The end of social democracy and the rise of neoliberalism at the BBC

  • Thomas Mills

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Drawing on interviews and archival material, this thesis examines how the crisis of the 1970s and the rising power of business under the neoliberal settlement that followed impacted on the BBC’s organisational structure, policies and journalistic practices. Part I focuses on the breakdown of social democracy. Orientated towards and legitimised by the social order that seemed under strain, the politically appointed BBC leadership took a conscious conservative turn and, under pressure from the government, sought to curtail the influence of union militancy and sixties radicalism and to stem its own ‘fiscal crisis’ through wage repression. Meanwhile, despite facing criticism over its economic reporting, which routinely blamed trades unions for the perceived economic decline and crisis, the BBC leadership refused to even seriously question long standing editorial conventions. This, it is argued, left an explanatory vacuum that the New Right were able to skilfully exploit. Part II describes the process of change that the BBC then underwent in the wake of Thatcherism. It argues that the highly unpopular organisational reforms introduced under the leadership of John Birt represented an institutionalisation of the new neoliberal order at the BBC. It describes how business journalism came to displace social democratic patterns of reporting as a result of both top down initiatives and a range of external factors including privatisation and financialisation, the changing political economy of the private media and the power of advertising and public relations. By analysing archival and interview material in the light of scholarly work on neoliberalism, broadcasting and power, the thesis offers an empirically rich account of the subtle ways in which journalistic norms are shaped by wider social forces and a more satisfactory account of the BBC and its role in British society than existing studies.
Date of Award16 Jun 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorDavid Miller (Supervisor)


  • BBC
  • democracy
  • neoliberalism
  • social democracy
  • power
  • elites
  • business

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