Who Needs the BBC?

The British Broadcasting Corporation is having a hard time living up to its past. But what a past! Our correspondent reviews its history, seeking the roots of its present troubles
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Not many sets of initials became universally recognizable during the twentieth century, and those that did often had ominous overtones, from SS to KGB. Foreigners know some American initials better than others (CIA and FBI, say, rather than IRS or SAT), and an Englishman doesn't suppose that every American recognizes LSE or QPR. But everyone knows the BBC. You need only to say it the local way—bay-bay-say in France, bee-bee-chee in Italy—to be instantly understood. Leonard Slatkin is the first American to become chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He was no doubt thinking of his own country when he said after his recent appointment that those three letters have a magical ring.

The reputation of the British Broadcasting Corporation can be truly vexing, at any rate to its competitors. Although the BBC's monopoly on British television ended more than forty years ago, people outside our damp little island don't seem to have grasped that. Crews from the other British television companies always report that they get the same response when working in America: "So, you guys are from the BBC." "No, actually, we're Granada" (or ITN, or LWT, or whoever). "Yeah, British TV—the BBC."

But it isn't only resentful professionals from rival companies who now wonder if the BBC's reputation may not be a shadow—albeit an awfully big shadow—of former glories. The past year has seen turmoil at the corporation's London headquarters and heavy criticism of the BBC as an institution, not for the first time but in a manner more insidious and damaging than ever. Some of the criticism is political, and politically partisan, but more of it addresses the deeper question of purpose. The BBC's domestic output has grown so varied that generalizing about it makes little sense, and that raises the question of whether preserving the corporation as a single entity makes sense.

The BBC's international standing was hard-earned. There is a worldwide BBC television network, competing so far not very effectively with CNN and other satellite companies, but more than 150 million people around the world listen to BBC World Service radio, which was long famous for its integrity, high standards, and unembroidered, unsensationalized news. American addicts now complain that this once splendid station shows signs of decline—the result of what those who engage in it call promoting greater accessibility and the rest of us call dumbing down. These critics may have a point.

Certainly the BBC's position is peculiar. Its founding concept was one of "public-service broadcasting," a phrase with both an elevating and a patronizing ring. As long as it was the only broadcaster in the country, it could do as it liked, without giving any thought to the audience. Now it competes in a marketplace, though without being driven by the commercial imperatives of a market; and it has to chase viewers and listeners, though without making any money from them: most of its income derives from the license fees levied on television sets whether the owners watch the BBC or not. It's an odd and unsatisfactory arrangement.

The BBC's origins are likewise unsatisfactory, and also curious. Radio was born as a mass medium in the 1920s. How different countries responded to its arrival vividly illustrated their differing political cultures. America had a free market (at the very beginning federal and state governments didn't even regulate wavelengths, which were held by squatters' rights). In most European countries the state soon established a broadcasting monopoly under its own direction. Appropriately enough in the age when the business of America was business, American radio became wholeheartedly commercial. Appropriately enough in the age of totalitarianism, European radio became a prime vehicle for party propaganda and indoctrination.

As usual, the British way fell somewhere in between. After a very brief experiment with commercially sponsored broadcasting—a concert of songs by the diva Dame Nellie Melba, in 1920—a privately owned British Broadcasting Company began in 1922 with an exclusive license. In 1927 it became the British Broadcasting Corporation, a state firm ostensibly kept at arm's length from the government by a board of directors (appointed by the government, of course), and financed, in what was meant to be a high-minded and detached fashion, by fees exacted from all owners of what were then called wireless sets. Advertising was unknown and unthinkable.

As the historian A.J.P. Taylor observed in English History 1914-1945 (1965), this arrangement suited both political parties: "Conservatives liked authority; Labour disliked private enterprise." It should be said that Taylor was bitterly hostile to the BBC, owing to clashes of his own with the corporation, and that such hostility colored his contemptuous and absurd dismissal of even the BBC's contribution to musical life. But his claim that for years it rarely aired controversial views is harder to deny.

The BBC was the bland leading the bland, tending almost unconsciously to take an establishment view. It certainly supported the reigning dynasty, in whose reinvention as a wholesome model of family life the corporation played no small part, with, for example, the monarch's Christmas Day broadcasts, which began with George V. Presiding over the BBC's formative years was John Reith, a stern Scotch Calvinist much mocked as a cultural dictator and a prude. James Thurber described another prude, Harold Ross, of The New Yorker, as the only man he'd ever known who spelled out euphemisms in front of adults: Ross would say of some couple in the office, "I'm sure he's s-l-e-e-p-i-n-g with her." In Reith's day radio announcers were expected to wear dinner jackets in front of the microphone, and any employee suspected of a-d-u-l-t-e-r-y was fired immediately.

Rare incidents interrupted this decorum. In the 1930s there was a nighttime review of the Royal Navy, with a former naval officer providing the commentary. As he repeated the words "The fleet's lit up ... now it's gone" over and again in slurred tones, it became clear that he was in no state to continue, and he was cut short. The episode caused much public merriment and doubtless shocked Reith. (Funnily enough, it's often easier to tell on radio than on television when someone is drunk, though I do have a happy memory of Brendan Behan visibly sozzled on BBC television.)

Altogether Reith did not encourage dissent; he had a very exalted conception of his own importance; and he was obsessed by the BBC's mission to educate and improve its audience. In hindsight he doesn't seem so contemptible. He was a man of great ability, who truly believed in the grandiose slogan posted in the lobby of Broadcasting House, north of Oxford Circus: nation shall speak peace unto nation. And he believed just as passionately in the Victorian principle that we must educate our masters—the "demos" who should be fitted for democracy.

It may be that the BBC's true golden age began with World War II, after Reith's departure. From 1939 to 1945 the BBC became a national institution, as the British people gathered, in defeat and in victory, for the news at 9:00 p.m. Given that the country was engaged in a total war for survival, the news was remarkable for its honesty and objectivity. Those days still resonate. Although I wasn't yet born, let alone listening, at the time, I have folk memories of the wartime BBC, from Winston Churchill's great speeches in 1940 to Wynford Vaughan-Thomas reporting from a Lancaster bomber over Berlin in 1943 and Richard Dimbleby almost speechless with horror at liberated Bergen-Belsen in 1945. The war years also saw the BBC become a national institution in terms of entertainment, from serious music (there was a principled resolve to continue playing German composers, whatever the latest corruptions of Kultur) to popular comedy, most famously ITMA (It's That Man Again), another folk memory, a quite indescribable variety program combining absurd sketches, catchphrases, and songs, and drawing on two authentic English traditions: the music hall and nonsense humor. Radio comedy has remained one of the most distinctive voices of the BBC ever since, with a long line of brilliant series.

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