The British Broadcasting Corp., which began radio transmissions 100 years ago this month, is a unique institution. A corporation partly funded by a controversial tax on Britons, the BBC is also a global business. It makes and sells its own movies and TV series. It operates the BBC World Service, delivering news internationally. It launched a commercial streaming service when Netflix was still mailing out DVDs.
Today’s Britons may have a complicated relationship with the “Auntie” that has been ever-present all through their lives— informing, entertaining and very often instructing them how to think. But the broadcaster’s most important role over the last century, Dominic Green suggests in a review of several books on the past and future of the BBC, may have been “exporting Britishness abroad.” It found plenty of buyers.
Since 1922, the United Kingdom’s broadcast service has set out to ‘inform, educate, and entertain’ over the airwaves. Its voice carries far beyond its island home.
By guest author Dominic Green from the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Green is a Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
If human life is destroyed by a nuclear war, Armageddon will be announced by BBC Radio 4. If there is time, the BBC’s World Service and foreign-language services will repeat the news. No other news source is as trusted or respected. No other voice speaks to the world with such authority, and in so many languages. The British Broadcasting Corporation, which celebrated its centenary on Oct. 18, always gets the last word.
If you live in Britain and follow the news, the BBC also gets the first word of the day. Radio 4’s early morning “Today” program is to British politics what “Fawlty Towers” is to the hotel business. Six days a week, its chirpy, acidulous anchors expose the shortcomings of cabinet ministers and their opposition shadows. But there is more to “Today” than politics. Scenes from the Westminster soap opera are intercut with global, regional, sports and arts stories, and especially stories touching on British obsessions such as gardening, food and horse racing.
The BBC aspires to universality: to appeal to all, and to cover the human condition, at home and abroad. It is not really a state broadcaster. It exists by Royal Charter and is committed to political neutrality. It is not quite a governmental department, either, but it might as well be. It is funded by a mandatory license fee, set by Parliament.
The BBC began as a monopoly and a business. In October 1922, Britain’s six biggest radio manufacturers, who wanted to sell more radios, set up the British Broadcasting Company to give customers something to listen to. A year later, the Conservative government, fearing an American-style “chaos of the ether,” imposed the license fee. The sonic signature cohered almost instantly—the chimes of Big Ben (1923), and the “pips,” the six electronic beeps that mark the hour (1924)— and so did the BBC’s aspiration to improve its listeners.
The BBC’s better and more irritating qualities remain those of its first general manager, John Reith, as former broadcaster and University of Sussex emeritus professor David Hendy makes clear in “The BBC: A Century on Air.” A conservative Presbyterian who had fought in World War I, Reith wanted to “inform, educate, and entertain” the public, and in that order. The audience, and the complaints, followed.
The first crisis of neutrality came with the General Strike of 1926. Robert Seatter’s “Broadcasting Britain: 100 Years of the BBC” (BBC/DK UK, 296 pages, £25) reports that when Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, pressed his prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, to commandeer the BBC, Reith resisted.
In this picture-laden volume, Mr. Seatter, a poet and the BBC’s in-house historian, omits to mention that Reith also believed the BBC should be “for the Government in the crisis,” and that while he blocked the Labour Party and the trade unions from the airwaves, Reith allowed Baldwin to broadcast from Reith’s own home. This book’s self-congratulatory tone typifies how BBC staffers view the institution: George Orwell’s dislike of his wartime propaganda work may have coloured “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” but that has not stopped the BBC from putting up a statue to him.
Within a year of the General Strike, the BBC secured its Royal Charter, becoming a public corporation. By 1928, Mr. Hendy writes, Lytton Strachey noted that “every time he went to Cambridge the dinner table conversation seemed to revolve around God, Bernard Shaw, and the wireless.” The interwar years were a golden age of mass media, for dictators and dancers alike. The BBC adopted “the Proms,” the Victorian promenade concert (1927), a dance orchestra (1928), a symphony orchestra (1930), and another popular routine with the first Christmas Day message (George V, 1932). In the same year, the BBC moved into its current home, Broadcasting House, an Art Deco ocean liner beached just north of Oxford Circus.
Staples of the domestic radio diet included the announcement of the budget (Churchill again, 1928), parliamentary reports (1928), a children’s hour (1929), and, inevitably, “The Week in the Garden” (1931) as well as the proto-chat show “In Town Tonight” (1933). Meanwhile, the “fools on the hill,” as the radio staff called the experimental television boffins, launched the first high-definition TV service from the heights of north London in 1936. The live coverage of George VI’s coronation the following spring was the first outdoors “remote” broadcast.
Already, the majority of BBC radio listeners were outside Britain. Reith launched the English-language Empire Service in 1932 as, Mr. Hendy writes, a “consolidatory” influence on the white “British world” and the nonwhite colonies. By the mid-1930s, the German, Italian and Russian regimes had launched foreign-language propaganda services. As the Middle East grew in strategic importance, the Foreign Office became especially concerned by Italy’s transmission of fascist propaganda in Arabic. In January 1938, the BBC launched its first foreign-language channel, the Arabic Service.
The BBC and the government were, Mr. Hendy writes, “now committed, whether they liked it or not, to close and continuous collaboration.” World War II was the BBC’s finest hour as a virtuous propagandist. The BBC carried the speeches of Churchill and de Gaulle; it broadcast in code to the Resistance in occupied Europe, and it sent its War Reporting Unit into the field with portable recording equipment. In 1943, its correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and an engineer flew on a Lancaster on a bombing raid to Berlin. He called it “the most terrifying eight hours I’ve spent in my entire life.” The BBC website now carries a virtual reality illustration of Vaughan-Thomas’s broadcast.
The BBC did not lose its foreign role with the end of empire. Its global broadcasts continued their uneasy balance between the national interest and independent reporting. Domestically, however, the BBC immediately reinvented itself as an entertainment service. While Mr. Hendy’s history is a fond survey of the BBC’s heroic early decades, historian Simon Potter’s“This is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain? 1922-2022” is a sharp-eyed survey of the BBC’s increasingly fraught relations with other people, notably politicians and listeners.
The BBC spoke in “Received Pronunciation”—the accent, Mr. Potter writes, of its “upper-middle class, Oxbridge-educated” managers. Its newsreaders wore black tuxedos. Out of step with the postwar mood, the BBC responded with “complacency” to the advent of commercial television in Britain, with its “lively and engaging American approaches to on-screen journalism” in the 1950s. The 1960s and 1970s would turn out to be a golden age for the BBC’s domestic television programming—but anyone who grew up a fan may rue the bureaucracy’s patrician contempt for mass entertainment: The BBC wiped the tapes of much of its comedy and drama, while preserving the news and the weather reports for posterity.
Slowly, a different ruling class emerged, in Britain and at the BBC. By the 1980s, the BBC’s management had changed from a conservative gentleman’s club to a professional staff drawn from what Mr. Hendy calls a “metropolitan, left-liberal” clique. Two gradual developments would threaten the BBC’s right to rule the airwaves—and even its survival.
Margaret Thatcher was ideologically opposed to the BBC’s privileges, and the BBC, which placed job adverts only in the Guardian, was becoming constitutionally incapable of understanding its critics. Further deregulation of the airwaves under Thatcher and John Major left the BBC fully exposed to commercial competition and the hostility of Britain’s mostly right-leaning print media.
The BBC’s predicament and uncertain future is summarized in two recent titles, Patrick Barwise and Peter York’s “The War Against the BBC” (2020) and “The BBC at Nearly 100: Will it Survive?,” a collection edited by John Mair (2021). Messrs. Barwise and York argue that the license fee allows the BBC to produce the kind of journalism that purely commercial stations cannot afford to make. This is unarguable . Yet the BBC is apparently determined to destroy its unique qualities by cutting budgets to regional and foreign-language services while dumbing down its entertainment in a doomed attempt to beat commercial stations and finding new ways to patronize its domestic audience.
The BBC’s creation, Mr. Potter points out, was unprecedented. There was nothing “natural nor inevitable” about its development, and its future is no more certain. Messrs. Barwise and York are especially critical of George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer whose austerity cuts to Britain’s public services included a steep reduction of the BBC’s budget in the 2010s. These assaults, the authors say, imperil the BBC’s ability to sustain its news operations in the age of “fake news.”
It might also be argued that the worst damage has been self-inflicted: The denizens of Broadcasting House remain beset by both institutional complacency and a bunker mentality. The BBC’s hostility to British Conservatives, the American Republican Party, Donald Trump, Brexit and the state of Israel weakens its claim to be a bulwark of professionalism.
Still, for 43 pence a day, those British who still bother to pay the license fee get the best news a tax can buy. But they, as Mr. Potter points out, are not the “principal target audience,” and never have been. The BBC has always exemplified a shifting idea of Britishness at home while exporting Britishness abroad. Its relationship with the British government is as paradoxical and prone to breakdown as its relationship to the British public.
The BBC, Mr. Potter writes, is “the single most important institution generating British soft power and overseas propaganda,” and its staff are “agents of British public diplomacy and persuasion.” The expert coverage of the funeral of Elizabeth II was a technical and political triumph, giving the BBC and Britain a monopoly on the world’s attention. The BBC still excels at its core tasks, but its commercial rivals are multiplying and its annual budget is shrinking. The current trend of ever-higher competition and ever-lower funding will lead to irrelevance, and then the loss of its charter and the license fee.
The BBC can be infuriating and inspiring, and also very narrow and dull. In this, as in its class war and political antagonisms, it is much like British life. The BBC really has informed, educated and entertained. Britain’s Conservative government, instead of making its now-traditional threats to cut the BBC loose, should instead look to conserve what is best and most essential about it.
The current digital shift is an opportunity to secure the future of the world’s greatest broadcaster—especially its radio services, the jewel in its crown. The alternative—the contraction of the BBC into a minor news service with a global streaming business attached—would be a needless blow to Britain’s identity and cultural life. It would also be the world’s loss.
Appeared in the November 12, 2022, print edition as ‘BBC One, BBC Two, BBC 100’.