ourBeeb: Opinion

The unravelling of the Reithian BBC

How essential is the particular construction of Britishness which underpinned the Reithian BBC to the governing mission of Britain's ruling class?

Rosemary Bechler
9 December 2019, 5.59pm
The Speech on Christmas day on BBC radio.
Screenshot: Punch cartoon, 28 April, 1937.

In 2018, while I was placing Brexit in the context of rising new nationalisms in Europe and beyond, I commented en passant on the fragility of two very British icons, the BBC and the NHS:

“ There is no accident that the NHS shares with the BBC, that other icon of Britishness, the intention to provide universal and equal access across the huge diversity of a nation. Here is Tony Ageh… on Auntie’s early promise, “ to Inform, Educate and Entertain EVERYONE, equally and without systemic privilege or favour. No matter who you were, or where you lived, or how rich you were.” Now, both institutions are in crisis. In the case of the BBC, universal relevance has become an etiolated impartiality that is gradually foundering on the rocks of Us and Them. For the NHS, a fundamental economic solidarity is being hived off by privatisation.”

I was reminded of this sense of something unravelling on September 30, when BBC Director Tony Hall reversed the decision to discipline Breakfast host Naga Munchetty, singled out for criticising the US president’s racist rhetoric. The outcry greeting the Corporation’s initial decision was surely a key foundering moment. Even without Simon Albury’s indefatigable commentary on the gathering crisis, it became glaringly obvious overnight, as Anjum Peerbacos pointed out, that BBC rules of impartiality and balance turn out to be “made by white men who do not apply them even-handedly”; just like the Booker judges’ decision to flout the organisers’ instructions and award the 2019 prize jointly to Margaret Atwood and Bernadine Evaristo, suddenly seemed long overdue.

Then, as if on cue, on October 2, a passage in Boris Johnson’s speech to Conservative Party conference – his first as PM – invoked his mother’s wisdom on what has become his regular riff on the NHS:

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

“I am going to quote that supreme authority in my family - my mother
(and by the way for keen students of the divisions in my family you might know that I have kept the ace up my sleeve - my mother voted leave)
and my mother taught me to believe strongly in the equal importance, the equal dignity, the equal worth of every human being on the planet
and that may sound banal but it is not
and there is one institution that sums up that idea
The NHS is holy to the people of this country because of the simple beauty of its principle
that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from
but when you are sick the whole country figuratively gathers at your bedside”

Again, the chasm between words and deeds seemed glaring, even without reading NHS expert Caroline Molloy’s excellent anticipatory debunk. Only note the discrepancy between notions of universal inclusion and equal worth and Johnson’s tribally aggressive approach to ‘leave’ (not to mention the weirdness, reminiscent of the Danny Boyle 2012 Olympics NHS showcase, of the ‘whole country’ gathered at one’s sickbed.) Why, I asked myself at the time, take the risk? Why expose himself to yet more incredulity?

To answer that question, I believe, we have to recognise the particular construction of Britishness which underpinned the Reithian BBC, and how essential it still seems to the ruling class, despite the Damocles sword hanging over the tv license. You can read all about the construction of the Reithian BBC in Serving the Nation, the marvellous first volume of A Social History of British Broadcasting (1922-1939) by Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff, which I heartily recommend. It is even better read alongside the opening section of Chris Baldick’s The Social Mission of English Criticism 1848-1932 (Clarendon Press, 1983), an account of how Matthew Arnold’s cultural programme to fill a ‘missing centre’ so that it might hold was implemented in the Newbolt Report on national education, in further education institutions and in the cultural mission of those sent out to administer the colonies.

Three chapters of Serving the Nation – ‘Public Service Broadcasting’, ‘The Containment of Controversy’ and ‘The National Culture’ – emphasise that this was first and foremost a project for promoting social unity. As a national service, broadcasting might bring together all classes of the population, not least through its ‘calendrical role’ – the live relay of national ceremonies, regular rituals and celebrations that marked the unfolding of the broadcasting year. Reith boasted proudly of the pilot that became the monarch’s Christmas Day speech – King George V on radio for the first time, opening the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 – for “making the nation as one man”.

John Reith, Company Director from 1923 to 1926, and first Director General of the British Broadcasting Corporation from 1927 to 1938, had a reputation for religious zeal, high-mindedness and authoritarianism. But he chose a very particular binding mechanism for bringing into the greatest possible number of homes, all that was best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement. We might call it a ‘concealed authoritarianism’, a way of directly connecting the state and the individual, which could bypass such potential hornet’s nests as class and other major conflicts of interest, and yet balance sufficient views to give listeners the impression that they were making up their own minds, and not the unwitting victims of the formation of public opinion in the era of the General Strike.

If you detect echoes of Matthew Arnold’s “best that was thought and said” (1875 preface to Culture and Anarchy) – this is because it was indeed Arnold’s mechanism for avoiding a French Revolution that Reith borrowed and adapted for radio. Dig a little further into this Conservative palimpsest and up pops Edmund Burke’s direct response to French regicide in the ‘little platoons’ ordered to bind every British family into a loving allegiance to the royal one. This too was an essential part of Reith’s mechanism.

Punch cartoon
The Speech on Christmas day on BBC radio. | Screenshot: Punch cartoon, 28 April, 1937.

If Johnson, like Theresa May before him, is still invoking this ‘vision’ in its zombie category dotage, when the last thing their party can do is to honour such promises – is it because, despite the prevalence of deep-seated scepticism encapsulated in the concept of ‘fake news’, try as they might they simply have nothing else to offer? Could the inherited wisdom of centuries about how to manage the rising working classes of capitalism be finally unravelling today?

I ask because so much that was involved in John Reith’s binding mechanism for social unity, modelled on Matthew Arnold’s notion of culture, is now in trouble. Arnold cultivated a national ‘best self’ aimed at avoiding social anarchy by its careful extrication from controversy, especially political. Given the decline of earlier forms of authority such as the church, the rising middle classes were to govern by transcending partisan considerations. Their education would enable them in turn to “mould and assimilate the masses below them.”

Arnold’s method of ‘disinterestedness’ treated social classes as if they had no distinct interests (although it is the conflicts between interests that make them classes). In Arnold’s lexicon, the aristocracy, rising bourgeoisie and working class acquired tribal nicknames (Barbarian, Philistine and Populace). Social conflict was reduced to a series of psychological imperfections within each tribe’s soul, thereby bypassing the question of their social relations. Social inequality, in the same way, could be bridged within the hierarchy by emphasising and psychologising the loyal bond between the royal family and everyone else’s ‘little platoons’. Above all, maintaining social order would not have to rely on repression and force – but could be achieved through the skilful formation of ‘public opinion’ arising from what seemed to those targeted to be their own individual choices. As John Reith put it in his manifesto for a new BBC constitution:

Broadcasting… carries direct information on a hundred subjects to innumerable people who thereby… will after a short time be in a position to make up their own minds on matters of vital moment, matters which formerly they had to receive according to the dictated and partial versions and opinions of others… A new and mighty weight of public opinion is being formed… I have heard it argued that …[broadcasting] is fraught with danger to the community and the country generally… that a state of ignorance is to be preferred to one of enlightenment…. To disregard the spread of knowledge, with the consequent enlargement of opinion, and to be unable to supplement it with reasoned arguments… is not only dangerous but stupid.” John Reith, Broadcast over Britain (1924).

Remarkably, this form of ‘concealed authoritarianism’ has survived hot and cold wars and loss of empire. But now, on all sides, isn’t what Reith so painstakingly put together coming apart at the seams?

* * *

Take the pact with the monarch. Much has changed since the King’s Speech Punch cartoon. We might cite as evidence a dysfunctional royal family mirrored in dysfunctional ordinary families; highly aggressive ‘conservative values’ alongside feminism; a fake Queen’s Speech; racist attacks on a ‘black’ princess; a 'defenestrated Andrew', and a royal couple either too quick to believe or too ready to break the essential pact with the public, in which they get to perform our ‘best selves’ as long as we have maximum tabloid access into their private lives. Their impossible wish to be the ultimate bourgeois couple while retaining ultimate celebrity status, is arguably undermining both.

Another Reithian triumph, this time imaginatively uniting empire and nation, was King George addressing “our worldwide family” personally as individuals and friends in Xmas 1934. Contrast Theresa May’s apology to Commonwealth leaders in 10 Downing Street last year for the way her Home Office treated members of the Windrush generation – let alone the uncertain past and unpromising future of Global Britain.

Reith’s indefatigable manufacture of ‘we-feeling’ opportunities for national unity was dogged by its dependency on a prevalent mythic version of an English way of life. His educated south-east National Programme was a continuous source of grievance to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the North or West of England, for rendering them invisible. Yet remarkably the centre held until the unravelling of this imagined nation led directly to an English Brexit.

But every chapter of ‘A Social History of British Broadcasting’ offers a fresh chance to ponder a Reithian construct now in terminal disrepair. Let us return to the issue of BBC impartiality. Reith fought the state long and hard for permission for the BBC to appear independent by conducting political debate under the improbable conditions of ‘balanced controversy’ and ‘absolute impartiality’. In the inter-war years, the BBC bedded in as a ‘governing institution’ permitted to cover political, industrial and religious controversy, while sharing government assumptions about the ‘national interest’.

Inevitably, there were crises throughout the construction and maintenance of ‘BBC impartiality’ whenever there was a major conflict of public opinion – over unemployment, the General Strike, the rise of fascism or the Spanish civil war. The Munich crisis was a year-long crisis for the BBC, where there was growing concern at how complicit they had become in government gagging of broadcasting on appeasement and the imminence of war.

Scannell and Cardiff conclude that the “struggle to make politicians answerable and accountable to the electorate through broadcasting was not won until… the late fifties” with the rise of commercial television and new forms of broadcasting journalism. Here we can see the historical roots of the emergence of Jeremy Paxman-style interrogation techniques, where the tv interviewer ‘stands in’ as surrogate and guarantor for a still absent robust public debate on the major issues of the day.

What now, in the era of ‘fake news’? Ironically, mutations of Paxman-like skepticism have even provided leading politicians with the opportunity to allege an irredeemable gap between the ‘will of the people’ (still largely unconsulted) and their parliamentary representatives. In its etiolated state, don’t we begin to see BBC impartiality for what it always was? Essentially a removal of politics that is now making a raucous return, thanks also to new technologies erasing any remnant of Reith’s hardwon media monopoly.

One interesting test case might be the success in the current elections of the extraordinarily one-sided attack on the Leader of the Opposition in the BBC’s Panorama on Labour Party anti-semitism, whose message has been enthusiastically taken up across so many Establishment institutions. At once a high point in the concealed authority still available to the BBC, and a moment of high exposure for any pretension to balance, it suggests that we live in an era in which authority and impartiality can no longer be reconciled.

Indeed, Brexit spells the return of everything Reith’s BBC was designed to expunge: divided nations, politics, controversy and class conflict, working class and trade union voices, regional dialects, anger. Gone are the days, if ever they existed, when the one o’clock bulletin ADVICE TO WORKERS on the General Strike could be “Do all you can to keep everybody smiling. The way to do that is to smile yourself.” Though reliance on British comedy – that last resort – was recently galvanised to lay another Reithian ghost to rest, BBC English or ‘received pronunciation’. What exactly are we to make of this? And which ‘we’ ?

Shorter versions of this piece were originally published in the November and December editions of Splinters.

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