I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
I would like to thank my supervisor, Stephen Paul Hardy, PhD., for his constructive criticism and valuable advice. I would also like to express thanks to my family and friends who supported and encouraged me throughout my studies.
The foremost objective of this thesis is to examine the development of the BBC from its foundation in the 1920s to the resignation of Director General Greg Dyke in 2004, in terms of the Reithian values regarding the purpose and responsibility of public broadcasting. The main research question is how the three pillars of the BBC, namely news, education and entertainment, have changed since Reith’s years in charge. Using original BBC archive materials as well as critical volumes and articles about the past, present and future of the British broadcasting, the thesis investigates how the quality and the composition of the BBC programs have been altered in response to various historical and social changes. The work examines when and why the changes in Reith’s original policy have taken place, and whether they have been a necessary step towards modern broadcasting or rather innovations that would eventually cost the BBC its former reputation of a highly-regarded professional broadcaster.
The first chapter introduces the establishment of the British Broadcasting Company (since 1927 the Corporation) and traces the first formative years of its functioning, with specific emphasis placed on Reith’s role in the forming of the organization and setting the ethos of public service broadcasting. The second chapter is devoted to the significance of the BBC’s radio broadcast during the Second World War. Live reports from the field and news bulletins as well as entertainment programmes served both as the promotion of the empire and its values, but most importantly strived to boost the national morale in the war times. The chapter also briefly explores the extent of governmental control over the BBC and its impact on the broadcast material. The third chapter deals with radio post-war restructuration as well as with the implications of television boom in the 1950s. The crucial turn for the BBC was undoubtedly the end of television monopoly after the introduction of commercial ITV in 1955. The primary focus is thus on the consequential impact of the battle for audience on BBC television and radio programs. According to various experts on broadcasting and communication, it resulted in domination of entertainment programs over the informational and educational content of BBC broadcasting.
The fourth chapter investigates the quality and variety of broadcasting material in the period from the 1960s to 1970s. The BBC struggled both with financial problems and government interventions, which contributed to the further departure from Reithian tradition, or at least to the clearer definition of the purpose of public broadcasting. The period from the 1990s until the beginning of the 21st century and more current situation of the BBC is explored in the last, fifth chapter. One of the most important moments of this period was the Hutton Inquiry, which took place in 2003. The effect of the consequent Report from 2004 on the reputation of the British Broadcasting Company and the position of media in the UK in general are explored. The whole organization and its management were at that time strongly criticized by the government and accused of poor journalism and of defective editorial system, thus questioning the BBC as an impartial, objective, and unbiased news source, which are the qualities John Reith considered to be the essence of the BBC mission.
As the main primary source serve the publicly available records of the BBC’s actions called Year Books or Handbooks.1 Published since 1928, each issue provides a guide to the workings of the BBC, the survey of the previous broadcasting year and additional information about the Corporation. Even though they provide rather an uncritical evaluation of the BBC during the last century, the handbooks are invaluable when used in combination with academic sources. The first handbook, 380 pages long, is particularly important, since it contains a statement of John Reith about the purposes and goals of the new corporation. The major secondary sources include two critical volumes, British Broadcasting: Radio and Television in the United Kingdom and British Broadcasting in Transition by Burton Paulu, and the publication Power without Responsibility: The Press, Broadcasting, and New Mediain Britain by James Curran and Jean Seaton. Burton Paulu, a pioneer in educational radio and television as well as author of studies of comparative broadcasting, wrote one of the first complete critical volumes about the UK system of broadcasting, enabling to view the BBC as well as ITV in a broader perspective. His books trace everything from the early years of the Corporation, through staff, technical facilities, radio and TV programs to its audience and their preferences, and thus prove valuable in providing the necessary theoretical background about the BBC’s first decades of functioning. James Curran and Jean Seaton wrote a book that offers an essential yet thorough introduction to the British media studies. Seaton’s part of the book, devoted to analysis of the development of the BBC from Reith to the early twenty-first century, is vital for the thesis.
1. The Birth of British Broadcasting
This chapter attempts to provide a concise introduction to the birth of broadcasting in Great Britain and outlines the influential role of Lord John Reith in the implementation and shaping of BBC policy. The following pages also contain a brief outline of the formal structure of the BBC, Corporation’s characterization of its main principles and the nature of the mutual relationship of the BBC and government. On the other hand, the chapter is not concerned with the development of radio and television as pieces of electrical equipment, since it would be an unnecessary task regarding the fact that the focus of this thesis is on the content and composition of the broadcast programmes and not on the technical aspects of broadcasting.
1.1. The Foundation and Structure of the BBC
To trace back the origins of broadcasting in Britain, one must turn to the United States, since at that time the introduction of public service broadcasting and the rapid growth of radio had initiated. The name most frequently connected with this accomplishment is that of an American engineer David Sarnoff. He was the first to see the possibilities of radio which was until then used only for military purposes: “I have in mind a plan of development which would make radio a household utility like the piano or electricity. The idea is to bring music into the house by wireless,” wrote Sarnoff in 1916. (in Seaton 106) Subsequently, American achievements in the field of media went hand in hand with the increasing popularity of the radio overseas because what followed after having heard of the potential and possibilities of broadcasting was a great deal of pressure, both from the public seeking entertainment and British wireless manufacturers seeking profit, to establish a similar project in Britain. R.H. Coase confirms this in his influential book The Origin of Monopoly of Broadcasting in Britain:
Broadcasting came about because those interested came over from the States and pointed out what vast sums of money were being made there, what interest broadcasting was creating, and how England had got left behind. This I think was the great stimulant-American broadcasting. (194)
The BBC itself later recognized that there was previously a considerable number of amateurs and wireless firms making radio attempts on experimental basis but only “the sudden birth and florescence of large-scale “Broadcasting” (in the present sense of the word) in the United States placed the matter on quite a different footing.” (Year Book 1928 37) With the idea to set up regular radio broadcasting already occupying the British minds, experimental transmissions started in 1920. As already mentioned the wireless manufacturers were aware of a potentially huge new market that was in need of supply and were tireless in their efforts to provide the nation with the innovative service, as Seaton aptly comments:
In 1922 there were nearly a hundred applications to the Post Office from manufacturers who wanted to set up broadcasting stations. This demand created the need for control. As Peter Eckersley, one of the company’s first employees wrote later, ‘The BBC was formed as an expedient solution to a technical problem. It owes its existence to the scarcity of air waves.’ The Postmaster General solved the problems of radio interference by persuading rival manufacturers to invest jointly in one small and initially speculative broadcasting station: The British Broadcasting Company. (107)
This provided the solution to a chicken and egg situation. Had the idea to promote the BBC as a service of national importance and high moral and cultural standards already existed when the station was being set up or were all its principles developed later under Reith’s strict supervision? Clearly, the Company came into existence for practical reasons. The BBC described its formation as follows:
In February 1922 an experimental station of the Marconi Company at Writtle, Essex, under the direction of Captain P. P. Eckersley, began a series of weekly broadcast concerts which created such interest that the Postmaster - General was asked to provide a regular broadcasting service. This was done by the formation of the British Broadcasting Company in November 1922, and regular programmes have been broadcast from the London Station from November 14th, 1922. (YB 1928 196)
As the Year Book further informed there were four underlying conditions. Firstly, the BBC would be a single service. Secondly, it would be centrally controlled. Thirdly, it would be financed by the annual license fee charged on all households owning a receiving set. Lastly, the Company would be set up as a non-competitive service, “in which commercial considerations would count for as little as possible.” (38) John Reith was made its Managing Director and had, along with the rest of the management, an extraordinary chance to mould the BBC from scratch. His role is analysed later in greater detail but before that, it is necessary to explore the event that contributed to the shaping of the 1920s.2
Named after its chairman Sir Frederick Sykes, the first official committee was set up in April 1923 to investigate aspects of broadcasting, including its general purpose and future prospects.3 When it came to the matter of license control, the committee was unequivocally in favour of indirect control through licenses instead of direct government control. From this point of view, the General Strike in 1926 marked a significant touchstone for the brand-new company. On the one hand, it offered a chance to show that the Corporation aimed at being an impartial source of news for the nation. On the other hand, the expiration of the BBC’s license was due at the same time and the government-appointed Crawford committee had been considering the future of the BBC. Moreover, the existing license permitted the government to take over the BBC in the case of national crisis, and some ministers, as Burton Paulu argues, saw the Strike as a great opportunity to put the right into practice:
Some members of the cabinet — including Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill — were strongly in favour of commandeering the company, but a majority decided otherwise. Among the difficult choices confronting the company under these circumstances was whether or not to broadcast a statement about the strike prepared by a group of church leaders, in the face of objections from Prime Minister Baldwin. The Company's first decision was against making the broadcast, but several days later this was reversed and the manifesto was aired. (39)
As can be learned by reading the above excerpt, the Corporation decided to win favour with public and to emerge from the strike with an increased authority based on the notion of political neutrality. However, the question is why the BBC’s first decision was not to go against parliamentary wishes and then it suddenly changed its mind. It is difficult to trace back to the official comment of the Corporation, nevertheless, when reading the available sources, there is an interesting contradiction between what Reith publically claimed and what he believed was right. Taking into consideration his influence, it is highly probable that his attitude reflected the stance of the BBC. To be specific, Reith acknowledged that the BBC should be above politics, when he retrospectively boasted that although “complete impartiality [...] was, in the circumstances, not to be expected, the BBC had endeavoured to preserve its tradition of accuracy and fair play.” (YB 1928 39) On the other hand, the confession that the BBC’s unbiased behaviour was “not to be expected” and thus no one could have blamed the Corporation for siding with the government gives a hint that his view on the independence of the BBC was rather contrary.
Definite proof of this could be traced back to 1940 when the then Director General Sir Frederick Ogilvie discussed with Reith the BBC's wartime status and then recorded their mutual conversation. Surprisingly, while Ogilvie categorically refused to hand the BBC over to the government, Reith did not try to defend his brainchild. In Ogilvie’s words, Reith confessed “he had always felt that it would be simpler for the B.B.C. to be taken over, and that this would make things easier for the B.B.C. . . In this context, Reith quoted the General Strike and said that it would have been much easier at that time if the B.B.C. had been taken over.” (BBC Archives/Record of Conversation)
Overall, it is difficult to determine whether it was Reith’s pragmatism telling him that in order for the BBC’s better chance of survival it would be wiser to comply with government and act in accordance with its will or whether he simply favoured the cooperation with the government as an easier and more effortless solution for all parties, himself included. The fact remains that the BBC publicly performed as an advocate of independence and detachment, and as far as License renewal was concerned, the Strike helped to settle its form in Company’s favour, since it was officially nationalized and chartered as corporation from January 1 1927. From the point of view of the public, as the Year Book clarifies, there was no change at all, since “the staff, the plant and the programme machinery were taken over by the Corporation as a going concern under the executive control of Sir John Reith designated in the Charter as first Director -General.” (43) The modifications were embedded in the two legal documents vital to the existence of the new BBC. The first of them was the Royal Charter provided by the Crown and the second the Licence issued by the Postmaster General. While the Charter confirmed the BBC’s status as a public corporation, serving as means of disseminating information, education and entertainment, the License granted the BBC the authority to broadcast. At the top of the hierarchy of the BBC was established the Board of Governors, the spine of the corporation that determined its policies and controlled the personnel. Its main function was to provide contact not only between the corporation and Parliament, but also to communicate with the public and interpret their opinions back to the BBC. 4 (YB 44-45)
The then chairman of the Board of Governors the Earl of Clarendon explained what the new license changed in terms of the governmental influence:
With the change in constitution there came a greater degree of autonomy, absolute in some directions, relative in others. The Corporation, although it might be termed a State concern, is not under Government control in the ordinary sense of the expression. (YB 1928 29)
Clarendon’s language is somewhat vague. The official arrangement set in the 1920s and 1930s is summarized by Burton Paulu in British Broadcasting:
Under the Charter, the government can control the Corporation through its appointment and dismissal of Governors, and its right to revoke the whole document for what it considers "reasonable cause." The Licence also would seem to make the Corporation entirely subservient, since under its terms the government has control over the assignment of frequencies and the amount of the Corporation's income; it may initiate or veto programs; and it may nationalize the BBC in an emergency or revoke its Licence at any time for unsatisfactory performance. (36)
On the one hand, it could be assumed that the power to initiate and veto programmes in fact gave the direct control to the government. On the other hand, the extent and frequency of such interventions allegedly depended solely on the government of the day. As Paulu argues with the help of relevant documents, governmental encroachments upon the functioning of the BBC were generally expected to be rather limited and performed only in the state of absolute necessity:
When the House of Commons was discussing the BBC's first Charter and Licence in 1926, the Postmaster General5 explained that the control over programs given him by the Licence was intended to have very limited application. Relative to the clause requiring the corporation to broadcast "any matter" requested by a government department, he said: "This is a means of getting publicity for important objects which arise suddenly," such as broadcast for lost persons, gale and storm warnings, or "information of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease." He then warned: "If any Government oversteps the line and goes beyond this, I have no doubt they will be ... properly brought to book, in the House of Commons." (38)
On the contrary to the above mentioned, Seaton is not convinced that this kind of mutual relationship ever existed and holds the view that since 1927 the Corporation had been frequently courting government departments. “A close relationship with civil servants grew up and government pressure was often exercised informally and personally,” he writes and further provides an example. “‘Vansittart would like the BBC to get pro-France in our news and stop using words like insurgent,’ Reith wrote in his diary in 1937.” (118) Paulu’s comment on this matter is, on the other hand, of a very general nature: “Some critics claim that there is indirect rather than direct control, and that the corporation conforms to government thinking on most basic issues. More often it is asserted that the BBC is overcautious in its treatment of controversial issues.” (42) I would conclude that the latter sentence is likely the closest to the truth; after all, it accords with Seaton’s argument that “the Corporation was most concerned that disputes with governments should not be resolved by the emergence of any official regulations.” (118) The first two decades were for the BBC the period of trial and error. The Corporation strived to find and strengthen its own identity and as a result, a certain degree of cautiousness could be logically assigned to testing the water and finding out how daring the BBC could be before the government decided to take measures. This, however, does not mean that the BBC should not have refrained from brash public proclamations of absolute objectivity.
Another matter that must be explored is the overall purpose of the BBC. In the 1928 Year Book Reith had the first chance to elaborate on the BBC’s programme policy. First of all, he talked about the importance of the initial decision of to whom to address the programme, acknowledging that the “aim of pleasing everybody always proved itself to be, as was expected, an illusory ideal.” What did he see as the best possible solution? “In sum, experience has evolved a practical working rule, "Give the public something slightly better than it now thinks it likes."” (71) This was, together with the principle of balance, Reith’s closest approach to “the impossible ideal of universality.” (71) To provide such balance, Reith continued, “it is necessary to compound the programmes, ordinarily of diverse elements, calculated not only for many gradations of preference in the individual, not to mention the said individual's moods and reactions.” (72) The principles of overestimation and balance resonate with the three categories of informing, educating and entertaining, the purpose of which Reith explained further on.
Firstly, the informative content of the broadcasting was “to give clear, accurate, brief and impartial news of what is going on in the great world, in a form that will not pander to sensation and yet will arouse a continuing interest [...]. (34) Nevertheless, I would argue that in spite of the seeming simplicity of the informational mission, it actually took some time until news broadcasting fully developed in the UK. The press feared new competition and severely limited the ways in which the BBC could broadcast news by inserting a provision into the BBC’s original license:
Before the Broadcasting Company was actually formed, the newspapers induced the P.M.G. to agree that the new organisation could distribute news only at their sufferance. Thus, when the B.B.C. began to transmit, it found itself considerably handicapped on the news side of its work. There was to be no independent news activity on the part of the B.B.C. The two bulletins, provided by the Agencies working for the newspaper industry, were to be broadcast as prepared by Messrs. Reuter, and the first was not to go out before 7 p.m. The newspapers believed that under this arrangement they had safeguarded themselves against serious damage from the broadcasting of news. (YB 1928: 343)