Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History and the Official Historian of the BBC. In 2017, Profile Books published an updated edition of her volume on the history of the Corporation, entitled Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the Nation 1974-1987. The book covers everything the BBC did in a tumultuous decade, ranging from the Troubles in Northern Ireland, to the invasion of the Falklands, to Not the Nine O'Clock News, the Proms, the early music revolution, devolution, Dennis Potter's greatest plays, Attenborough's revolutionary series Life on Earth, and Radio 1s most influential moment, as well as the role of women in the Corporation, programmes for children and a tense and complicated relationship with the government. The history was given privileged access to BBC archives and state papers, and also depended on several hundred interviews. It explored both the programme making decisions that go into the making of an iconic television series like John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and also the high politics around the imposition of the broadcasting ban.
She has been involved in a variety of policy discussions within the BBC, because of her understanding of the historical precedent and shape of concerns. She has also assisted programme makers in formulating problems more accurately as well as appearing on programmes as an expert witness. Her chapters in John Mair’s edited collections, published in 2020 by Bite-Sized Books, use her expertise on the BBC’s history to make arguments about its present and future.
In 2019, her book Power Without Responsibility: Press, Broadcasting and the Internet in Britain (co-authored with James Curran) won the International Communication Association’s Fellows Book Award for the book that has most influenced the discipline. The 8th edition of this classic text had been published by Routledge in the previous year, containing new research on the international role of the British media, on social media, and on the relationship between programmes, institutions and society. It has become a standard book on media and other courses, and has been translated into many other languages (including Chinese, Portuguese and Arabic). The book continues to aim to change the media as well as describe them.
Since 2007, she has served as Director of the Orwell Foundation, succeeding Sir Bernard Crick. The Orwell Prizes, awarded annually, have become Britain's premier prizes for political writing, setting standards and holding journalism to account, as well as celebrating good journalism and writing. Under her stewardship, they have become a well-known and respected force in journalism. In 2014, it launched an Orwell Youth Prize, designed to encourage literary and political engagement among the young, and it continues to run a successful series of annual lectures given by eminent public figures, including Tristram Hunt, Daniel Finkelstein, Rowan Williams and Hilary Mantel.
With Professor Rosie Thomas, she created and runs the FCDO Chevening South Asian Journalists Programme. This pioneered bringing high-flying journalists from across contested borders in South Asia together in the UK for an immersive experience of UK media, culture, politics, society and issues. It has been replicated in the new African FCDO programme also run at Westminster.
She has also written widely on the history and role of the media in politics, wars, atrocities, the Holocaust, revolutions, security issues and religion as well as news and journalism and is particularly interested in the impact of the media on children. She has contributed to policy debates and formulation especially concerning public service content and freedom of speech.
Her Carnage and the Media: the Making and Breaking of News about Violence (Penguin, 2005) gives a perhaps unexpected account of sensation in the reporting of news about violence and audience reactions to it. While examining the destructive power of contemporary media in attack mode, it also shows how news paints stories in emotions and argues for the values of stoic fortitude. It demonstrates how news provides us with contemporary ceremonies, and also contains a pictorial essay examining many iconic images and their role in the news.
Her concern with the impact of the media on politics has been developed in a series of books, including (ed. with Ben Pimlott) The Media in British Politics (Gower, Aldershot, 1987), Politics and the Media: Harlots and Prerogatives at the Turn of the Millennium (Blackwells, 1998), and with John Lloyd of the Financial Times, What Can be Done? Making the Media and Politics Better (Blackwells, 2006). This long term concern with politics and the media has been developed through curating several collections of essays in Political Quarterly, and publishing some of her own on, among other topics, ‘Fact checking and information in the age of Covid’ (2020), ‘Brexit and the Media’ (2016), and ‘The BBC and metabolising Britishness’ (2007). She also published chapters on ‘The Monarchy, Popularity, Legitimacy and the Media’ in Robert Hazell and Bob Morris (eds.), The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy (Hart Publishing, 2020), and on ‘The BBC: Guardian of Public Understanding in Arjen Boin et al (eds.), Guardians of Public Value: How Public Organisations Become and Remain Institutions (Palgrave, 2021).
Her interest in the role of the media in conflict has been developed in (ed. with Tim Allen), War, Ethnicity and the Media (Development Books, 1996) and (ed. with Tim Allen) The Media of Conflict. It was taken further in Carnage and the Media, and developed in her work as BBC historian on the BBC in Northern Ireland during the conflict. This evolved into her being asked to deliver the Twentieth Century British History Ben Pimlott Memorial Lecture in 2012 and its resulting essay, revealing for the first time the background to the imposition of the Broadcasting Ban in 1987. She has opened an exhibition at the Belfast Museum, and run workshops on the BBC and reporting. Her interest in reporting on the Cold War is evident in her essay on ‘The BBC as a Pragmatic Ethical Engineer at Home and Abroad’ (Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 2008) and her chapter with Rosaleen Hughes on ‘The BBC and the Cuban missile crisis’, published in D. Gioe et al (ed.), An International History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2014). In 2015-16, she was co-investigator on the Imperial War Museum’s research project ‘Listening to the World’, which examined the academic potential of BBC Monitoring transcripts. Her relationship with the Imperial War Museum continued in 2018, when she was appointed Associate of their Institute for the Public Understanding of War and Conflict.
She sits on the editorial boards of Political Quarterly, Twentieth Century British History and Media History, and on the editorial advisory board of Prospect. She has received research awards from the AHRC, the BBC, The British Academy, the Leverhulme and the Axess Foundation. She is a founding member of several active media NGO's that hold the media to account, including Full Fact and the Reuters Institute. She has chaired and served on a variety of public enquiries, including on the Broadcasting of Parliament and on the use of images of children for the Home Office.
She was awarded the Thank-Offering to Britain Fellowship for her work on the BBC and the Holocaust. She speaks frequently at conferences and public meetings.
She broadcasts regularly on historical, political and cultural matters.
She supervises PhD students across a wide range of political and cultural topics.