Historians' Watch

The Public’s Broadcaster: A Battle for the BBC

News has spread that the Government’s forthcoming White Paper on the BBC’s Charter may contain new regulations prohibiting the BBC from airing popular programmes at the same primetime hour as those featured on ITV or channels owned by BSkyB.  The Daily Telegraph has labeled the move part of ‘a series of measures to lessen the impact of the BBC on commercial rivals’, suggesting that the Conservative Government is making the contest for ratings in primetime fairer for private companies.

This shocking proposal stretches the political rhetoric of ‘fairness’ past its breaking point. Surely, it is most fair for the public to see their funds directed towards an effective and robust BBC, one that ably serves their interests by offering the kinds of programming they want to see at the times they want to watch it.

The British public are the stakeholders in the BBC, an organisation that does not benefit from the protection of powerful, multi-billionaire beneficiaries, or the insidious voices of vested interests that want to eliminate public competition for private enterprise.

My research on the place of the BBC in British public life has focused on the years between 1939 and 1948. Undeniably, these were years of unprecedented social, political and economic upheaval, spanning the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.

In 1939 and 1940, the BBC worked hard to create a broadcasting service that people would find informative and entertaining, one that disseminated news and variety programmes that would keep the public engaged and ‘listening in’ regularly. This was no small task; it was one of national importance. Most tuned in to radio services broadcast by Radio Normandy and Radio Luxembourg, stations that had begun began to relay Nazi propaganda from Radio Hamburg in 1940. Finding ways to keep the British public listening to engaging, entertaining and patriotic programmes on the BBC’s Home Service became a priority for the Ministry of Information, the wartime Coalition government, and the BBC Directorate.

This was a significant shift from broadcasting practices established under the tenure of the BBC’s first Director-General, John Reith. With his infamous mandate to ‘inform, enlighten and entertain’, Reith was more interested in shaping public opinion than listening to the wants and tastes of the listening public. In order to create a broadcasting service that would find national popularity, the BBC had to alter its priorities. During the war, it was the BBC’s Listener Research that became ‘the most effective barometer of public taste’ in the estimation of the Ministry of Information. Listener thoughts, beliefs and opinions became central to discussions about programming planning and content.

It was essential for the BBC to be able to gauge the national mood in order to provide programming that would lighten the burden of war work, or even provide psychological and spiritual comfort in times of crisis. These programmes, including The Kitchen Front, It’s That Man Again, Music While You Work, Lift Up Your Hearts (the precursor to Thought for the Day) and the evening news bulletin became fixtures in the daily experience of war.

In the immediate post-war years, the BBC faced a new mandate. In the conversation and deliberations leading to the Charter Renewal of 1947, the BBC faced increasingly loud calls for the public broadcaster to reflect diverse regional, class and religious identities within the British Isles by creating a greater range of programming. L.A.G. Strong wrote in the BBC Yearbook of 1945 that it was vital to showcase ‘various kinds of British life: to give expression to those diverse individualities of thought and speech which make up the national character’.[1] Though the BBC faced no domestic competition at this time, the BBC’s leadership knew that the Corporation could only maintain its position as the national broadcaster by creating a programming schedule that would find popular appeal. That the BBC continues to serve diverse communities and regions with dedicated programming has not made it more profitable, but it has made it a truly national broadcaster offering a service that commercial broadcasters cannot.

What is remarkable about the Government’s recent proposals is that they are actively reversing the careful work the BBC has undertaken over successive generations, preventing the Corporation from connecting with the interests of millions. The practice of making popular programmes has been deliberately woven into the DNA of the BBC since the Second World War. If proposals to block the BBC from airing popular entertainment in primetime are included in the forthcoming White Paper, the Government can rightly be charged with actively working to make a public asset and public institution less efficient and less effective. Producing programmes that draw high ratings is not a vanity project for BBC management. Highly rated programmes demonstrate that the BBC is doing its job by catering to public tastes, and allows the Corporation to turn a profit on programmes, such as Top Gear or the Great British Bake Off, by selling them to global distributors, funds that can be used to increase programming capacity or fund special interest or regionally focused programmes that wouldn’t otherwise get made.

If these new proposals come into effect, what should the BBC do with its trove of skilled broadcasters? Willfully create programmes that will be less successful than Downton Abbey and X-Factor? Air Wolf Hall and Strictly Come Dancing at 3pm in the afternoon? This proposal smacks of short-sighted policy-making that could lay a national asset to waste. Clearly, this Government hopes that after 10 years of an ineffectual BBC, the public will not balk at further cuts before the next charter renewal. This would be a disastrous way to mark the BBC’s upcoming centenary year in 2022.

The BBC is the people’s broadcaster – the public must fight to protect it.


[1] L.A.G. Strong, “Long Live Regional Broadcasting,” in BBC Handbook 1945 (London: BBC, 1945), p. 23.

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