Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies



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The commonly held notion was that the public had become more serious-minded and their taste had deepened because of wartime experience. This assumption was based on the survey proving that not only the news broadcasts, but also serious music and dramas were in the beginning of the 1940s more popular than any time since the establishment of the BBC. This means that even the quality of entertainment changed for the better and helped to enhance the Corporation’s reputation. “The most striking thing about broadcasting play production in 1944,” wrote Director of Features and Drama Val Gielgud, “is the fact that - if Listener Research figures are to be believed - radio drama has now begun to challenge variety programmes, always excepting the inimitable ' Itma', for sheer quantitative popularity.” (YB 1945 53) The ITMA, in full It’s That Man Again, was one of the programmes came to light in January 1940 when the existing Home Service was supplemented by special programmes introduced under the name For the Forces. It was a radio comedy full of innuendos and topical jokes, and in Seaton’s opinion it “summed up public frustration and vent it up,” finally brining the humour back to ordinary people. (131)

There were many shows of similar nature that indicated departure from mainly boring and secretly didactic shows. Another great success was the show Brain Trust. It was based on the talk of five people about science, art and philosophy and had a regular audience of ten million listeners, which would have been hardly imaginable prior to the war. (Seaton 132) Seaton also argues that the show’s success signified not only of the shift in the listeners’ interests towards more refined entertainment but also increasing willingness of the Corporation to cater for their audience. Despite restrictions and political interference the Trust “provided for and encouraged an immense public curiosity about the natural world, the world of affairs, and about questions of ethics, philosophy, and psychology, and in so doing it began to foster a less aloof and distant image of the Corporation.” (133)

Listener’s taste during the war perhaps did not deepen to an extent that would meet Reith’s and in general BBC’s vision of ideal listeners from the 1920s as presented in the first chapter. What actually helped the BBC to build a good reputation was that it finally began to cater for ‘real’ people’s needs.
2.3. Lord Haw Haw and the Propaganda Battle

The Corporation’s attitude towards propaganda, as will be argued in this last subchapter, was very distinct from that of its German counterpart. To start with, the first personality of wartime broadcasting in Britain was ironically no one of national status but William Joyce aka Lord Haw Haw. 11 Joyce broadcast on the Hamburg radio that was nationalised under the Nazi government and used as a means of propaganda. However, he did extremely well on British territory:

By 1940 William Joyce dominated German propaganda to England. His voice was rich, apparently upper class, ‘Cholmondely-Plantagenet out of Christ Church’, and caused much speculation. It was difficult to avoid Joyce’s wavelength when tuning into British stations, as Rebecca West recalled. There was an arresting quality about his voice which made it a sacrifice not to go on listening.’ (Seaton 127)

The reason why his programme Germany Calling became so popular, even in spite of seeking to undermine the war effort and demoralize the public as well as troops, is more easily justifiable than it can seem at the first glance and is directly connected to the inefficiency of the BBC explored in the first subchapter. Firstly, the programme ran, unlike the irregular BBC programmes, throughout the whole war and thus easily caught attention and offered at least some stability. Secondly, unlike the Home Service news broadcasts, the German programme frequently offered the only detailed available account from the field and thus both civilians and Allied troops listened to Lord Haw Haw for information, despite occasional inaccuracies and exaggerations.

How did the BBC perceive the popularity of Lord Haw Haw? “A thorough -going study of the causes and effects of 'listening to Haw -Haw' was conducted while the habit was at its height,” wrote Robert Silvey, The Listener Research Department Director, in 1946. “It produced highly reassuring results. It showed that Britain welcomed the new guest to its fireside as a diverting entertainer in the first bleak wartime winter. There was no evidence to support the fears that his jibes and sneers were invisibly corroding the will to victory.” (YB 1946 27) Yet, no matter whether people listened to Joyce for entertainment or news, the survey revealed that by the end of 1939 over 30 per cent of the population was listening to Joyce regularly. Silvey’s report leads to the conclusion that Joyce’s popularity and ability to win over the audience demonstrated once again that the BBC was in the first stages of war either failing to entertain or that its news was so untrustworthy that people preferred German broadcasting to their own. The former possibility was already discussed and confirmed. The latter point is corroborated by Seaton, who summarizes the BBC’s intelligence failure as follows:

A month after the outbreak of war a British Institute of Public Opinion poll showed that 35 per cent of the public were dissatisfied with the BBC and 10 percent did not listen to it. In the winter of 1939 to 1940 Mass Observation reported that rumours were rife; that people apparently did not believe the newspapers, the Ministry of Information, or the BBC. (125)

Official attitude of the Government towards the role of the BBC in war was defined by Sir Samuel Hoare, the Secretary of State for the Home Department in the House of Commons and later printed in the BBC Year Book:

A third organ of publicity is the wireless. The plan would be not that the Government would take over the BBC in war -time, but, on the whole, the wise course would be to treat broadcasting as we treat the other methods of publicity, the Press and the films, and to leave the BBC to carry on, but, obviously in wartime, with a very close liaison between the Ministry of Information and the Broadcasting Corporation, with definite regulations as to how the work should be carried out. (1940 11-12)

The Ministry of Information (MOI) was a government department created during World War II in order to regulate media and also propaganda. It was able to exercise control over the BBC because the powers previously reserved to the Postmaster -General under the Licence and Agreement were transferred directly to the Minister of Information. The Minister thus had the right to control the service in emergency, to veto programmes, and “to require the Corporation to refrain from sending any broadcast matter, either particular or general, that he may specify by a notice in writing?” (YB 1940 94) Frederick Ogilvie, Reith’s successor on the position of Director General, actually found the pressure of the government on the Corporation’s actions too overwhelming and resigned after two years in charge, in early 1942. Sir John Reith was appointed Minister of Information in 1940 and before Churchill dismissed him the very same year, he worked on increasing the speculative efficiency of the MOI12 , especially by reintegrating the Press and Censorship divisions, being convinced that the news and propaganda should come under the competence of the same authority. (Seaton 137)

Despite promoted cooperation, the BBC was still trying to stick to Reithian moral principles and categorically denied any suggestions to create similar propaganda programme to German Calling. It retrospectively justified the decision by stating that “Broadcasting in Germany was consciously used to mutilate the soul of the German people. [...] Against all this, broadcasting from Great Britain played a mighty part in helping to liberate Europe. It refused to use the weapon of the enemy. It stood by its standards.” (YB 1945 7) On the other hand, the BBC did not want to sit on its hands and sought other ways of motivating the public.

One of the ways was through the BBC’s representation of empire. In Studies in Popular Culture: BBC and National Identity in Britain, 1922-53, Thomas Hajkowski argues that empire and imperial-related programmes were used to make general propaganda points about Britain’s role in the war:

First, empire programs during and after the war emphasized the full equality of the Commonwealth members and the cultural bonds that tied it to Britain. [...] Second, the BBC promoted an image of empire that could accommodate itself to declared war aims and the social and cultural conditions of the “people’s war”. (52)

Another, rather passive method of the British battle against enemy propaganda was the Monitoring Unit, set up at the request of the Government in 1939. Its task was to listen to broadcasts from all parts of the world and “to assess the use being made of radio by the Axis powers,” which simply meant circulating the information to the Government departments interested in what other countries were saying. (bbc.co.uk/monitoring) Seaton sees the origin of such ´modern´ and astute form of the BBC’s and broadly speaking British propaganda as one of the effects of the General Strike. “During the First World War persuasive techniques had been crude. All Germans were characterized as vicious beasts intent on murdering children and raping nuns,” he claims. (115) In his view, the Strike learnt the Corporation to censor itself in order to prevent the government from intervening and the crisis thus marked “the end of the propaganda based on lies and the start of a more subtle tradition of selection and presentation.” (116)

Therefore, BBC’s most daring interpretation of propaganda was broadcasting of undefined figures of losses and edited and censored news; it was still based on informing the public rather than ridiculing the enemy. The BBC realised that the best way to handle propaganda was to play fair and confessed to unnecessary interventions in news broadcasting:

The sole purpose of BBC security censorship is to prevent information of any value to the enemy from reaching him. […] The skilled censor, who neither over-cuts nor undercuts, will allow broadcasters the maximum latitude consistent with the security consideration postulated above. The rules to be observed are laid down and they must inevitably mean that at times facts have to be omitted.” (YB 1945 140)

Seaton aptly concludes this approach. “Indeed, the BBC’s claim to accuracy and objectivity was, in itself, a propaganda weapon—a demonstration of the superiority of democracy over totalitarianism.” (137)

At the end of the war the BBC not only delivered trustworthy news and radio programmes of high quality to the British public but it also beat German propaganda at its own game when “on 1 January, 1945, the BBC began regular daily broadcasts directly to the German population in the areas under Allied military government.” Besides the main world news and the official instructions of the Allied military government, these broadcasts consisted

[...] of the factual refutation of the hitherto dominant German myths (about the origins of the war, the beneficence of National Socialism, `racial science', and so on), and of accounts of what has been going on in Great Britain and the rest of the free world since Goebbels attempted to seize the monopoly of news and comment inside Germany.” (YB 1945: 125-6)


3. The Post- War Reconstruction

The first part of this chapter is concerned with the immediate aftermath of the war in terms of the considerable restructuring of radio broadcasting as well as with the role of the radio after the beginning of the television boom. The second part is devoted to the growth of television broadcasting in the UK. Until now, any remarks considering television were intentionally avoided for two reasons. Firstly, TV broadcasting during the war was non-existent and thus irrelevant to the matter. Secondly, it was in the post-war period in which both growing popularity of television and consequent introduction of competition took place. This chapter presents evidence showing that the commercial ITV did not cause long-term decline of standards but on the other hand, forced the BBC to be more creative.

The readjustment and expansion of the service between 1946 and 1955 is often viewed as the third crucial stage of the BBC development. “Taken as a whole, the ten years from 1945 to 1955 were far more difficult for the BBC than any earlier years in its history,” confirms Asa Briggs in the second volume of History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, “for there was never any real sense of security for the Corporation in the course of them.” (22) There was a range of factors that contributed to the progressive shift in the BBC policy and undermined orthodox Reithian philosophy. Firstly, Burns writes in The BBC: Public Institution and Private World that the post- war social changes “brought into question the authority of the whole hierarchy of values on which the Reithian system of control, consensus and ethos itself depended.” (1977 43) Indeed, many historians and authors mention the fact that in the 1950s there was a growing defiance of people and organizations in power and the feeling that “those in authority could be questioned and denied.” (Chignell: 4) This, of course, included also the Corporation. Secondly, the replacement of “the ultra Reithian” William Haley, as Hugh Chignell describes him, by Sir William Jacob was another step from the 1920s and 1930s Company. (2) Thirdly, the impact of commercial television is often cited to be a negative one, causing the lowering standards of the BBC’s programmes. It is true that the introduction of ITV enabled people to choose from a wider range of programmes and many people welcomed the opportunity. However, this forced the BBC not to lower its standards but rather to improve the service.


3.1. BBC Radio: Reith Revisited and Abandoned

The findings from the previous chapter lead to the conclusion that people’s tastes during the war slightly shifted towards more serious and intellectually demanding programmes. The end of the war brings into question the permanency of such change. One could logically assume that in the busy post-war period the fascination for radio drama and news would fall gradually, perhaps in the course of months. Seaton disproves this theory. “Certainly the war changed the BBC, and it changed public taste,” he writes. “Yet the day after the war in Europe ended, the public changed again. The audience for the news dropped by half, and never returned to wartime levels.” (144) Apparently, once the demand for war-related information stopped, broadcasting was sought once again mainly for relaxation and amusement. As a result, the BBC’s post-war policy encountered many changes in order to win back the attention of the audience. Firstly, the news listening habits of six years underwent radical modification. “The nine o'clock news is no longer the half -sacred summit of the listening day,” informed the first post-war Yearbook. “Indeed, it is no longer true to say that news bulletins are the most listened to broadcasts, the categorical imperatives of broadcasting.” (28) Moreover, War Reporting Unit was disbanded and the BBC reporters and correspondents were “to be found covering events of public interest over a very wide field.” (1946 56)

The second major change was the addition of two uniform networks to again regionally divided Home Service. The reconstitution of the programmes was in the competence of Director General Sir William Haley who went firmly in Reith’s footsteps and endeavoured to restore the pre-war ‘elitist’ arrangement of the service. It could be said that the fundamental principles Reith laid in the 1920s, Haley tried to reinvent twenty years later but in a radically different fashion. Haley likened the public to the cultural pyramid and emphasized that public should be intentionally overestimated in their taste, which is exactly Reith’s strategy:

Each Programme at any given moment must be ahead of its public, but not so much as to lose their confidence. The listener must be led from good to better by curiosity, liking, and a growth of understanding. As the standards of the education and culture of the community rise so should the programme pyramid rise as a whole." (147)

However, the similarity between Reith and Haley ends here. The first BBC novelty was Light programme. It was transformed in 1945 from General Forces Programme, which was originally seen as a temporary pastime for the soldiers and the content corresponded with its name. The post-war public version was naturally slightly adjusted. “The title `Light' Programme,” informs the BBC, “does not mean that everything broadcast in it must necessarily be frothy or frivolous. It does mean that the over -all content of the daily or weekly programme contains a higher proportion of sheer entertainment than either the Home Service or the third programme.” The definition further concludes that Light covers also a proportion of more serious items, however, they will “always form a minor element in the programme as a whole.” (1946 53) All in all, Light programme was exactly the kind of programme public wanted and Reith would dismiss as unsatisfactory and low.

The second novelty was the Third programme, introduced in 1946. Third programme was the very opposite of the aforementioned and uncompromisingly broadcast high cultural output. The BBC itself was not sure if the novelty would attract enough attention and proclaimed it as an experiment that would be shaped in accordance with the public demand and response. (YB 1946 34) Its broadcasting pattern was very experimental. One of many specialities was the absence of a fixed schedule since “many programmes tend to be longer than in the other services, because plays and operas, for example, are generally presented unabridged; moreover, writers and speakers are encouraged to deal with their subjects comprehensively.” (1946 25)

The deviation from the initial BBC values and difference between the pre-war and post-war policy is self-evident. For Reith, the defining feature of public service broadcasting was a wide mix of programmes. “The listener would find themselves listening to quite unexpected programmes, sometimes challenging or educational, and this contributed to the Reithian mission to educate, inform and entertain,” writes Hugh Chignell in his article Change and Reaction in BBC Current Affairs and Radio, 1928-1970. (7) Haley’s reform, on the other hand, did not unite the output but, on the contrary, divided audience into three distinct categories in accordance with their preferences and abilities. It was a progressive thing to do and many radio stations today use the same strategy, nevertheless, it took a lot of time for people to absorb such change. The criticism of the Third Programme emerged soon. Many argued that it was an elitist service even when compared to Reith’s BBC, since Reith had been opposed to fencing off groups of listeners. Not surprisingly, when the BBC published a survey showing how listening habits changed in terms of the distribution of listening between the main alternative broadcast services, it turned out that Third Programme only appealed to an insignificant fraction of audience. On the other hand, the Light Programme inherited the audience of General Forces Programme. This meant that an average of about sixty out of every 100 people listened to the Home Service and forty the Light programme. “It was not long, however, before the Light Programme audiences started to catch up those of the Home Service,” Robert Silvey informed in 1946. “By the end of September the balance had shifted from a 60 : 40 ratio to one of 55 : 45 (both in favour of the Home Service), and by the end of November a 50 : 50 ratio had been achieved.” (1946: 31) Therefore, as Briggs observes, the Light Programme audience had quietly acquired some of the characteristics of the mass television audience of a far later date. (60) The conclusion drawn from the aftermath of this massive expansion of the BBC is that the competition for audience was from then on focused not on German or other European radio services, but had shifted within the walls of the Corporation, the three services competing with each other. In relation to this, Seaton argues that the internal BBC changes were “of more fundamental importance than the competition later offered by commercial television.” (152).

The 1956 Year Book informed that despite television was rapidly taking over the place held by radio, some eight and a half million homes in the United Kingdom still relied on radio form entertainment and information. (110) However, there were certain signs that the radio made changes in its policy to adjust to the secondary role. In 1956 the BBC’s Director of Sound Broadcasting, Lindsay Wellington, set up the Sound Working Party to suggest an innovation of broadcasting that would strengthen the BBC’s position against competition. The resulting report was, as Chignell writes, “essentially anti-Haley, anti-Reith and anti the old BBC.” It declared that “in future BBC Radio should, ‘seek to cater for the needs and tastes of its audiences without seeking, as it perhaps had done too much in the past to alter and improve them’.” (‘The Future of Sound Broadcasting in the Domestic Service’ quoted in Chignell 3)

Simply put, the BBC reached a conclusion that it was a high time to abandon all Reith-like patronizing practices. The following year the number of households owning television sets already exceeded the number of households with sound receivers only, and over ninety -six per cent of the population was able to receive the BBC Television Service and sound broadcasting had since then “a dual role to perform,” wrote the chairman Alexander Cadogan. (1958 30) It had to provide a full service for those still solely dependent on radio, and at the same time offer to television households a service “to use at times and in circumstances when television is not available, and which at other times concentrates increasingly on those programmes which can be better done on radio than on television.“ (1958 31)

As a result of “taking into account the changing role of sound broadcasting and the information which was available from its listener research organization about the changing tastes and needs of its listeners,” the Corporation had within the span of a few years interestingly adjusted the definitions of Light and Third Programme. The Home Service was the least changed, still primarily designed to appeal to all sections of the population with different needs and interests, and in the statement made by the BBC, it was a programme for “the whole man” that would not demand specialized great range of knowledge. (1956 23) In the first years of the 1950s the Light Programme had gradually added on programmes that were more demanding and, as the Year Book proudly stated, the programmes which were in 1955 widely acceptable and popular would have some nine years ago “attracted only minority audiences and quite considerable complaint.” (24) However, three years later the BBC announced an increased proportion of music to spoken word within the Light Programme, which had thus become “more consistently an entertainment programme.” (YB 1958 33) A similar shift within few years awaited also the least popular Third Programme. In the 1956 Year Book, it is described as a programme for “the educated rather than an educational programme” with the aim to attract “the listener of cultivated tastes and interests.” (62) Since 1958, the focus altered and even though minorities were still of great importance, the serious programmes were now addressed to “the intelligent layman and not to the specialist.” (34) Moreover, the Third Programme was shortened to an average of three hours in order to make space for Network Three that used the same frequencies and transmitter. Overall, it could be said that the reorganization in the radio programmes in 1957 resulted in the reduction in the amount of time devoted to more specialised material. The BBC was very often used words like “flexibility,” “adjustments” and “readjustments” and the variations of the word “light.” (146-8) The Home Service was slightly “lightened” by taking over more from the Light Programme and reducing its own production, while the Light Programme became, in the words of chairman Arthur Fforde, “in general somewhat lighter” which meant that about only about one fifth of its total output were programmes “informative and mentally stimulating and have some educative value over and above their main quality of being simple and entertaining.” (145) In 1959 Fforde announced that “the Corporation believes that taken as a whole, the new sound broadcasting arrangements represent a sensible and realistic adjustment to the needs of the times and the changing requirements of the public without loss of standards.” (146)

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