unusual position in politics where everyone wishes him well. Except, perhaps, poor Huw Edwards who, like Prince Charles, is still forever and ever waiting for his own coronation. He will have to keep waiting!