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Dimbleby, David (1938-)

Presenter, Interviewer, Reporter

Main image of Dimbleby, David (1938-)

The career of David Dimbleby, alongside that of his younger brother Jonathan, has ensured that the Dimbleby dynasty has dominated television current affairs in Britain for more than half a century. Blessed with the gravitas, journalistic integrity and consummate professionalism that characterised his father, the broadcasting giant Richard Dimbleby, he has assumed a similar status as the BBC's most trusted anchor, presiding over election coverage, state occasions and political analysis with the same invincible authority.

Born 28 October 1938, he was editor of the student magazine Isis at Oxford, and joined BBC Bristol after graduating. By 1962 he was working on network news programmes, and at the end of the decade found himself at the centre of an unexpected controversy for his comments, made in the context of a visit to Britain by then US President Richard Nixon, about the less than scrupulous honesty of political press secretaries. It was a view that would hardly raise eyebrows in today's spin-doctored politics, but which nevertheless won Dimbleby a summons to explain himself to the BBC's director of television.

In 1971, he was caught up in another storm following the broadcast of the documentary 'Yesterday's Men' (tx. 17/6/1971), in the 24 Hours strand (BBC, 1965-72), which satirised a Labour Party defeated in the previous year's general election and featured an interview with Harold Wilson in which Dimbleby questioned the ex-prime minister on the profits of his memoirs. Following objections from Wilson, cuts were made, but the programme still drew strong charges of anti-Labour bias (the BBC's defence was not helped by the appearance, in the same slot the following evening, of a considerably friendlier analysis of the Conservatives, entitled 'Mr Heath's Quiet Revolution'). Since then, Dimbleby has been a paragon of impartiality, to the extent that even friends and close colleagues have declared themselves entirely unsure which political party, if any, might win his vote.

In November 1974 he took over the chair of the BBC's flagship current affairs show, Panorama (1953-), that had for a decade been occupied by his father. 1979 saw Dimbleby garnering awards for The White Tribe of Africa, a four-part history of South Africa's Afrikaans community and the rise of Apartheid, while furthering his reputation as a heavyweight interviewer with the eight-part Person to Person, in which he interviewed a series of key cultural and political figures, including Lord Denning, Arthur Scargill, Peter Hall and Mary Whitehouse. The same year saw him co-presenting, with Robin Day, the BBC's general election night coverage.

He has been the BBC's anchor for every British general election since - 2005 was his seventh - as well as most local, European and US presidential elections. Such occasions stretch the machinery of live television to its limits, with many hours of airtime and feeds from cameras and reporters scattered across hundreds of geographically diverse constituencies, and Dimbleby's unflappable composure is a crucial asset - and a neat counterpoint to the boyish excitability of Peter Snow.

As well as the other political specials that fall into his orbit - budget specials, party conferences - he has become, like his father, the presenter of choice for state occasions: the state opening of parliament, Trooping the Colour, Remembrance events at the Cenotaph. He presided over the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 (second only to the 1966 World Cup Final in the list of the most-watched broadcasts in British television history), and followed that with the Queen Mother's funeral in 2002; he also hosted the Millennium celebrations, the somewhat shambolic nature of which was no fault of his. His peerless gravitas and soothing, dignified voice are among the reasons why the nation continues to turn to the BBC at such times.

Meanwhile, he combined presenting Panorama with similar duties on This Week Next Week (1984-88). In 1988 he presented the seven-part documentary An Ocean Apart, examining the history of Anglo-American relations. 1999's Rebellion! took a similarly forensic approach to the history of Britain's more troubled relations with Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. In 1994 he took over the chair of Question Time (1979-) from Peter Sissons.

Dimbleby has been a loyal Corporation man for more than 40 years (while his brother has largely shadowed him on ITV - election nights have for some time offered viewers a choice of Dimblebys), but although he is unchallenged as the political presenter's presenter, he has so far failed to ascend to the BBC's upper echelons. In 1987 he lost out to Michael Checkland in the race to replace Alistair Milne as Director General, and was beaten to the chairmanship by Gavyn Davies in 2001. He has reason to be grateful for the latter defeat, although he might have presented a less easy target for New Labour's attack on the Corporation in the wake of the Hutton report.

In 2005, he returned to the authored documentary format with an ambitious six-part history of inspirational effect of the British landscape on the country's artists, A Picture of Britain.

Mark Duguid

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