The Dimbleby dynasty: This is what feudalism looks like

... but hey, I’m sure they’re all just naturals.

CW: Discussion of the holocaust.

In an episode of Peep Show, Mark ingratiates himself with some ‘adults’ he’s trying to impress by making a joke about Gummo Dimbleby, the hidden Dimbleby brother. Whenever I turn on the TV — or whatever device is pretending to be a TV that day — I genuinely expect to encounter Gummo Dimbleby, such is the inculcation of the Dimbleby family into British current affairs journalism. They are a dynasty, passing choice assignments from brother to brother, father to son.

The dynasty did not begin with Richard, the BBC’s first war reporter, as so often asserted, but rather his father, Frederick Jabez George Dimbleby, who was a journalist for the Richmond And Twickenham Times, a paper he went on to own and grow into a whole group of titles. Still, it was Richard who began the Dimbleby ownership of a corner of the BBC in perpetuity.

Richard joined the BBC as a radio news reporter in 1936. He was with the British Expeditionary Force when it headed to France, starting the domino fall that ended with the Dunkirk evacuation, and he was with the forces that stormed the Normandy beaches during the D-Day landings. He did the work.

Richard was an inventor and an experimenter. He flew more than 20 raids as an observer with RAF Bomber Command during the war, including one on Berlin. He recorded commentary for broadcast as he went. He also made unusual outside broadcasts, like talking from a Mosquito fighter aircraft during an attack on France and recording a piece from within a diving suit.

Most striking of all Richard Dimbleby’s war reports — the one that made history and stamped itself in there permanently — was recorded in April 1945, when the British 11th Armoured Division liberated the Bergen-Belsen death camp. His description was so graphic, so visceral, that the BBC refused to broadcast it. After four days, the broadcaster relented, but only because Richard Dimbleby threatened to resign. Here is what his report said:

I passed through the barrier, and found myself in the world of a nightmare. Dead bodies, some of them in decay, lay strewn about the road and along the rutted tracks [...] Inside the huts it was even worse. I've seen many terrible sights in the last five years, but nothing, nothing approaching the dreadful interior of this hut at Belsen. The dead and the dying lay close together. I picked my way over corpse after corpse in the gloom, until I heard one voice that rose above the gentle, undulating moaning. I found a girl. She was a living skeleton, impossible to gauge her age, for she had practically no hair left on her head, and her face was only a yellow parchment sheet, with two holes in it for eyes [...]

Babies were born at Belsen, some of them shrunken, wizened little things that could not live because their mothers could not feed them. One woman, distraught to the point of madness, flung herself at a British soldier who was on guard in the camp on the night that it was reached by the 11th Armoured Division. She begged him to give her some milk, for the tiny baby she held in her arms. She lay the mite on the ground, threw herself at the sentry's feet and kissed his boots. And when, in his distress, he asked her to get up, she put the baby in his arms and ran off, crying that she would find milk for it because there was no milk in her breast. And when the soldier opened the bundle of rags to look at the child, he found that it had been dead for days [...]

I have never seen British soldiers so moved to cold fury as the men who opened the Belsen camp this week, and those of the police and the RAMC, who are now on duty there trying to save the prisoners who are not too far gone in starvation.

There can be no question that Richard Dimbleby earned his stripes. Many people are called ‘legends’ in journalism — Dimbleby was one without question. He went on to be a lynchpin of BBC News until his untimely death from cancer in 1965.

David Dimbleby, Richard’s eldest son, joined the BBC as a reporter in Bristol and was soon appearing onscreen in news programmes. He co-presented the school quiz Top of the Form in 1962, before moving to assist on the 1964 general election broadcast helmed by his father.

In July 1967, David Dimbleby backed an open letter to The Times newspaper which argued for the decriminalization of cannabis. Two years later, Dimbleby committed the error of being honest on television and was dragged into the office of the BBC’s Director of Television to account for comments during President Nixon’s visit to the UK, where he had referred to “expensively hired” press secretaries “whose job is to disguise the truth.”

Dimbleby became the BBC’s go-to for big interviews and political documentaries. In 1971, Yesterday’s Men attacked the Labour Party in opposition and sparked a running conflict between the Corporation and the highest echelons of the Labour Party. Dimbleby demanded and got his name removed from the documentary credits. In 1974, he inherited the presenting position on Panorama, a show that had previously been his father’s domain.

From 1979, Dimbleby became the anchor of the BBC general election coverage and held that seat for the next 10 general elections. He also helmed BBC specials on budgets, European election coverage, and US election programmes. He also hosted Nationwide, an early evening currently affairs show, before moving on to This Week Next Week throughout the mid-80s. In 1988, that show was replaced with On the Record, a show presented by… his younger brother Jonathan Dimbleby.

Still, that didn’t trouble David Dimbleby much, he could afford to throw scraps to Jonathan, as he was now firmly ensconced as BBC News’ Big Events Guy. He was in the chair for the State Opening of Parliament, the Trooping of the Colour, the National Service of Remembrance, and any other event of national importance.

In 1994, David Dimbleby took possession of Question Time, the BBC’s Thursday evening topical debate, which he held until 2018. Robin Cook dubbed him “David Bumblebee” after Dimbleby garbled his words and called the politician, “Robin Cock.”

The late-90s and early 2000s through to 2010s saw Dimbleby taking the hot seat for Royal funerals — Diana in 1997 and the Queen Mother in 2002 — as well as the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. He also helmed coverage of the state visit by President George W. Bush and the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

A 2001 profile of David Dimbleby for The Observer, written by Ben Summerskill, paints a picture of a man of privilege, both through BBC power and family wealth:

… David Dimbleby [is] known to the public is the 'hereditary broadcaster', the man who attends the nation's royal weddings and funerals, and general elections. He is sober, suited and courteous. One day, sooner or later, he will no doubt describe for us - with his impeccable modulation and appropriate gravitas - the coronation of the Prince of Wales as King Charles III.

And just like Prince Charles, Dimbleby is burdened. Burdened by the knowledge that whatever he has done with his life and his career, whatever he achieves, whatever his legacy, he will always regarded as the son of someone else. Richard Dimbleby, father of both David and Jonathan, joined the BBC at a time when it was Britain's only broadcaster. It was the mouthpiece of the nation across an empire which covered a quarter of the world. And its most authoritative voice, that which narrated the last coronation, was that of Richard Dimbleby.

The boys and their two siblings grew up in comfort, beneficiaries not only of their father's professional success but the profits of a 100-year-old family-owned local newspaper group. Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford, provided an obvious route for David into the BBC in the 1960s, regardless of parentage or genetic predisposition. The good-looking young TV journalist - his face remains remarkably uncrumpled at 62 - started at BBC Bristol, then worked on science and children's programmes.

In 2001, Dimbleby D. was chairman of that family newspaper group, the Dimbleby Newspaper Group, when it was acquired by Newsquest for £12 million. In 2004, he was in the frame for the BBC Chairmanship, but the position was taken by Michael Grade. He was used to that kind of speculation. He’d been talked about as a potential Director-General of the BBC since 1987. Instead, he remained onscreen, most famously, in recent years, announcing the news that the British public had voted for Brexit, and that the UK was out:

Well, at twenty minutes to five we can now say the decision taken in 1975 by this country to join the Common Market has been reversed by this referendum to leave the EU. We are absolutely clear now that there is no way that the Remain side can win. It looks as if the gap is going to be something like 52 to 48...so a four-point lead for leaving the EU, and that is the result of this referendum which has been preceded by weeks and months of argument and dispute and all the rest of it. The British people have spoken and the answer is: we're out!

Like his brother, Jonathan Dimbleby began his career at BBC Bristol in the late-60s. In 1970, he joined Radio 4’s The World at One as a reporter, where he also presented The World This Weekend. Two years later, he joined ITV’s flagship current affairs show This Week. For the next six years, he was a foreign correspondent, notably covering Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from Uganda. Shamefully, his reporting was largely supportive of Amin’s policy:

In 1973, Jonathan Dimbleby was in Ethiopia covering that country’s famine. That report won him the SFTA award named after his father Richard Dimbleby.

In 1988, Jonathan Dimbleby returned to the BBC to present On the Record knocking his brother out of the time slot. He then went on to record a series of documentaries, including one Charles: The Private Man, The Public Face in 1994, in which the Prince of Wales talked about his failed marriage and his relationship with the now- Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker Bowles.

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From 1994 until 2006, he was the host of his own self-titled political programme Jonathan Dimbleby for ITV. In 1997, 2001, and 2005, he was the main host of ITV’s general election coverage, meaning viewers had the choice of a Dimbleby brother on the BBC and a Dimbleby brother on ITV. Gummo presented election coverage from a shed in Cheam.

While David owned the BBC debate shows on television, from 1987 to June 2019, Jonathan Dimbleby was the presenter of Any Questions? for BBC Radio 4. He also presented the sister show Any Answers? from 1989 to 2012. In 2016, he added the BBC World Service’s monthly version World Questions.

In April 2020, Jonathan Dimbleby closed the circle by presenting a documentary Return to Belsen about his father’s report and the liberation of the death camp.

This past week has seen another generation of Dimbleby reporter come into the spotlight. The reporter sent to doorstep Jeremy Corbyn about allegations of Russian interference in the 2019 election was… Fred Dimbleby, son of David Dimbleby and his second wife Belinda Giles, daughter of the 9th Earl De La Warr, Herbert Sackville, the first hereditary peer to join the Labour Party.

Educated at Oxford, and formerly of CNN, the BBC’s Africa service, and The Guardian, Fred Dimbleby is now a reporter for ITV News. That his uncle was ITV’s mainstay ‘big event’ host for years and his father is a BBC institution can only be both a help and a hindrance: Good for getting you through the door, bad for actually proving yourself.

There is no doubt that the Dimbleby brothers are consummate broadcasters, but their background as scions of journalistic royalty and enormous institutional and family privilege has often made their commentary partial and partisan. They cannot critique the establishment because they are the establishment to the very depths of their bone marrow. Fred, who is slogging away as a reporter, may break that cycle. But given the manner in which he doorstepped Corbyn, that seems unlikely.

As Aaron Bastani said on Novara Media last week, “This is feudalism.”