The Centennial History of the BBC
Online Features editor Catherine Stone reflects on the varied history of the BBC as a national institution and its future trajectory at the juncture of the organisation’s centenary.
A fixture in the majority of households, the BBC has been part of the cultural fabric of Britain for the past century. The distinctive radio ‘pips’ that mark the hour before each hourly news broadcast, invented by the Astronomer Royal Sir Frank Watson Dyson, have punctuated the days of generations of Britons. The passing of its 100 year anniversary last November has prompted a reflection on its institutional history, so important in understanding its mission and trajectory, as the BBC faces big changes in relations with government, global reach, respectability and purpose. The BBC motto, adopted in 1927, is ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation’, reflecting its desire to facilitate free exchange of information and culture in its representation of the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world.
The BBC makes a fascinating case study of the influence of key figures, agendas and world realities in shaping media and media shaping the course of modern history.
Their centenary has been marked with self-triumphant grandstanding of the only broadcaster in the world with such a ‘diverse, exciting and long history’. Certainly, in the organisation’s 100 years it has seen an extraordinary range of technological and cultural change, from humble beginnings in Marconi’s tiny London studio 2LO to a media conglomerate unchallenged in power and reach. The organisation is globally renowned for world-class journalism and rigorous standards of impartiality in domestic broadcasting and the global World Service. The application of these integral standards upon their own institutional history often appears different however from the perspective of other media, such as Al Jazeera’s history of government and media tension that has led to ‘an increase of caution and centralisation in the BBC’s journalism’. The BBC makes a fascinating case study of the influence of key figures, agendas and world realities in shaping media and media shaping the course of modern history.
The organisation has been conscious of its own role in history since its origins, with Professor Asa Briggs tasked with writing the history of the BBC’s early years in the 1950s, gathering first-hand oral testimonies in a five volume history to explore how culture, codes and values were expressed through programs and personalities’ and the conflicts, behaviour and relationships of a public organisation. The BBC Oral History Project was created by Frank Gillard in the early 1970s, who conducted many of the interviews personally over the next few decades. This collection is being digitised and curated in a project with the University of Sussex that aims to make it accessible to the general public through the website the ‘100 Voices that Made the BBC’ in advance of the centenary. This drive to democratise history echoes the organisations’ ethos and is reflected in David Hendy’s work The BBC: A People’s History.
The British Broadcasting Company began in October 1922, pioneering radio news, music drama and ‘talks’ that were transmitted across the nation in a ‘thousand-tongued voice’ before newsreels and cinema even had sound. As an innovator in the field, there weren’t standards or precedents of procedures and purpose of broadcasting; the BBC was dynamic and full of experimentation and organisation under General Manager John Reith.
A long contestation began between the BBC as an independent journalistic entity and as the official state media first tested in the 1926 General Strike: the BBC’s coverage erred on the government’s official line and vetoed dissenting voices, earning the nickname ‘British Falsehood Corporation’ by strikers. The next year the BBC was established by Royal Charter as the public British Broadcasting Corporation, with John Reith the first Director-General, who defined its founding objectives, powers and obligations. The Charter means ministers choose the Chairman and board of the BBC Trust, and have authority over the funding and organisational policy in each successive Charter, reviewed every 10 years.
The unbridled expansion of the BBC has stagnated, opening a forecasted diminished role for the BBC as it continues to fight to maintain its relevance and principle of universality.
The 1930s were a defining aesthetic decade for the BBC with their art deco and functionalist new Broadcasting House inaugurated in 1932 – a ‘Temple of the Arts and Muses’ according to its dedication – and the birth of the classic Marconi Type A microphone, which were emptied of electronics and gold-plated as leaving presents for presenters. The first Royal Christmas radio address was given by King George V in 1932 and the newly inaugurated television service was given a baptism of fire with the first televised coronation of George VI in 1937. The BBC began to expand its reach, creating the BBC Empire Service, and non-English broadcasting began.
The organisation played an important role in the Second World War, beaming the Winston Churchill’s ‘we will never surrender’ speech to the entire world, but was also subject to scripted broadcasting under wartime censorship. It continued to go to strength to strength, televising the 1948 Olympic Games and 1953 Queen’s coronation, and introducing iconic programs such as Desert Island Discs and Women’s Hour as well as radio soap opera The Archers and children’s show Blue Peter.
In the 1960s and 70s, the BBC crafted its image as people’s resource and there was a general trend of increasing challenge to authority. After pirate radio stations were banned by the government, the BBC launched Radios 1,2, 3 and 4 from 1967 to meet the increasing need of the youth market, establishing the ‘swinging new radio service’. Satellite enabled the connection of the entire world in a live broadcast – ‘Our World’ was live, non-political contributions from participating countries. They expanded into education, partnering with the Open University to deliver adult evening classes, launching children’s news service Newsround, producing natural history documentaries with the iconic figure of David Attenborough, and launching the BBC Microcomputer that taught children’s computing and stimulated the new media and computer industry worldwide in 1982.
The 1980s were a decade of major international conflict and the BBC’s resources were stretched immensely between covering conflicts in the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland, China, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The period was also marked by increasing government control, shown by the fact that in 1985 it was revealed that some BBC staff were being vetted by MI5. Documentaries on topics such as Britain’s intelligence agencies and Falklands war were censored and sometimes shelved: a controversial documentary about the IRA caused Director-General Milne to be ousted by Thatcher, who thought the BBC was too liberal, and replaced by free market idealist John Burt.
The digital revolution took the BBC by storm in the 1990s as it seized the technological initative to remain relevant, launching digital radio broadcasting even before DAB radios are even commercially available and its first website in 1997. Tensions between media, State and government flared up again with events such as Princess Diana’s Panorama interview and the Iraq invasion. BBC Reporter Andrew Gilligan’s accusation of a government cover-up on Radio 4 over misleading Parliament on Iraq’s weaponry led to the investigative Hutton Report which vindicated the government in demand for retraction.
The unbridled expansion of the BBC throughout the 20th century culminated in the opening of the new wing of Broadcasting House in 2013 with glass design to stimulate human connection. There has since been a forecasted diminished role for the BBC, and it has to fight to maintain its relevance and principle of universality. Guardian columnist Charlotte Higgins argues Tony Hall is ‘the Hadrian of the BBC’s emperors, the first non-expansionist who tactically withdrew from troubled territory and concentrated on consolidating his borders’.
As political forces coalesce on the flanks of the organisation, the BBC is undergoing an identity crisis. The Reithian principle of BBC purpose to “inform, educate and entertain” as a “guide, philosopher and friend” that forms shared national memory is being challenged by anti-liberal nationalism and platform capitalism, argues Tom Mills, author of BBC: Myth of a Public Service. At the 2016 Royal Charter renewal, former Culture Minister Whittingdale argued against the ‘false logic’ of universality and envisioned a diminished BBC, without the licence fee and with TV programming limited to news and nature documentaries. This vision more closely resembles the US model of broadcasters such as PBS that provide selected material rather than a collective, popular experience for the general public. This vision has been incorporated into public policy with the 2016 revocation of the over-75 license fee paid by DWP and recent freeze of license fee money has created financial instability with a $35 million funding gap among other pressures.
As the BBC enters their second century of reporting and broadcasting, they will continue to refine and recast their role within an everchanging political, technological and social sphere.
For many, the BBC’s popularity has been damaged by a string of crises over executive layoff payments, coverage of the Jimmy Savile case and lack of trust in oversight organisation BBC Trust and intensified criticism from media rivals for mismanagement and inefficiency. Budget cuts have resulted in a severely diminished World Service as the BBC in 2022 cut 10 foreign language broadcasts, including Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Persian, losing 380 jobs. Reactions have been strong, with many arguing the BBC is jettisoning its important role in broadcasting reliable news across the world, reaching isolated and developing communities without access to high-tech equipment.
The tension of impartiality continues to create friction between the BBC and the government during the pandemic and over new immigration legislation. Recently the Gary Lineker episode, where the BBC suspended the BBC Sports presenter for comments made about the Government’s ‘small boats’ asylum policy, has revealed an inconsistent approach by the BBC.
As the BBC enters their second century of reporting and broadcasting, they will continue to refine and recast their role within an everchanging political, technological and social sphere. It remains to be seen whether they remain on the cutting edge of creativity, research and development while balancing their commitment to public service that has been their compass since the 1920s.