Why I believe there should be even more history on television

July 2, 2004

When the Institute of Historical Research hosted a conference on "History and the Media", our starting point was the widespread perception that history is more popular than ever, and that the relationship between history and the media has never been as close. There are many explanations for this, some of them strikingly contradictory: the anti-historical ideology of new Labour, the end of empire following the handover of Hong Kong, the unprecedented number of history graduates in Britain, the lack of adequate space in the national curriculum for history teaching, the exponential proliferation of television channels. In truth, no one quite knows why history is so hot, and no one knows how long the boom will last.

During the three days of the conference, held in 2002, some 400 people listened to (among others) Taylor Downing, Simon Schama, Jeremy Isaacs, Roger Smither, Melvyn Bragg, Tristram Hunt, Max Hastings, Ian Kershaw, John Tusa, Jean Seaton and David Puttnam. Their contributions have been collected in a book, to be launched this month, that brings together historians with experience of the media and media people interested in history.

Of course, it is important not to get carried away. There are some hair-shirted scholars to whom involvement with the media is anathema, selling out and dumbing down; just as there are some television producers who are irresponsible in their use of history - and cavalier in their use of historians. But the participants in our conference, and in the book, were preponderantly sympathetic to the possibilities and problems of the media and of bringing history to it. It was from this common ground of excitement and concern that issues were highlighted and difficulties registered.

Most historians think in words, but for television and film, they must think primarily in pictures. A disproportionate amount of television history is widely believed to be about the two world wars and the Nazis, yet what about taking a broader and longer view of the past? At its best, television history conveys the immediacy of historic events with unrivalled vividness; but it is less good at providing context, perspective or proportion. The most exciting work by today's historians tries to present many voices and different views; but history on the media is still largely confined to linear narrative.

These are some of the issues that our conference and book sought to open up, in the hope that the conversations thus begun would be continued, developed and intensified elsewhere. There is already a sufficient body of historical work - in the press, on radio and television and on film - to justify and, indeed, to demand a more systematic reflection and analysis than it has so far received. There is a need to stand back, draw breath, take stock - of what has been done, and of what might be done and should be tried.

Why is it, for instance, that news coverage almost invariably lacks historical perspective? The answer is partly structural: history departments and current affairs departments in broadcasting inhabit parallel but separate universes. It is partly logistical: when a news story breaks, there is often no time to find a historical expert. But it is also cultural: a deliberate unwillingness to admit that coverage of current affairs would benefit from a broader perspective. Thus understood, we need more history on television and radio, not only as separate, stand-alone "history" programmes, but also as a more pervasive means of informing breaking news.

David Cannadine
Professor of British history
Institute for Historical Research

David Cannadine is editor of History and the Media , a collection of contributions to the IHR's 2002 conference, which will be launched at this year's Anglo-American conference at the IHR.

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