The development of the British Broadcasting Corporation's broadcasting policy 1979-1992
In the years following the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979. the
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) came under increasing pressure to adopt more
free-market principles in its operations. At the same time, technological changes meant
that the traditional justification of 'spectrum scarcity' for the BBC's protected position
became redundant. These two factors combined to make the BBC's environment hostile
to its established broadcasting policy, which had been developed over five decades.
This thesis analyses how and why the broadcasting policy of the BBC developed
between the years of 1979 and 1992. It does so primarily through 28 in-depth qualitative
interviews with people involved in determining and implementing the Corporation's
broadcasting policy during this time, such as Directors-General, Governors, Controllers,
and a previous Home Secretary. Also used were the BBC's archives service at
Caversham, and an important document donated by its author, Sir John Johnston
(reproduced as an appendix).
This thesis shows how, prior to 1987, the BBC's broadcasting policy was nonresponsive
to its environment, with the Director-General Alasdair Milne and his Board of
Management refusing to adopt a strategy of change. The thesis documents how a series of
'transformative forces' gradually built up throughout the 1980s which finally enabled
Milne's successor, Michael Checkland, to initiate a raft of necessary reforms. As a result,
the BBC started to reflect its environment after 1987, through the twin strategies of
camouflage and flexibility, which enabled the BBC to retain its most essential qualities,
and put the Corporation in a very strong position from which to be granted another Royal
Charter in 1996.
The research makes a number of contributions to our collective understanding of
the BBC. Prior to this, there has been no published analysis of the Corporation's social
character during this time, in the style of Tom Bums' seminal work, The BBC: Public
Institution and Private World (1977), and this thesis addresses this deficit. Similarly.
despite the importance of the subject to the British public as both audience and voters, no
systematic analysis of the external and internal forces shaping BBC policy during the
Director-Generalships of Ian Trethowan, Alasdair Milne and Michael Checkland exists.
Again. this is a deficit that this thesis addresses.