The BBC at one hundred

Yesterday morning, I consulted a BBC News article for an item in this newsletter about the murder of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. After I finished writing the newsletter, I ate lunch and caught up on the BBC’s Sunday-night soccer-highlights show (which I’d missed) on the broadcaster’s streaming service; later, over dinner, I watched Only Connect, a BBC trivia show in which contestants have to identify a link between seemingly unrelated clues. (A sample set of clues from last night: Sex and the City; Home Alone 2; the video for Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own.”) In between meals, I was watching the BBC’s livestreamed Parliament channel when a senior official in the government of Liz Truss—Britain’s new and yet somehow-already-doomed prime minister—insisted that Truss, who was mysteriously absent from the chamber, was not, as an opposition lawmaker had suggested, hiding “under a desk.” The BBC quickly sent the quote out as a mobile push alert.

This was a fairly typical day of BBC consumption for me, not as a media writer so much as a person who happens to live in the UK. I also came across some highly atypical BBC content yesterday: a video of Steve Rosenberg—the broadcaster’s Russia editor, recently seen grilling the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko on human rights and reporting from wartime Moscow despite heavy restrictions—playing the theme music to old BBC children’s shows on the piano, and a promo for an upcoming episode of the BBC version of Dancing with the Stars, in which the celebrity contestants will dance to music associated with other BBC shows. This morning, I read a BBC story about how the king’s face won’t appear on a commemorative BBC coin (it was minted before the queen died) and a BBC story about how the king will appear on a special episode of The Repair Shop, a BBC show on which experts, well, repair stuff.

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Today is an atypical day for the BBC: the special content marks one hundred years since the broadcaster was born. The BBC began life as a private company, albeit a monopoly set up with government approval; “industrialists were trying to sell radio receivers to the general public,” The Guardian’s Jim Waterson explains, “but no one wanted to hand over money for an expensive piece of kit if there wasn’t anything to listen to.” If today is the BBC’s formal birthday, it did not actually broadcast anything until a month or so later, when an announcer read a short news bulletin, twice, in case people were taking notes. (Per Waterson, the bulletin featured a story on a flailing new prime minister whose days would soon be numbered. Plus ça change.) Even this first broadcast didn’t generate much coverage from the rest of Britain’s media. It would be several more months before the BBC even got its own offices. “Very few people would have noticed” the BBC’s founding at the time, David Hendy, the author of a recent history of the broadcaster, said on a (you guessed it) BBC podcast recently. “There is a founding moment in 1922, but in many ways it’s not a single date so much as a whole year of activities where this technology, which has been around for years, becomes something else: it ceases to be a private means of communication, and it becomes something which is part of a national project.”

The technology to which Hendy was referring was wireless radio, and the “project” to which he was referring was a desire, on the part of the BBC’s founding fathers, not only to sell equipment but to push edifying, high-quality knowledge into people’s homes in a universalizing way (a function, Hendy notes, that the fragmented print press of the time did not fulfill). This project was partly informational—Arthur Burrows, a former newspaperman who became one of the BBC’s first staffers, had monitored the use of wireless to push misleading German propaganda during the First World War and determined that the technology could instead be used for good—but it was also cultural; indeed, per Hendy, Cecil Lewis, a former fighter pilot who was also an early BBC staffer, sought to keep news a small part of the broadcaster’s schedule, which otherwise comprised dramas, music, and speeches. “I didn’t really care what was happening in Abyssinia,” Lewis said (using an old name for Ethiopia). “We were hooked on the idea of entertainment.”

According to Hendy, the BBC “only really started to be a news organization” from 1926, amid mass labor unrest in Britain; indeed, at that point, the broadcaster had no news operation of its own, relied on wire copy for its bulletins, and had made agreements not to muscle onto the turf of print newspapers. As a general strike began, however, the papers stopped printing, leaving the BBC as a rare remaining source of news. Britain’s then finance minister, an obscure man by the name of Winston Churchill, sought to commandeer the BBC and force it to broadcast anti-strike propaganda; the BBC fought to retain its formal independence, but its coverage, critics have since charged, wasn’t very independent at all, skewing toward the official line despite some representation of other points of view. The BBC would again chart a delicate balance between autonomy and the demands of officialdom during the Second World War—a seminal moment for the broadcaster, as Hendy notes. (It was bombed by Nazi planes in 1940—the anniversary of which also happened to fall this week—yet managed to remain on air throughout.) Despite its close wartime ties to the government, the BBC’s “relationship with truthful reporting became absolutely central to its identity and its reputation” during the war, Hendy says, as it sought to win and keep the trust of listeners not just at home, but overseas.

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The BBC had become a public corporation in the late 1920s. Ever since then, though at some moments much more than others, its relationship with the British state has been fraught, a function of its peculiar dual status as both a news organization and a nominally unifying cultural service, and of its funding status; British TV-owners pay a “license fee” to keep the BBC going, the parameters of which are set by the government at certain intervals. The left, in particular, has long criticized the BBC as an agent of the establishment, if not the state itself, and yet the state and the BBC have often clashed; in 2003, for example, Tony Blair’s government’s furious backlash against BBC reporting on its claims about the Iraq War led to a slew of high-profile resignations at the broadcaster, even though the reporting was, in no small part, later vindicated. There is, perhaps, no news organization that is scrutinized so ferociously right across its domestic political spectrum—certainly none (that I know of) that must thread as fine a regulatory and social needle to maintain its own pronounced impartiality, and the perception thereof. The argument as to how the broadcaster might do so is replayed regularly.

If the birth of the BBC passed relatively unnoticed in the press at the time, the same cannot be said of its centenary, which has attracted enormous media attention, and not just of the whimsically celebratory variety. Some headlines have asked whether the BBC will still be around, at least in something like its current form, by the time of its 110th birthday; the BBC’s own media editor, Amol Rajan, acknowledged that this is a moment of “existential threat” for the broadcaster, adding that “only a brave soul would bet on the BBC’s current funding model surviving the next few decades.” Some of the challenges that the BBC faces—digital disruption; the decline of linear TV in an age of streaming; the broader obsolescence of license-fee-based funding models—are common to broadcasters elsewhere, but the BBC also faces intense hostility, to an extent arguably unprecedented in its history, from the current British government, which has melded concerns about commercial viability into the longer-term right-wing argument that the BBC has a left-wing bias (a charge that, again, is hotly disputed by the actual left) and supercharged the dynamic with puerile culture-war rhetoric. Under former prime minister Boris Johnson, officials became more brazen in leaning on the BBC over its coverage and editorial appointments; earlier this year, Johnson’s government set out plans to freeze the license fee for two years—a real-terms funding cut—and consider abolishing it altogether by 2027.

Since succeeding Johnson, Truss has so far been too busy tanking Britain’s economy and hiding under desks to turn in earnest to what to do about the BBC; her government is formally reviewing the idea of scrapping the license fee, though she has appointed a culture minister who has backed the idea in the past. Truss’s government may not last long; indeed, this longer period of Conservative rule may be swiftly coming to its end, and the opposition Labour Party has pledged to bolster the BBC’s funding and editorial independence should it take office. The license-fee freeze, however, has already forced cuts on the broadcaster. And more broadly, as Hendy has argued, the BBC is once again having to make the case for its own continued existence as a broad-based public service, much as it had to a hundred years ago. In a sense, celebrations of the BBC’s centenary pose a “danger,” Hendy says. The BBC “doesn’t want to appear as something which is about the past. It needs to be focused on the present.”

In many ways, the BBC is a conservative institution, with a small c. The breadth of its ability to gather and disseminate fact-based news worldwide is, perhaps, unparalleled, but its cautious political coverage and recent approach to government relations have often made me tear my hair out (see: its fawning recent coverage of the queen’s death), even as it forms a regular, unavoidable part of my media diet. (I haven’t touched on them here, but institutional conservatism has also, over the years, factored into any number of BBC scandals that deserve to be considered in any full retrospective, not least around pay equality.) Still, the BBC is also trying to conserve itself on the terms by which it was founded—as a universal public service for information and culture—and that effort at conservation is worthwhile; how the BBC could better serve that universal ideal, especially when it comes to its news philosophy, is intensely up for debate, as always, but the notion that it would be better served as an effectively privatized poor cousin to Netflix strains credulity. In his recent book, Hendy reported that more than 90 percent of British households use at least one BBC service per week. Earlier this year, a BBC-commissioned study deprived participants who were reluctant to pay the full license fee of all BBC content for nine days, to see if they’d change their minds. A strong majority did.

Extrapolations from British to American politics are often facile, and the notion that an American version of the BBC might scythe through polarization by furnishing a common bed of facts and culture is no exception. (Indeed, this might not even be entirely desirable.) But, given the striking fragmentation of US corporate media, it would probably help. Oh, and the link between the Only Connect clues in the first paragraph of this newsletter? They all featured Donald Trump.

Below, more on the BBC:

  • What would Labour do? As noted in brief above, Lucy Powell, the culture spokesperson for Britain’s (currently) ascendant Labour Party, has said that the party would protect the BBC’s funding if it took power, as well as implement reforms, including longer periods between reviews of the broadcaster’s governing charter, designed to better insulate its managers from political pressure. “Constant attacks from the Tories are tearing down the BBC by stealth,” Powell said in August, referring to the governing Conservative Party. “The BBC needs to change with the times, and shouldn’t be afraid of robust reporting and debate which reflects the views of the country.… Under Labour, the BBC would be free from political interference, and the BBC’s future as a universal, publicly owned, public service broadcaster would be safe.” The Observer has more details.
  • A “forgotten legacy”: As part of the BBC’s centenary, Lenny Henry, a leading British comedian and broadcaster, wrote about the “forgotten legacy” of Una Marson, who became the BBC’s first Black producer and anchor in the 1940s. “As an articulate, intelligent black woman with a purpose, Una didn’t have it easy in the patriarchal world of the BBC and Britain of the 1940s,” Henry writes. “She had to deal with racism from some of her BBC colleagues. A confidential report on her work in the BBC archives praises her broadcasting skills, but mentions the ‘social’ difficulties she faced due to ‘the prejudices which undoubtedly exist among some of the staff.’ But Una knew what she was doing was important. And no matter what people said, she got the work done.”
  • Historic influence: History Today invited historians, including Hendy, to weigh in on the impact that the BBC has exerted on history more broadly in its hundred-year existence. Darrell Newton, the author of the book Paving the Empire Road: BBC Television and Black Britons, argues that the broadcaster has been “at the forefront of shaping the experience of West Indians in Britain, for better and worse.” Diya Gupta, meanwhile, wrote about the BBC’s broadcasts to India during the Second World War, concluding that they “played a significant role in disseminating antifascist messages but said little about what would become of India in the postwar years, or indeed its colonial subjecthood.”
  • The international angle: Writing for The Conversation, the historian Simon Potter assessed the particular challenges facing the BBC’s global output as the broadcaster marks its centenary. The BBC “faces increasing competition for audiences from global entertainment providers, anxieties about the sustainability of its funding and a highly competitive global news market,” Potter writes. Last month, the BBC announced that it would cut four hundred jobs within its World Service as a result of funding pressures. “Radio services in languages including Arabic, Persian, Hindi and Chinese will disappear,” Potter writes, “and programme production for the English-language radio service will be pared down. Certainly, these cuts will reduce the BBC’s impact overseas.”


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: 12 October 2022, Great Britain, London: The station logo is emblazoned on the entrance to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The UK's public broadcaster, which was to achieve world fame for its quality as the British Broadcasting Corporation, was founded 100 years ago, on October 18, 2022. Photo by: Christoph Meyer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images