Contents | March 2001

In This Issue (Contributors)

More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.

From the archives:

"Apollo 11, Apartheid, and TV" (July 1999)
When the only way to watch was to line up in front of a purple velvet curtain. By Rob Nixon

"Blood and Motherly Advice" (February 1997)
The American Forces Network offers homilies, sports events, and surprisingly graphic depictions of war. By Gregg Easterbrook

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

BBC Online Homepage
News, weather, and sports for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales; home pages for BBC television and radio programs; audio and video files; Web site reviews, and general information about the BBC.

Special Report: The Future of the BBC
A collection of articles about the BBC, posted by The Guardian, a British newspaper.

The Unofficial Guide to the BBC
A privately maintained Web site offering comprehensive information about the BBC's history, management, and behind-the-scenes functioning, gathered from a variety of books and articles.

The Museum of Broadcast Communication Online
The Web site of a Chicago museum devoted to the history of television and radio. The site offers biographies of broadcasters and industry moguls, sound files of archival broadcasts, an online "encyclopaedia of television," and more. The Atlantic Monthly | March 2001
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
by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
ot 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.

t 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.

At this point I should perhaps follow the practice of the House of Commons and declare an interest. Apart from the occasional appearance, pontificating on some topic or other for a minuscule fee, I have never worked for the BBC, but I seem to be surrounded by its employees. My sister used to be a senior BBC-TV executive, like her former husband; my other brother-in-law (wife's brother) directs art programs, and my late father-in-law, Frank Muir, belongs to the corporation's calendar of saints. Muir began writing for the BBC just after the war, and he and his partner of fifty years, Denis Norden, practically invented the zany radio sitcom years before they created their delightfully dotty language program, My Word!, which had a considerable American following. Their shows were laced with a clever and allusive humor in the manner of P. G. Wodehouse. I've often met people who remember fragments of their Take It From Here from more than forty years ago, such as the sketch, lasting only a minute or so, in which a Roman legion is being drilled on the parade ground by a centurion who bawls, "All right ... by the right—number awf!" and is answered "Eye!" "Eye-eye!" "Eye-eye-eye!" "Eye-vee!"

Another wartime development made the BBC the greatest of all international broadcasters. Radio was widely used for propaganda, although there were significant local variations. Well before the war every German knew the sound of Hitler's voice from his ranting orations, but the Russians didn't know Stalin's voice until he broadcast for the first time, after the Soviet Union was invaded, in July of 1941. His listeners must have been taken aback by his Georgian accent, just as the Japanese were bemused by their Emperor's lilting court intonation when he broadcast for the first time, after the bombing of Hiroshima, announcing the coming surrender in the memorably meiotic words "The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage."

Because shortwave transmissions can cross frontiers and even circle the globe, one country after another began to use radio for external as well as internal propaganda. During the war Germany beamed disheartening news at England—read by William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw—while Ezra Pound spewed anti-Semitic bile from Rome. And as the war progressed, the BBC found itself broadcasting internationally, in English (with George Orwell working for the Indian Service) and forty other languages—messages of hope to occupied Europe in French, Czech, and Danish, news bulletins and discussions in Spanish, Arabic, and Hindi.

In Dean Acheson's phrase, Great Britain lost an empire without finding a role, and by the 1950s something of the same was true of the BBC. There was a fierce campaign to start an alternative, advertising-financed television channel. Nowadays the utter worthlessness of American television is an article of faith in chattering-class England, uniting the anti-American left with cultural conservatives. (As a pretty good Schubert-and-Tiepolo-loving culture snob myself, I would say that if American television can give us The Simpsons and The Sopranos, it isn't doing badly.) But it's interesting to find that back in the 1950s someone like the critic Kenneth Tynan—politically very much part of the anti-American left—not only supported commercial television but also insisted on the superiority, cultural as well as technical, of American television.

The BBC excited the admiration of a certain type of anglophile American, and in the case of BBC radio not without reason. If there was one thing that justified the BBC's exalted reputation when I was growing up, it was The Listener. This was a weekly magazine that looked very much like The Spectator and the New Statesman—or The New Republic and The Nation—of those days, but most of its contents were taken from BBC broadcasts. Writing in 1956, Dwight Macdonald (a distinctly if not besottedly anglophile American) said sourly that in America a magazine on such a level as that of The Listener and drawn from a similar source would have to appear not weekly but annually.

At the time, Macdonald was living in London and was formulating his theory of culture, high, low, and middle—or, as he called them, High Culture, Masscult ("a parody of High Culture"), and Midcult, which "pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them." To his great amusement, the BBC then had three radio stations exactly fitting his pattern: the Light Programme (Masscult), the Home Service (Midcult), and the "tactfully named" Third Programme (High Culture). The Third Programme was uncompromisingly and brilliantly highbrow. One could turn on an opera relay from London or Vienna or a superb concert—maybe played by the BBC's own symphony orchestra, which over the years gave the British premiere of such works as Schoenberg's Erwartung and Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony—and hear an interval talk given by Bertrand Russell or E. M. Forster. Plainly, the service was not run on a commercial basis; its employees thought it bad form even to discuss ratings, and working for it was regarded as a privilege. The story goes that when a venerable scholar had given a talk on some ineffably esoteric subject, the producer said to him as he was leaving, "The fee will be fifteen guineas, Professor," and the don replied, "Very good, and to whom shall I make the cheque?"

For anyone who grew up in England in the quarter century after the war, the Third Programme and The Listener were rivaled only by Penguin paperbacks as profoundly influential conduits of unofficial education. In his recent memoir, A Short Walk Down Fleet Street, the veteran political columnist Alan Watkins describes his boyhood in a South Wales mining village, whence he won a university place in 1950. Fifty years on he remains convinced that more than anything else, it was reading the series Ideas and Beliefs of the Victorians, which The Listener printed from the Third Programme, that got him into Cambridge.

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2001; Who Needs the BBC? - 01.03; Volume 287, No. 3; page 53-58.