Blame Television for British Riots?

Times were tougher in the 1930s than they are now, so why did hard-hit Brits act more civilized during the Great Depression?


If widespread poverty, inequality, youth unemployment, and misery produce riots, as they plausibly have in England, we are left with a mystery. Why was there no comparable violence during the far more serious crisis of the 1930s? Was it just the absence of modern communication and social networking technology? Certainly there was misery beyond even the slums of today.

Last year the historian Juliet Gardiner published a reevaluation of the decade, emphasizing its hopeful and innovative side (too often neglected for the gloom that pervaded elite opinion), but also acknowledging the depths of suffering, as described in this Telegraph review:

It is almost unbelievable now to reflect that in north Oxford, upper-middle-class home owners insisted on the erection of two brick walls, topped with revolving iron spikes, to separate them from the Cutteslowe council estate. Working-class tenants, one councillor reported, were "herded behind walls and barbed wire like Germans in a concentration camp," yet the walls remained in place until 1959.

The poor of the 1930s, on the other hand, no matter how desperate, still had class consciousness and class pride. Insults like the north Oxford wall hardened their identities. The media world of the 1930s was different, and it wasn't just the absence of mobile devices. Even radio was still limited to the almost oppressively uplifting BBC. Its head until 1938, Lord Reith, may have been a ghastly private hypocrite, but his obsessive genius haunts London's Broadcasting House (1932) even now. At least he believed in leveling up, for the people but definitely not by the people. As the historian Stuart Clayton put it in his essay "Television and the Decline of Deference," Reith

decided that [the BBC's] purpose was "to carry into the greatest number of homes everything that was best in every department of human knowledge." The aim was to edify rather than excite, to promote high standards rather than attract the largest number of listeners and later viewers. The news was read by "the best of the ruling classes," while entertainment was subject to a strict code of conduct.

As long as the high spiked wall was there, the private lives of the affluent were safe from the scrutiny of the poor. While Tory leaders have often preached 19th-century self-improvement, the Cameron government broke with that tradition by cutting back funding of the clubs and libraries that were supposed to guide the poor to middle-class values. Television-presented bling plus persistent unemployment were the fuel, and Mr. Cameron's policies were the spark. Does he propose to return to the days of radio news readers in dinner jackets and black tie, a Reith policy to put them in the proper mood? Ironically, it was Lord Reith himself who began television broadcasting in the UK -- in 1936! -- thus earning a place in the unintended consequences hall of fame.  

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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