On the evening of Friday, April 18, 1930, British listeners could enjoy a live performance of the opera parsifal by Richard Wagner. At a quarter to nine there was a fifteen minute break for the evening news. When the time came, the BBC’s spokesman coolly stated that there was no news. The time was filled with piano music from the studio.
Historian David Hendy, author of BBC – A People’s History, a very readable anniversary book on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the British Broadcasting Corporation, checked if there really was nothing to report. The newspapers had not been published that Good Friday, but that did not mean that the world had come to a standstill.
Eight firefighters were injured and many families were hit by two major fires in Glasgow. In Bradford, 6,000 textile workers went on strike, and in Wales, thousands of miners were laid off. In Karachi, police opened fire on protesters against British colonial rule.
Hardly any own reporting
Hendy does not blame the BBC itself for ignoring these nonetheless newsworthy events. CEO John Reith wanted nothing more than to inform listeners first hand about what was going on in the world. Reporting from their own journalists, however, was not appreciated by the authorities – and the newspapers certainly did not need competition. In the early years, it was impossible to do more than read a bulletin from the news agency Reuters.
And while the BBC was formally independent as a public service television, the British government did not resist the temptation to step in when things got really tense. For example, Reith gave up when millions of workers in 1926 had stopped working after a call from the trade union TUC.
The general strike was triggered by successive wage cuts in the British mines. Reith refused to let Finance Minister Winston Churchill, the hawk in the Conservative government, rage against strikers and unions in front of the BBC microphone. But under penalty of having the license revoked, Reith had to get Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to declare that the TUC was starving the country and interrupted the strike immediately. Labor leader Ramsay MacDonald wanted airtime for a response but was denied. Not even the Archbishop of Canterbury was given the opportunity to speak to the nation with a word of peace.
It would not be the last clash between government and television. Forty years ago, for example, Margaret Thatcher prevented the British Bastard Corporation from reporting the fighting in the Falkland Islands correctly. The current Prime Minister Boris Johnson is threatening the ‘Brexit-Bashing Corporation’ with the abolition of the TV license, the main source of revenue.
News has therefore always been a problem for the BBC. The programmers therefore focused on uplifting the people and civilized entertainment. During the week, usually to the satisfaction of millions of listeners and from the late 1930s also to the first TV viewers. But on Sunday there was not much more to do than a Bible reading and Bach cantatas. From 1933, however, there was an attractive alternative: dance music on Radio Luxembourg, between the Colgate toothpaste commercials. On Sunday, two out of three listeners turned the BBC away from commercial competition from mainland Europe.
Even more painful was the popularity of the Nazis’ English-language broadcasts with swinging music at the beginning of the war. The BBC eventually struck back with the famous armed force program, a combination of reliable news, entertainment and light music.
During World War II, the BBC made its major breakthrough. In 1944, she broadcast programs in 46 languages - to tens of thousands of listeners in all corners of the world. Using coded messages, the broadcaster launched more than a thousand acts of sabotage on railway lines on D-Day alone (June 6, 1944).
Hendy devotes a critical chapter to the BBC’s failure to integrate large groups of migrants from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan as a result of decolonization. As recently as 1975, the Caribbean community in Manchester refused to participate in a BBC program because it believed the broadcaster was completely incapable of doing justice to the lives, problems and aspirations of ethnic minorities. Despite repeated protests over the years, it was not until 1978 for the BBC to end the racist campaign Black and white Minstrel Show†
Chased by the commercial challenger ITV, who scored big with I love Lucy and Ready Set Go!managed a new generation of program creators to join the swinging sixties with the satire from That was the week that was and with Top of the Pops† Later there were squatters like Top Gear† east end and Strictly Come Dancing† Meanwhile, the uplift of the people on BBC 2, without pressure from viewership, could get a new look with historical drama series such as. Forsyte Sagaen and David Attenborough’s wildlife programs. As an export commodity, this type of high quality series provides a source of extra income.
David Hendy characterizes the BBC as we know it today as a national institution and at the same time the favorite piss pole for viewers, politicians and competitors. Leading, innovative (with a top website and a great streaming service), but also complacent and not easily prone to admit mistakes. The debate about the future of the 100-year-old has therefore erupted with great intensity. During the pandemic, the British resorted to Netflix and social media galore. But it was not – contrary to what many thought – at the expense of the BBC; the proportion of Britons who managed to find the public broadcaster rose from 91 to 94 by 2020. In the rest of the world, the number of viewers and listeners is now approaching 500 million.
David Hendy: BBC – A People’s History. Profile books; 656 pages; around € 30.