It is a fretful and uncertain time. There is concern that voters have insufficient knowledge to make rational judgements, in particular, that a new tranche of the electorate who have not previously voted will inadvertently vote irresponsibly because they will make choices on partisan or partial information. It is feared they may be easily misled. There is legitimate anxiety that hostile foreign powers are seeking to influence elections and political movements in novel ways.
There is a new technology barely understood by politicians and civil servants that they suspect may have influences they don’t trust: but frankly, most are completely out of touch with how it works or what it might be. So, they are quite unable to think through the opportunities and threats it poses. There is a distrust of the press which is seen as sensationalist and mendacious because of recent experience. There is a lack of trust in politicians (because they have apparently led the nation towards a variety of disasters). There is alarm about the detrimental impact ‘propaganda’ can have on behaviour, un-anchoring voting from authentic interests; a nagging worry that public opinion can be ‘bought’ by political interests; and an anxiety about the role of big business in politics. A political anxiety about the ‘people’ is mirrored by the possibility of revolutionary disruption.
The year is 1922. Creating the BBC is the solution to the problems sketched above. Of course, few understood that it was a solution at the time. The BBC was founded before anyone had the idea that broadcasting technology might matter to more than a few, techy ‘experimenters’. Besides, everyone knew that fun was nothing to do with the solemn business of government. Yet within a mere four years (from 1922–1926) Asa Briggs, the first great historian of the BBC wrote that it was remarkable that:
Broadcasting itself ceased to be a toy, an amusing novelty, an affair of ‘stunts’ and gimmicks: it became an institution. It affected people’s ways of thinking and feeling, and their relations with each other. (Briggs 1961: 4)
To understand how the BBC became so important one has to combine some sense of the inner life of the organization with that of the changing place of the organization in society. And this has to be situated within an international context. The BBC swiftly developed an international service and role that was both a reflection of UK values and a gift to the world, and other broadcasting systems came to be measured (and in some ways still are a century later) by reference to the BBC. And perhaps its significance had a philosophical basis as well. The BBC worked, because it was dedicated to a principal of reality: ‘an order of things that is independent of us, where that means, in particular, independent of our will’ (Williams 2002: 115).
Spreading broadcasting all over the nation as fast as possible, for the same ‘licence fee’ (in effect a hypothecated tax) paid by everyone to receive broadcasting, irrespective of the actual costs of delivering the service, was the foundation of the public service. The universal licence fee freed it both from the damaging limitations of commercial advertising revenue, and direct dependence on state revenue. It wasn’t a business and it wasn’t a department of state. It served citizens wherever they lived, was fundamentally redistributive and was not focused on well-off or convenient markets as a commercial service would have been. It was also a moral and political project that was in the national interest.1 The capacity to serve everyone was implicit in the technology. John Reith, the BBC’s first Director-General, was almost alone in grasping this.
In 1926 the British Broadcasting Corporation was given a mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ the public. Coinciding with the final extension of the franchise to young women, it was created out of an anxiety with the impact on democracy this newly enfranchised electorate might have. And it was created out of the distrust of politicians left by the First World War, and the distrust of big business that the economic failure after the war created. There was good evidence of Russian attempts to intervene (rather clumsily then) in UK affairs, and official concern over public order.
The creation of the BBC came at a moment in time when there was more institution-building going on: public organizations tasked with rolling out other public utilities—water, roads, education—in the national and individual interest were set up all around. This wave was in some ways a forerunner of the United Kingdom’s unique National Health Service, which was founded in the wake of the Second World War.
The forging of the BBC occurred while the first (and last) General Strike in 1926 took place, a deeply divisive period in British society. The notion of ‘balance’ in reporting had to be invented—there was no template to relate to both sides during a conflict within the nation. In an inevitably imperfect way, arguably too much on the government side, the BBC creatively found a national audience by giving both the views of the striking miners (whose pay was being cut) and at least some of their establishment supporters a voice, as well as the government: this in the face of fierce government opposition when society was painfully divided. The BBC learnt a crucial lesson that both sides listened to it because it gave them accurate information. Within three months the BBC—listened to in gatherings of people congregating around the new and as yet few ‘wireless sets’—had a national audience. The lesson was clear: in order for people to listen you had to give them something they needed.
Astonishingly radical at the time, its aim was not to push voters in any direction, but rather to help them make better choices and live richer lives. In the eyes of the BBC pioneers, broadcasting was an inherently democratizing and life-enhancing public service. The very best of music and theatre, public discussion and a ringside seat at great events were to be part of every listener’s life. This was not an obvious or necessary role for broadcasting. In Germany during the 1930s, the same technology was employed as a very effective agent of Nazi nation-remaking.2 In America, a strong public service voice has never emerged as the market was seen as supreme.
Above all, the BBC was built on a progressive vision of an educatable, decent, aspiring public whose understanding (and pleasure) in many things could be made deeper and enhanced. Fun, feeling and irreverence soon became part of the programming offer. At its best the BBC came to follow John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher, in believing that however self-evidently true an argument seemed ‘if it is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as dead dogma not living truth’ (Mill 2010 : 214). The BBC was built on but also evolved a set of principles that would guide its governance and its operations:
it was not a state broadcaster but the state facilitated it;
it had an independent source of finance (the licence fee) that governments might set but which the BBC had the right to spend and invest as it thought fit;
it was impartial, balanced and was editorially independent (a relatively complex issue over time but fiercely fought for and protected)3;
it served the public interest and what the public were interested in;
it would not provide the lowest common denominator of content—it was not in this sense commercial. It would offer the public things they did not yet know they liked. It was experimental.
It would be impartial, but would do more than just seek ‘balance’.
It would provide ‘popular’ programs that everyone could delight in as it belonged to everyone, everyone paid for it and in this way, it was accountable to everyone. ‘Good’ and ‘popular’ were not opposites. It was there to provide ‘public service popular’.
As long as a reporter or program-maker followed these principles the organization would defend and protect them.
These principles emerged from exploring what it meant for the BBC to serve the public and what the novel concepts of editorial independence and impartiality might mean in practice. For instance, as the BBC interrogated the state on behalf of the public, it offered politicians a fair opportunity to explain their policies; but this did not prevent the BBC from coming into conflict with governments as they came and went.
The BBC as a nascent public institution was profoundly shaped by the first Director-General, John Reith, who oversaw the ‘start-up’ phase. He was a driven, bullying, difficult, wily, very tall and overpowering man who had been wounded in World War One. He had spent time in America improving the quality of the mass production of small arms. So, he understood the new opportunities of mass production and mass consumption. A Presbyterian Scot, his furious, gloomy Protestantism provided the new organization with the evangelical belief in the capacity of words, speech, (secular sermons) to transform lives and to save people and society. But he combined this with a brisk modernism: progress, engineering, women working (as they did for the early BBC). As a trained engineer he was able to put the BBC in the forefront of technological accomplishment. His ambition was boundless and his energy prodigious. He was also very effective in accomplishing the goals he had set for himself and the fledgling organization.