More strikingly, when the old contract for news expired with the end of the Broadcasting Company, the newspapers boldly proposed the extension of the same restrictions. “Naturally,” the Yearbook comments, “the newspaper interests sought to stabilise and perpetuate the old arrangement; whereas the B.B.C. asked for greater freedom in all directions. The result was a reasonable and amicable compromise, which took the form of a year's agreement.” (345) This meant that the new arrangement enabled the BBC to collect its own material but the broadcasting hours of the news remained limited. The last restraint remained for almost a decade, and it took the European crisis of September 1938, as Paulu concludes, “to put daytime news bulletins on the BBC's domestic networks, where they have stayed ever since.” (157)
The second pillar of broadcasting was education of both adults and children. As Reith indicated, it was another necessity because the existence of a medium able “to override distance, to overcome inequalities of teaching ability, to broadcast seed to a wind that will take it to every fertile corner - imposes the duty of taking advantage of it.” (Reith in YB 1928 34) The BBC’s school broadcasting service was set up in 1924 and in 1929 accompanied by the Central Council for School Broadcasting. Apart from the education of children, the BBC had been also actively involved in the development of educational broadcasts for adults in the form of additional talks and dramas. In 1923 the BBC created an Educational Advisory Committee, and three years later established cooperation with the British Institute of Adult Education. (Paulu 186) Education, of course, did not mean only programmes specifically designed to that purpose but included also already mentioned news broadcasting as the means of obtaining new information, as well as various cultural programmes, talks and quizzes. The ideal programme would thus at least to a certain extent combine all three categories, information, education and entertainment. The last mentioned item was not, as Reith emphasized, a mere must but a social obligation: “To provide relaxation is no less positive an element of policy than any other. Mitigation of the strain of a high-pressure life, such as the last generation scarcely knew, is a primary social necessity, and that necessity must be satisfied.” (34) Lastly, religious programmes were, particularly under Reith’s supervision, of great importance and on “Reith Sundays” only religious and serious programmes were to be broadcast. The fact that one of the programmes was directly named after the BBC’s Manager indicates a lot about his position in the Corporation, as will be explored in the next section.
1.2. John Reith and Arnoldian Vision
“How would the BBC have developed if its first director had been a career civil servant, a banker, or a Bloomsbury intellectual?,” asks Seaton and makes an attempt to answer the challenging question:
Many of the features of broadcasting which are taken for granted today would certainly be absent. Reith’s domination of the Corporation in its early days was massive, totalitarian, and idiosyncratic, and for many decades the traditions of the BBC seemed to flow directly from his personality. The British Broadcasting Company was set up as a business. Reith turned it into a crusade. (108)
Reith was unquestionably a dominant figure. The term ‘Reithianism’ gained the place as an entry in Oxford Reference, defined as “a vision of public service broadcasting associated with the Scotsman John Reith (1889–1971), who became managing director of the BBC in 1923 and declared that it should aim to inform, educate, and entertain (very much in that order).”6 The principle to inform, educate and entertain so aptly reflected the vision of the first General Manager and his way of running the BBC that the three iconic items have not only been labelled as ‘Reithian values’ but have also become the central mission of newly established company.
Tracing back Reith’s beginnings within the organization, it is surprising to discover that a person hired to lead the first public broadcasting company in the country had no concrete vision, let alone a master plan in mind of how to do so. Reith admitted in his autobiography that accepting the position equalled a journey into the unknown: “The fact is I hadn’t the remotest idea as to what broadcasting was. I hadn’t troubled to find out. If I had tried I should probably have found difficulty in discovering anyone who knew.” (Reith qtd. in Avery 12) On the other hand, the fact remains that the beginning of British broadcasting was a move into largely uncharted territory. Even though there were American stations to draw inspiration from, there existed no definition of what it meant to broadcast in Britain and Reith along with the Board of Governors were therefore given a free hand in organising broadcasting and appointing staff. Logically, the immense responsibility of the organization that had opted to accept the role of an instrument of public good serving to the whole nation must have put increasing pressure on the management. In 1924 Reith published the book Broadcast over Britain in which he outlined the basic ideology of broadcasting and proclaimed that “to have exploited so great a scientific invention for the purpose and pursuit of entertainment alone would have been a prostitution of its powers and an insult to the character and intelligence of the people.” (Reith qtd. in Briggs 7) The view that Reith did not consider light entertainment as vital as informing and educating takes for example Seaton, who argues that variety shows, comedies and similar programs were meant to “provide periods of relaxation in the broadcasting diet of the Reithian ‘average’ listener.” (147) Todd Avery discusses Reith’s position in the BBC in his publication Literature, Ethics and the BBC in 1922-1938. Avery highlights and explains Reith’s tendencies to educate the public: “Reith saw broadcasting as a vehicle of national discipline. Drawing on his understanding of Matthew Arnold’s cultural theory, he conceptualized culture itself and the new cultural form, broadcasting, as allies in a fight against “doing as one likes,” one of Arnold’s definitions of anarchy.” 7 (15) Reith possessed great confidence both in himself and his knowledge of what the public needed, being persuaded that the BBC produced the best radio broadcast in the world. However, his authoritarian style of negatively influenced his image outside the walls of the BBC. For example, in 1936 the Labour MP George Lansbury declared that Reith “would have made a very excellent Hitler for his country.” Moreover, Reith’s admiration of Mussolini and of the strictness of German broadcasters who had banned jazz music8 did not help to improve his reputation and provoked harsh remarks even on the address of the whole BBC as “the nearest thing in this country to Nazi government that can be shown,” which was a comment made by another labour member. (bbc.co.uk/John Reith) In his book Into the Wild Reith retrospectively reflected on the criticism of his approach:
In earliest years accused of setting out to give the public not what it wanted but what the BBC thought it should have, the answer was that few knew what they wanted, few what they needed. In any event, it was better to over-estimate than to under-estimate. If another policy had been adopted —that of the lowest common denominator — what then? Probably nobody would have protested; it would have been quite natural." (144)
This often quoted assumption that the BBC knew what was best for the British nation to listen to was so deeply rooted that Listener Research Department of audience listening preferences and habits, an essential part of today’s programme policies, was introduced in its basic form in 1936. Judging by Reith’s way of thinking, the reason why he did not hasten the introduction of audience research into the BBC could likely be connected to the fact that once popular preferences were known, the programme makers would be too heavily influenced by them, thus ruining his ‘high standards’ ideology. The first Head of the Listener Research Section Robert Silvey acknowledged in the Year Book from 1939 that at that time there was no definite method of carrying out the research and a “number of superficially attractive schemes of listener research were examined and set aside -usually, though not always solely, on the grounds of expense.” (55) As can be seen in the BBC annual publications, the Corporation communicated with listeners through correspondence, the letters were replied and opinions solicited via the Radio Times, however, one cannot avoid feeling that such formal cooperation meant rather “we know you are here” than “we will give you what you ask for.” This is more or less confirmed by Paulu who claims that even though Listener Research section carried out research about the audience, it could not apply their findings and did not have any influence on programme making. (113)
For what sort of listeners did the Corporation initially broadcast? On the one hand, the BBC was undoubtedly playing its part in popularizing the Monarchy, since the 1930s were in the terms of broadcasting dominated by outside events connected to the royal family, including the visits, anniversaries, opening and particularly the Coronation. On the other hand, the needs of the lower and working class were not apparently catered for to the fullest, which could be assumed from the information provided by Andrew Crisell in An Introductory History of British Broadcasting:
But although the listener was provided for at this material level, the BBC remained largely in the dark as to her or his composite identity. In the absence of precise knowledge it was thus necessary to ´construct´ the listener – and not surprisingly the BBC did so in its own image. Consistent with its conservative and elitist cultural perspective, it recruited most of its own staff from the educated middle class, and this provided the social background and moral values of the audience it constructed. (39)
To sum up, cultural values and not listeners’ interests were of primary importance in the first decade, with the BBC basing its programming policy on training and educating the public. Nevertheless, one thing that can be safely deduced is that it would not be fair to blame Reith alone for the aversion against the concept of audience research. Regardless of how big his supremacy over the organization was, he would have hardly succeeded in his mission if the majority of the BBC’s management had not been convinced about the rightness of such approach. When Reith resigned on his post in 1938 and accepted a job as a chairman of Imperial Airways, the BBC then proclaimed that “What the ether has lost, the air has gained!” (YB 1939 9) On the contrary, Paulu holds the view that even though Reith did a good job in the first years of the corporation, he would not be successful later and “his would not be the talents to head a broadcasting system today, when the public must be taken more into account.” (99) The fact is that the BBC had stuck to his principles for too long. As will be demonstrated in the next chapter, completely different approach to broadcasting was required with the outbreak of war.
2. The BBC at War
While the first programming stage spans from 1922 to 1938, the second encompasses a shorter but by no means less eventful period. It is commonly assumed that the war years helped the BBC to fully establish its position in British cultural and political life. Therefore, the foremost aim of this chapter is to examine the BBC’s conduct during the war and to pinpoint enforced changes in the scheme for broadcasting previously proposed by Reith. Firstly, the ineffective activity of the Corporation in the early stage of war is analysed to argue that the BBC was successful neither in informing nor entertaining the nation during the first months of emergency, and that a steady improvement of the service came approximately from the year 1940 onwards, chiefly as a result of more refined news coverage. Secondly, the BBC’s attitude to propaganda and the tense relations with the government are examined to determine the effect of their cooperation on the content and quality of programming. The Year Books, this time especially from 1939 and 1946, again provide insight into the thinking of the BBC and the government and prove invaluable in detecting and grasping the BBC’s actions.
2.1. The Pre-war Situation
All weaknesses the BBC had before 1939 did not cease to exist but had, on the contrary, fully manifested themselves after the outbreak of war, thus stressing the urgent need for reform within the Corporation. It will thus not be amiss to provide a brief overview of the broadcasting situation at the very brink of the war.
Firstly, in 1938 the BBC statistics reported that there “are about 9,000,000 wireless receiving licences in Great Britain and Northern Ireland and therefore probably about 32,000,000 listeners.” (YB 1939 86) It is an incredible number, considering the fact that in 1938 the overall population of the UK was 47,490,000 persons.9
Secondly, due to a shortage of broadcasting frequencies and the limited number of wavelengths the BBC offered in Great Britain and Northern Ireland only two national networks in the period between 1927 and 1946. The most important aspect of broadcasting was the National Service that was uniform throughout the country and the second alternative network was the Regional Service, divided into six regional stations that shared common programmes but occasionally broadcasted their own local programmes.
Thirdly, the BBC was constantly facing the accusation of rigid attitudes and lack of attention towards the taste of the listeners. “Although the corporation never entirely ignored popular taste, program policies in those days were relatively inflexible,” writes Paulu and adds that “too little attention was paid to listeners' interests, with the result that such foreign commercial stations as Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandy made heavy inroads into the BBC's home audience.” (145) If the Corporation previously did not consider this persisting problem as a serious shortcoming, it was a high time to re-evaluate because the competition was steadily gaining ground and foreign stations were successfully wooing away a part of the listeners. In fact, there are at least three possible reasons that could have caused the overflow of listeners, all of them connected with the insufficient broadcasting scheme of the day.
Firstly, the pre-war BBC offered fairly limited broadcasting hours, especially during the weekends. In 1938 the BBC was on the air weekdays from 10:15 A.M. until midnight and on Sunday from 9:30 A.M. to 11:00 P.M when the programme consisted for the most part of light music. Moreover, the extension of Sunday programme service came just in April 1938. Till then “the only transmission on Sunday mornings before 12.30 p.m. was a Religious Service at 9.25 a.m. followed by a Weather Forecast.” (YB 1939 15) There was really not much choice for someone who would like to spend some time listening early in the morning. Secondly, the fares of the two networks, National and Regional, were not markedly differentiated because the Regional originated in London and regions only contributed individual programmes planned so as “to contain items of particular interest to listeners in various local areas.” (YB 1939 107) Thirdly, and that could have been the biggest disadvantage, no news was broadcast before 6:00 P.M. until the 1938 Munich crisis. This was, of course, the result of the aforementioned agreement between the BBC and the then very influential press. Listeners consequently sought other sources of information and pastimes. With the crisis of 1938 and the possibility of war at the door, London became the centre for international broadcasting which could have undoubtedly worked to the BBC’s advantage. However, the Yearbook from 1939 described the BBC’s initial position during the crisis as follows:
The heavy burden carried by the news staff who compiled the bulletins and the announcers who read them needs no emphasis. Programmes had to be carefully watched in order that nothing in them might strike a false note. Some had to be cancelled at short notice for this reason. [...] Telephone calls came in at the rate of nearly 1,000 a day asking what time the next news bulletin would be broadcast, what had been said in the last one, whether this or that rumour was true, and a host of other questions. And while all this was happening the BBC had to complete its own plans, laid many months earlier, for the continuance of the broadcasting service in case of war. (35)
The BBC’s reports were structured to create the image of the Corporation as of the still perfect Reithian public service. The BBC was good at communicating with the public in that it was able to mention on every occasion how hard and tirelessly it had to work to provide the best. At the end of the report the BBC claimed that “The listener recollecting no serious mistakes may think that life in Broadcasting House was not disturbed.” (YB 1939 35) The assumption of its own stability was false and arrogant because, as will be now explored, during the first war days listeners not only recollected a lot of mistakes but they also minded them.
2.2. The BBC not ready to ‘hold the fort’
The first change that marked the abandonment of peace–time methods of transmission came on 1 September 1939. From that day National Service and regional varieties were merged into one network under the name Home Service. This moment, as the Year Book informs, “signified a fundamental change in the whole system of broadcasting in the United Kingdom -a system which had been evolved during nearly seventeen years of steady development.” (1940 41) The second organizational change came in the form of the expansion in terms of staff; the number of people working for the BBC almost doubled within a year from 6,000 at the end of 1939 to 11,000 by November of the following year. (Seaton 126) Both changes could be theoretically seen as relative advantages; only one network to focus on and more staff available should make it easier to produce high quality programmes. “Programmes,” the BBC declared, “must be framed for the information and encouragement of a people whose temper and manner of living could not fail to be changed by the coming of war.” (YB 1940 9) Jörn Weingärtner argues in The Arts as a Weapon of War: Britain and the Shaping of National Morale in World War II that the early programmes neither encouraged nor informed:
With no other entertainment left than the public house, people turned to the BBC to make the long and dark evenings at home more endurable. The BBC, however, had misjudged the situation. The programme directors had prepared for the immediate outbreak of hostilities and expected to fill the time with news. In the first report of the BBC Defence Sub-Committee, it was decided that the task of the programmes at the beginning of the war was twofold. The programmes should a) maintain public morale and b) serve as a ‘vehicle for official announcements and the radiation of reliable news’. The committee agreed that ‘the period immediately following the outbreak of war would be concerned primarily with b).’ (51)
As a result, the Corporation narrowed Reith’s policy from three vital items to one and on 3 September 1939 “provision was made for news bulletins at hourly intervals.” (YB 1940 18) However, apart from increased frequency the BBC did not deliver content because there was no news to cover:
Contrary to the expectations of the committee, though, nothing happened on 2 September 1939, nor on the following days which would have required official announcements or the ‘radiation of reliable news,’ thus leaving the BBC with the problem how to fill the gaps and the audience with the problem of what think of the fare they were given. (Weingärtner 51)
In the 1940 Yearbook, the BBC reluctantly admitted that “there was in the first days of the war a strange lack of events and news.” However, “Emergency programmes had been prepared in detail. In numbered boxes the gramophone record programmes were stacked ready to `hold the fort' for a transition period estimated to last for a week.” (42) Perhaps this offers another example of the lack of self-reflection and the discrepancy between the Corporation’s view and reality so characteristic of the BBC, since Weingärtner presents a very different view of ‘holding the fort’. Not only does he claim that from 11 September the poor quality of broadcasted material resulted in a widespread campaign in the press against the BBC but he also directly quotes an unscrupulous comment from the then Sunday Times:
The BBC pours out into the air day after day an endless stream of trivialities and silliness, apparently labouring under the delusion that in any time of crisis the British public becomes just one colossal moron, to whose sub-simian intelligence and taste it must indulgently play down.” (in Weingärtner 52)
Other sources provide similar accounts of the BBC’s dismal performance, for instance Seaton, who also refers to British press:
When the war started normal programmes were replaced by news bulletins interspersed with serious and appropriate music. ‘Almost everything is obscured at present,’ the New Statesman10 commented on 9 September. ‘For the first days of the war the BBC monotonously repeated news which was in the morning papers and which it had itself repeated an hour earlier. While each edition of the papers repeated what had already been heard on the wireless.’ The news black-out was as complete as the black-out of the streets. (125)
Even when taken with the pinch of salt, the comments from Sunday Times and New Statement are too strikingly unanimous in their description of the BBC’s failure to be ignored. To conclude, Reith’s principles of high standards and balance were in the first war weeks put to the test and when it turned out that they were in the current situation not compatible with the needs of public, the Corporation was thrown into chaos.
The decisive factor that helped the BBC win the title ‘voice of the nation’ was the same thing that let the Corporation down in the first place; news broadcast. The maintenance of an efficient broadcasting service “both for the information and encouragement of people at home and for the dissemination of British news abroad” was without any doubt the most essential duty of the war-time Corporation. (YB 1940 43) As Seaton writes, at the beginning of war many still held the view that the BBC did not offer a satisfactory alternative to the newspapers in terms of providing trustworthy information, which was yet another reason for the rivalry between broadcasting and the press. (136)
Nevertheless, when in 1939 the BBC gained bigger control over its news sources, the radio was beginning to enjoy superiority and publicly criticized the press: “The Listener was voicing a widely held BBC view in 1941 when it claimed that while radio was concerned to report events as they occurred, news in the press was regarded as entertainment.” (Seaton 138) Moreover, the Corporation had another advantage to the press since it could reach a wider range of people from both neutral and occupied countries, which is something newspaper could not. The BBC was more efficient particularly in immediate reports from the field and in foreign broadcasts. As to the former, the War Reports broadcasted from June 1944 really hit the peak of news coverage due to its revolutionary concept. The half-hour programme was designed to bring the latest and fullest picture of the war to the home front. From today’s point of view, it was exactly the ability to get the news on the air as soon as possible that tipped the balance in favour of the BBC, and topicality became not only the main power of the wartime Corporation but also the BBC’s trademark as a consequence of the war. As to foreign and outside broadcast, the Corporation’s summary speaks for itself. “Services in six more languages were added at the outbreak of war, and by the end of 1939 transmissions to Europe amounted to 171 hours daily,” writes the Controller of European Service. “Thereafter there was steady expansion with milestones of 31 hours daily in 24 languages by the spring of 1942; nearly 40 hours daily in March, 1943. Finally the peak of nearly go hours daily, in three separate network covering in all 24 languages, was reached on 30 April.” (YB 1945 109) In conclusion, the Corporation’s post-war position as the world's leading international news broadcaster was the result of innovative components and ability to expand its service beyond the borders.