Can the BBC Survive the British Government?


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On the first weekend of May, 1926, the Trades Union Congress, which represented more than three million workers in Britain, voted for a general strike. Factories came to a stop. Trains stayed in their sidings. Cities fell quiet. Volatile crowds gathered, ready to block roads and head off strikebreakers. Virginia Woolf, who was writing “To the Lighthouse,” saw a column of armored cars roll down Oxford Street. In the House of Commons, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, accused the unions of “going nearer to proclaiming civil war than we have been for centuries past.” But it was hard for Baldwin’s words—anyone’s words—to travel far. National newspapers had ceased to print. Unions and strike councils put out their own pamphlets, under the threat of police raids. The government was producing the British Gazette, under the editorship of Winston Churchill, the hawkish Chancellor of the Exchequer, but everyone could see that it was propaganda. “One believes nothing,” Woolf wrote in her diary. “So we go on, turning in our cage.”

The task of reporting the strike fell to the British Broadcasting Company, an experimental private monopoly of the nation’s airwaves, which had no journalists. The company had been formed three and a half years earlier, after the government, the Post Office, and the nation’s radio manufacturers agreed to avoid the “American experience” of a wireless free-for-all. By June, 1922, the U.S. had three hundred and eighteen radio stations; starting at 6 P.M. that November 14th, when the BBC began broadcasting—“Hullo, hullo, 2LO calling. 2LO calling. This is the British Broadcasting Company”—Britain had one. The new company was funded by royalties from the sale of radios and a ten-shilling “licence fee,” paid annually to the state.

The earliest days of the broadcaster, captured vividly in “The BBC: A Century on Air,” by David Hendy, a media historian at the University of Sussex, were scrappy and utopian. Its first headquarters was a warren of offices and studios not far from the River Thames. “If you sneeze or rustle papers, you will DEAFEN THOUSANDS,” a framed notice next to the microphone read. Shows went out live and unrehearsed: dance music, stories for children, George Bernard Shaw reading his new play. The BBC’s original staff included a disproportionate number of pilots from the First World War, who believed that the air held limitless possibilities for society. The news was an afterthought. “I wasn’t wild about what was happening in the world. . . . I didn’t really care what was happening in Abyssinia,” Cecil Lewis, a former fighter ace, poet, and founding employee, recalled. “We were hooked on the idea of entertainment.” BBC bulletins, which were rehashed from news-agency copy, were forbidden before 7 P.M., to avoid competing with the newspapers.

The general strike changed all that. John Reith, the BBC’s first general manager, broke the news that the strike was imminent, broadcasting from his apartment, around the corner from the Houses of Parliament. With Fleet Street out of action, a team of ten improvised the BBC’s first newsroom, to handle the gush of telegrams, letters, messages, and speeches sent in by unions, strike councils, and government departments. The Post Office lifted the BBC’s reporting restrictions: news bulletins went out five times a day. “The sensation of a general strike centres around the headphones of the wireless set,” Beatrice Webb, the sociologist and a co-founder of the London School of Economics, wrote in her diary.

The power of the ether became manifest. The more combative members of Baldwin’s Cabinet, led by Churchill, wanted the government to take over the BBC. On the fourth day of the strike, Reith went to 10 Downing Street to try and protect the broadcaster. He understood that if it became the voice of the state it would cease to be trusted, and if it opposed the state it would not survive. “Assuming the BBC is for the people, and that the Government is for the people, it follows that the BBC must be for the Government in this crisis too,” Reith argued that day. For the rest of the strike, he brokered a form of editorial autonomy, if not independence: refusing Churchill’s more outrageous requests; rejecting an address from the Archbishop of Canterbury, which was considered too sympathetic to the strikers; and coaching Baldwin through his address to the population, which was also broadcast from Reith’s apartment. “I am a man of peace,” Baldwin reassured Britain, with a line written by Reith.

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When the strike ended, Reith was delivering the lunchtime news. A few hours later, he read out messages from the King and the Prime Minister. “As for the BBC,” Reith said, “we hope your confidence in, and goodwill to us, have not suffered. We have labored under certain difficulties, the full story of which may be told one day.” An orchestra played in the background while Reith recited verses from “Jerusalem,” by William Blake. Then he read the weather.

The BBC will always be stuck in the complex embrace of the British state. The corporation operates under a royal charter, which is updated every ten years or so, and says it must be “independent in all matters.” But everyone knows that it’s more complicated than that. The license fee, which provided seventy-five per cent of the BBC’s income in 2021, is set by the government, and the broadcaster’s board is open to political appointees.

Reith, who became the BBC’s first and longest-serving director general, was also its philosopher king, establishing the belief system in which such an institution could exist. The son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, Reith had been shot in the face by a sniper during the First World War. When he interviewed for the job of running the BBC, he didn’t know what broadcasting was. But by 1924 he had become convinced that radio had the effect of “making the nation as one man.”

The BBC’s mission, Reith decided, was to “inform, educate and entertain.” The verb “to broadcast” should hew to its Biblical and agricultural origins: seeds of knowledge and culture were to be dispersed far and wide, on rocky places and on fertile soil. “The Sower,” a modernist stone sculpture, by Eric Gill, stands in the lobby of the BBC’s current headquarters, which was built in 1932. Reith was overtly paternalist, an admirer of Mussolini. “There was an underlying belief that the BBC served listeners best by giving them not what they wanted but what they needed,” Hendy writes.

In Reithian terms, the first century of the BBC—nine-tenths of it, anyway—has been a triumph. For a large, tax-funded body, heavy on ideals, its output has often been oddly agile and human. One night in September, 1928, the broadcaster devoted all seven studios in its Savoy Hill headquarters to a live, modernist sound experiment, “Kaleidoscope,” during which more than a hundred musicians, engineers, and actors performed “A Rhythm representing the Life of a Man from Cradle to Grave.” The Daily Telegraph likened it to being given “gas in the dentist’s chair.” On the morning of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, in 1953, a camera operator quietly swapped his two-inch wide-angle lens—which had been agreed upon with the Palace—for a twelve-inch zoom, allowing royal closeups for an audience of 20.4 million British adults.

Many of the BBC’s greatest successes have occurred for the sake of what the broadcaster calls “lift.” In 1947, Etienne Amyot, a pianist and a planner for the BBC’s Third Programme, brought the entire Vienna State Opera Company to London, simply to play European music at a standard that had not been heard since the war. Seventeen years later, Geoffrey Bridson, a left-wing producer and writer from Manchester, collaborated with his friend Langston Hughes to make “The Negro in America,” a loose, nineteen-part season of plays, conversations, poetry, and documentary that presented the civil-rights struggle to British listeners. “The BBC is the most—I love it!” Hughes wrote.

In 1993, A. N. Wilson, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, accused the BBC’s natural-history unit of staging footage of a leopard seal attacking a penguin, arguing that it couldn’t have made sense for a camera crew to stake out the frozen wastes long enough to capture such a thing by chance. The BBC threatened to sue; Wilson apologized. David Attenborough, whose first blockbuster series, “Life on Earth” (1977), involved research visits to a hundred and eighty-three scientific institutions, sympathized: “What organization is it who’s going to say, ‘We’re going to start investing in this and there will be no return at all for three years’? No other broadcasting organization I know.” After watching the final episode of “Life on Earth,” Clive James, the television critic, found himself “distracted only by envy for my own children, for whom knowledge was being brought alive in a way that never happened for my generation or indeed for any previous generation in all of history.”