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  • Jonny Ainslie

Jonathan Dimbleby - We live permanently with incomplete

Updated: Jan 3

I sit down with 'the lefty-Dimbleby', who describes broadcasting's past, and the responsibilities of bringing personality to reporting.

Upon his death in 1965 Richard Dimbleby, your father, was the first reporter and broadcaster to have a memorial service held in Westminster Abbey. It watched on television by five million people, with a further six and a half million tuning in to a recording later that night. This may be extraordinary to understand, but in his role at the BBC he had become part of Britain’s ‘national character’. Such a figure today seems impossible; how would you explain the difference in our worlds?

Proliferation of outlets is fundamental. Then there were two in the whole country, BBC and ITV, now there are endless channels. More people are on air, more people are broadcasting, there’s social media today as well, and the history today feels different. My father ruled supreme in radio and television partly because Britain had come out of WW2 into the Cold War. There were very few programs that were covering the confrontations between East and West, and he was at the front of all of them. Talking about them, introducing them, sometimes reporting them. And these events really mattered. When television first appeared as a medium, being able to see ceremony and pageant of the royal kind was also new. And there was a very unchallenging attitude to affairs of state. The monarchy was regarded with awe, and he was the commentator at great occasions. The death of Churchill in 1964 was an end of an era, the nearest you have to it in terms of scale was the death of Thatcher; but while Churchill was universally mourned, Thatcher was such a divisive figure that her passing became more about the appropriateness of the ceremony rather than what she represented.

He also had great gifts, I would add. His use of words, of language, as well as where he had been during the war (first broadcaster to report from the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen) and week in, week out afterwards, sunk into people – into the popular psyche. It doesn’t happen now. The nearest public figure in television today would be David Attenborough. People hang on his words as if they’ve been brought down on a tablet.

Do you think the question of whether Churchill was considered much less divisive than Thatcher at the time of their respective deaths had a lot to do with how he was covered in the media?

Well firstly I think she had much more dramatically divisive policies – she ended the political consensus. But secondly, scrutiny by that time was much more important. Journalists were always able to ask questions of course; but they had been more deferent. There was even a broadcasting rule over radio called the 14-day rule, that in effect meant broadcasters weren’t allowed to discuss an issue of political significance until it’d been debated in Parliament!

This came to the fore during Suez (1956), when the debate in Parliament after the troops had gone in was preceded by an Any Questions broadcast. They’d been told at Any Questions that they couldn’t discuss the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal area – nor the American stance, let alone the Egyptian stance. So Freddy Grisewood said “we’re not allowed to discuss the events of the day, so we’re going to discuss the invasion of this imaginary country instead”, I think they called it Ruritania, which was a pretty bald challenge. Radio then was extremely important with very large audiences – and the rule was dropped. The public may have had views then, but their views weren’t regarded as being significant except when it came to an election.

The record will never show

You’ve spoken before about one particular effect of popular media engagement: when conversation around a particular issue morphs into the impetus behind political decision making. The concern of a politician for how they are seen on media channels can drive them to work on that image, rather than solving actual political problems. Do you think it’d be helpful for them to be allowed to step back a bit?

It’s a vicious circle, and extraordinarily difficult to cut into because of the way the media dominates our everyday lives. But I think too that people are right, as well as confident, to express their opinions in the media - you can’t stop that. It is troubling when politicians jump on a bandwagon, I’m talking about populism now, and just echo a sentiment or prejudice that appears to give them credibility. One of the pernicious cross-party effects of this is that you can find an easy ‘sound-byte’ mantra, and just repeat it and repeat it, even if you’re mocked for it by a good interviewer – you can go on repeating it because it seeps into the viewers’ psyche and gets recycled. A classic one “let’s get Brexit done”, has permeated our lives seemingly since my birth, and that is a meaningless notion because whatever decision has been made or has not been made, “getting it done” is describing a process and not describing an outcome. People are deluded by using that phrase as if there’s a nice, neat decision that’s the end of the matter.

Your career saw you establish a media persona of your own. For over a decade from 1995-2006 you presented ITV’s flagship political programme, Jonathan Dimbleby, which does somewhat sell itself based on a name. Have you noticed a consistent disconnect between how you’ve appeared onscreen or in print, and how you act privately?

Not in how I dissect news; my analytical antennae are very much the same. As it happens I have a natural bent for impartiality, which goes back to my time at university; if someone makes an assertion I want to test the underlying assumptions that might underpin it. Partly for self-indulgence, really, I think I’m getting nearer to what the useful truth may be. But I can draw conclusions now – whereas when I was doing that program I was very careful not to draw conclusions from any analysis that had emerged from the discussion. I now sound-off much more, and on film I feel free to write in essay-form so that I come through. It’s interesting you can do that, especially outside the United Kingdom. In the studio I made quite sure that no-one could detect what my view was, even though I might freely express it in private, unless it was clearly racist, or I might call out a climate-denier - but wryly, rather than confrontationally.

Having worked across Africa as a reporter over almost 40 years, in 2010 you returned for a documentary to explore the “vitality and hope” of a continent in flux, seemingly with the intention of changing the way the British public saw the region. Is this a good example of your essay-form expression?

It’s a good example. My pitch to the BBC was precisely that: I’ve covered events in Africa for quite a long time, Africa has been a particular example of how we’ve alighted on disaster to the exclusion of everything else that’s happening. Very often you need to search quite hard to find where any disaster is in any particular country. I wanted to describe the diversity of that continent in every way, and its richness and its potential and the characters of individuals living there – to rehumanise the continent in terms people might easily recognise so that they’re not just looking at objects of suffering. Reporting has generally improved, and I was very pleased by the response to that program. I was standing, not shouting, on a platform to an extent – but it had to be valid. If I’d just wanted to say, “this country’s run by saints”, that’d be nonsensical. But I wanted to say, “there are saints and sinners – here are some of the saints”.

I’d like to escape from being an anorak

I’m very interested in how a news reporter might try to illustrate the reality inside their head, such as your beliefs about the places and peoples of Africa, by finding that reality on the ground. The process of how I thought of my questions today rather illuminates this point, because we’re doing the interview a second time round after recordings of the first sitting were lost. As such this is a bit of a game of reconstruction; and from my memory, your answers to questions about your father were very similar this time round compared to the last…

The record will never show (chuckles).

Well this is the thing, because life is consigned to your memory in a fixed way.

Ah, this is a fundamental point. Look at all this (gestures to bookcases in his study stuffed with paper annotations and notes), that’s writing history. For every book there, there are some ‘common ground facts’, but looking at the past is like constructing your own building out of Lego.

To an extent, news reporting is a way of rendering facts and repeating them in a way that makes them less contestable. If you go to Africa to change a narrative, or to shake it up, this says something interesting about how you first saw the world.

If you have first hand experience of a situation, let's say working in a car factory, my description of your car factory will only stack up for you if I at least partially understand your perspective. If you’re a viewer, and you don’t have time to look any closer, the impression you gain from watching television or the articles you read, or even a book, will be much more potent. You construct out of that your image of the world. And now it’s much more confusing because of competing sources of news.

What injuries do we do to life by describing it in this way?

Well, you simplify it. You are bound to unwittingly distort by selection, and I’m not sure that that damages it – but it limits the validity by being incomplete. But we live permanently with incomplete. You come into this house, and then you go away again. And you have a vision of this house, it may be completely different to someone else’s, and from my perspective you may have missed the fundamental point about it. To think that this is damage is question begging – though you can do tremendous damage by creating a picture that is truly distorted, but very powerful, because it may feed a prejudice. I’ll tell you one good example: for many years it was politically convenient, whether you were an enthusiast of the European Union or not, to hammer the bureaucracy of the EU, to hammer Brussels. Brussels was providing you with straight bananas. That drip, drip, drip turned Brussels into an enemy of the British people. Lots of people had no other means of knowing how it worked. That was serious damage done, because the EU was much more complex, the checks and balances in its government were not noticed by anyone other than minority voices. It fed a narrative. We are an island, we had a great past… we are… we are Britain.

When I write this down, the text will suggest this is your consistent view of the world, how you think. If your views have changed about Brexit, even minutely, from when we sat down a few months ago – this text won’t be able to render that complexity.

That’s because it’s snapshot. That’s one of the problems with journalism generally which I learnt about quite early on, and why I tried to build so much into filmmaking context and background, asking: How did we get here?

Take one country that’s been something of a passion in my life, Ethiopia, which I first went to in 1973. It was a country of 33 million people, it’s now 105 million. It’s a country that had few highly educated people, with a health service in tatters. It is now a hugely different country, no longer anything like the starvation-stricken state it was. A quasi-Marxist state is seeking to be a capitalist democracy.

If you just do the picture now, you could see malnourished children, impoverished circumstances of life, places with no gas supply where cooking is by paraffin or wood – and you can construct a picture which would be true, in so far as it went, and totally false as an account of the changes which have been so dramatic. It’s really important that we shouldn’t delude ourselves that what we’re saying is right for all time. All you can say is that this is how it seems to me in this moment. If you don’t trust me, it’s irrelevant what I’m saying – if you do trust me, that has salience, and it effects the way you see the world. Is this very arrogant as well?

Fairness is in the eye of the beholder

You were worried about arrogance last time…

Was I? I’m always worried about arrogance because I think I am arrogant. I think I’m less arrogant now than I was. I probably express my opinions more forcefully but when I was young I was definitely arrogant. Pushy, and haughtier.

What I find difficult is not the realisation that there can be simplicity in snapshots and even in long-takes. I’d like to know what’s important for reporters, for subjects of reporting, that remains somewhat consistent.

Why are you troubled by it?

By opening up the question to the intransigence about any espoused truths about the world hints at the underlying lack of them, eventually. Because I’m tempted to say I don’t think people do change very much. We find similarities across time which is why we can identify…

I think that’s true, Demosthenes forwards as it were. Probably backwards as well (laughs).

If you reduce everything to news, what do we have left?

We don’t reduce everything to news! But I agree, 100% agree. I’d like to escape from being an anorak, and I have. Mercifully I’ve never been in news, I’ve never had to do the day by day, hour by hour commentary and interpretation as it now is.

You've chaired Any Questions on Radio 4 since 1987 – only stepping down this year, and whilst reviewing your tenure you mentioned that it used to be a “much lighter programme” that was able to quiz politicians and media types on their personal thoughts. What have we lost with the reduction of more playful interviews in preference of serious media opportunities?

Nearly 1,400 programmes… more than sixteen times round the globe just to get there and back on Fridays you know. Though I inherited a lighter programme, and I think I burdened it in '87. Even then politicians had become increasingly educated about the need to get the party message across. It is far greater now. Those who speak for themselves gradually get sieved out by time, and the few who are left – Ken Clarke for instance, are independent voices in the system. I once had Ken on, who was justice secretary at the time, who said something which made me go “but that isn’t government policy”, and he just replied “oh, you didn’t have me on to talk about government policy did you?” That’s quite rare, and increasingly people are inside a bubble of what they’re told to say.

I realised how much you’re on your own

As a younger reporter you spent a lot of time in the Middle East, providing the impetus for your 1979 book, The Palestinians. In a moving passage describing his life, an elderly Palestinian Muktar demanded that you: “Put this in your book. The British cheated us… you, the British… made us exiles.” Did you find that your own British nationality affected how you were able to report your subject?

I think I’ve always been aware of that. You can't not be. In so many regions of the world adversely affected by the British Empire it’s impossible. At the same time, it was a terrific advantage vis-à-vis not being an American. For countries who aren’t very powerful, the big Satan becomes the most imperious power. The United States for a lot of my time as a reporter was the great power – American planes did the bombing. To say “I’m not American”, which I would make very clear, was a great advantage.

In general, you may not be as well informed as the people you’re interviewing. In Kenya, I had been taught about the Mau-Mau as terrorists. I learnt that the Mau-Mau could easily be seen as freedom fighters, and that the British did some terrible things in their attempts to destroy them. But I don’t come from Mars without historical baggage – in the case of the Palestinians if you go back to the Balfour Declaration, he directly said that we were going to disregard every promise we’d made to them. I had acquired a strong view that flowed specifically from an outrageous remark made by Golda Meir in 1974 “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people”. I was so horrified by that I thought I’d do something simple, thinking: 'hang about, there is such a thing as a Palestinian people, here are people who call themselves Palestinians'.

In a much later 1997 book, The Last Governor, you discuss Governor Patten’s sense of “moral obligation” to Hong Kong’s ethnic-minority Indian community, who it seemed were to be refused both British and Chinese citizenship when Hong Kong was handed over to the Chinese state. You’ve remained involved with the territory, presenting a “return to Hong Kong” documentary in 2007, and more recently sat down with the ‘Umbrella’ movement activist Joshua Wong. Do you believe British journalists have a special responsibility to report upon the territory?

An extraordinary young man, Joshua. And I do. Our heritage is not one to be openly proud of. The joint declaration of the British government to make a commitment to the Hong Kong people, which they were never prepared to honour, is a pretty disgraceful episode in our history. That said, Joshua said to me that he came to be involved in politics from his parents, who were affected by the Patten efforts to say “you’ve got to push to be free”. A lot of this generation were affected by that, and have been radicalised by Beijing basically instructing Carrie Lam in what she does.

When in the media, perhaps all one can do is give issues like that fair treatment. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher told you off in her first campaign interview on the This Week programme because: “I don’t think you’re quite being fair, Mr Dimbleby”. Specifically, you had been suggesting ironically that the elderly should “rejoice and be merry” now that she had added 50p to their pensions. In general, how do you walk the line of ‘fairness’ as an interviewer?

You're needling, inevitably needling. In that environment, fairness is in the eye of the beholder. What she wanted to say was that “we’re increasing pensions, we’re a generous government”. The challenge was to say “well it doesn’t seem to amount to much, Prime Minister”. In an age when capitalism is running riot, it’s bound to create tensions. If I’d been fair in her terms – I think I’d have been very unfair to those viewing, particularly if they were elderly pensioners. I can give you one example of being fair. When I was writing my biography of the Prince of Wales I had absolute access to his correspondence; and the then permanent secretary said something like “I think you’ve been very statesman-like”, and I thought “shit” (laughs). But I didn’t want to have copyright removed from everything by the Palace, or the publisher. I realised how much you’re on your own in those circumstances, there’s no big institution who’ll fight for you.

Don’t do what you know to be wrong

Beginning work on that biography in 1992, with all this unfettered access to original sources, letters, archives, and the Prince’s private journals, did you ever feel used at an extremely difficult time for the Prince a few years before his divorce, to construct a positive account of his life for good PR?

No. I did not feel used. I think I was chosen by them because I didn’t have any royal baggage attached to me. In quotes, my predecessor said "Oh hello Jonathan, you're the lefty-Dimbleby, aren't you?" What made him say that, I don't know; but I was free to say what I wanted. If I’d come away thinking he was outrageous and monstrous, I’d probably have said “sorry, I’m not able to write the book”. It'd have been a violation of the trust I'd had, as there was an assumption I'd be - to go back to your word - "fair".

My task was to answer some questions: “What kind of person is this? What does he do? And, should we rate him or not?” That’s what drove it. And I didn’t need to write the book – a lot of it was stressful and draining, and quickly became a matter of annus-horribilis, marital breakdowns etc. that I was grilled on by other journalists. I hadn’t had the foresight to see this coming before I was embroiled in all that. Subsequent writers say the book tells you about him at that point in his life.

It seems that across all these questions about nations, politicians, and princes – the person you’ve got to be fair to most of all might be yourself.

I’m a sentient being, I’m not a cypher, a piece of parchment or tabula rasa. People describe me however they want. Comparatively, the authority figure of the broadcaster represented by my father, as a genial, friendly figure who can speak for you, and who you quite like and could have in your home if you were brave enough, that figure is gone. And that’s a good thing, I don't think it was particularly healthy, it’s just a fact about how the media emerged. If he was alive and working he would think the same. But we shouldn't aggrandise ourselves. And when we're hired, we can often choose what it is we do, and how we do it.

You’ve expressed before that your surname was responsible for your first job offers at the BBC and ITV. What would you say to young people trying to enter the industry about privileges some are lucky to have and others go without?

I think that is true. That I have amazing, wonderful, extraordinary talent - and they couldn't resist me, is not the case. Though by now there are certain things I am good at. Young people, ask me all the time “should I, shouldn’t I get in to the media?” – or, “how did I get in?” And I’m very straight with them, before going into more generally that there are certain qualities you need to have: the first is curiosity, then persistence, and the third is an ability to communicate. If you imagine there’s a door that’s partly open, and behind that door is the person who can give you a job – that door is not closing, it’s always opening. Stick at it. I’ve heard John Humphrys saying he wouldn’t advise anyone to go into the media, I’m absolutely the opposite. There’s huge diversity in the media now, of all kinds: cultural, religious, ethnic, gender diversity – everywhere there’s opportunities to make good use of talent. Care about the facts, be fair, be true to yourself, and don’t do what you know to be wrong. Those journalists who say "the Editor told me to do it", I have no sympathy with. If reporters were tougher about that, journalism would be stronger.