BBC History Magazine’s ‘ordinary’ people tweet: a response

Following a tweet from our account that prompted debate, criticism, and some outright anger, David Musgrove – content director of BBC History Magazine and History Extra – offers a little more context beyond Twitter's 280 characters and lays out BBC History Magazine’s approach to publishing ‘ordinary’ histories…

BBC History Magazine covers: March 2019 and April 2019.

Earlier this week, we asked the following question on Twitter:

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Hands-up, this was a somewhat clumsy attempt by us to engage with a conversation started on Twitter by the historian Hallie Rubenhold that suggested there is too much focus in public and popular history on great figures (principally men), and by extension the great events they were involved in (wars, acts of parliament etc) – to the detriment of the presentation of the lives and times of the less exalted people of the past.

Incidentally, Hallie’s new book on the stories of the victims of Jack the Ripper is getting a lot of attention (and she’s interviewed about this in the current issue of BBC History Magazine), and we thought the debate that she had ignited online was an interesting one to look at.

However, because of our initial poorly-phrased tweet, we threw ourselves into the fire of twitter opinion with many historians wryly, drily, or angrily observing that we appeared to have overlooked many decades of deep and detailed work into social history. So, as the Twitterstorm engulfed us, we proposed a more considered question:

Now, as I understand it, Hallie wasn’t saying that historians themselves aren’t researching these areas (because clearly they are), but rather questioning why their research doesn’t percolate more liberally into the realm of popular history. Why, she asked: “aren’t the bookshop shelves heaving with the stories of Tudors whose names we never knew, or the lives of black Victorian women? Why are there not documentaries exploring the histories of ordinary people (without a link to a celebrity)?”

Our follow-up tweet did, hopefully, go some distance towards nuancing the question and bringing it more in line with Hallie’s contention – and led to some very interesting responses. I can’t speak for book publishers or TV commissioners, but I thought it might be of some interest to lay out our approach – at BBC History Magazine, BBC World Histories Magazine, and HistoryExtra.com – to this topic.

It is true, to an extent, that the covers of our magazines do focus on the well-known figures and events from the past. That’s not exclusively the case – our March 2019 issue, for example, went with a lead story about the Victorian underworld, with the cover image being a photo montage of two figures who were no doubt entirely unfamiliar to our readers. The April issue, on the other hand, is undeniably hooked on a great (or not so great in his case) man story, with the tomb effigy of King John staring out from the cover.

BBC History Magazine covers: March 2019 and April 2019.
BBC History Magazine covers: March 2019 and April 2019.

Experience tells me that the chances are that the King John issue will sell better than the Victorian underworld one. Given that we’re trying to reach as wide an audience as we can with every issue, that does lead our logic on the cover stories we choose. Why would a great man story be more compelling to potential readers than a social history story? I’m sure it’s got something to do with the enthusiasm for celebrity culture that underpins much media commentary (no doubt Greg Jenner’s upcoming book in this area will offer some interesting insight into this). But more importantly, I’d say it’s the sense of familiarity that drives interest – most of us like to read about topics, people or events that we are already aware of – albeit with a new take, twist or angle (which hopefully is what we provide in BBC History Magazine). That’s the vicious circle that Hallie was addressing in her comments, and her reason for arguing that we need to redefine the very concept of history away from the “great deeds of great men” approach.

Right now though, I’m afraid, it’s a much harder task to get the passing reader to pick up a magazine that shouts about the life of a person who has not come into your consciousness at all. I suppose, also, there is the question of consequence; however fascinating the life of an ‘ordinary person’ from the past might have been, if that person’s actions didn’t have an impact on wider developments in history, the passing reader seems to be less inclined to want to invest time and money in a magazine in order to find out about them.

It’s important to say that I’m talking about the occasional buyer of history magazines, rather than the professional historian or seasoned enthusiast, who I’m sure would be quite happy to read about ‘ordinary people’ if social history is an interest area for them. My contention would be that these great figures and great events do act as gatekeeper stories for those who are fresher to history. Once you’ve been tempted to pick up a copy of BBC History Magazine or BBC World Histories, inside is a rich blend of content that goes far beyond the main cover story.

In BBC History Magazine recently, you’ve been able to read features on the Victorian school day; Viking women; bored imperialists in the British empire; female power in Reformation Europe, a Polish man who recorded songs and lyrics of Concentration Camp prisoners; an American businessman’s observations on Victorian London; and an English nurse in Russia who had a grandstand view of the 1917 revolution. That’s just in the last three issues, where you’ve also been able to read about King John, Amritsar, the Great Escape, Henry VI, Matilda and the Civil War, Viking invasions, and a whole lot more besides.

Because the magazines contain such wide-ranging features inside, the big person/big event approach to our covers allows us to open up a whole lot of historical stories to readers that they might not ever have come across otherwise. A lot of these features are derived from research that’s gone into history books of course, or TV or radio programmes, so I would contend that this sort of research is filtering into the mainstream of historical popular culture, but perhaps the background noise of anniversaries, blockbuster biographies and big-screen programming is drowning it out still.

I’ve so far only mentioned features from our last few issues. If you want to judge us on our breadth and diversity of content over the long run, we have recently created an area on our website – The Library – where subscribers to BBC History Magazine can access the archive of features that we’ve published in the past decade. Seeing as you’ve got to the bottom of this piece, you deserve a reward, so if you’re not a subscriber, click here to trial The Library* for a month to see what you think.

We’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on the content in The Library if you do take a look, so do feel free to give us your views. In the meantime, we will be more careful on Twitter (we weren’t trolling, it was an honest mistake) – but we’ll continue to attempt to keep our followers up to date with what historians are talking about, and how history is being reflected in the wider cultural conversation.

David Musgrove is the content director and former editor of BBC History Magazine.

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