In his 1941 book The Power Behind the Microphone, Peter Pendleton Eckersley, the BBC’s former chief engineer, described his “dream” for the future of radio and television:
I see the interior of a living-room … flush against the wall there is a translucent screen with numbered strips of lettering running across it. The lettering spells out titles which read like newspaper headlines. These are the titles describing the many different “broadcasting” programmes which can be heard by just pressing the corresponding button … I can, if I like, see the repeat of an old favourite … I lower myself into a chair and press the proper numbered button on a remote control panel … The voices are suddenly in the room, startling in their naturalness … Wonderful service the Wire Broadcasting Company gives me for half a crown a week; only a shilling if I cut out television and the newspaper.
Eckersley predicted that flat-screen television sets would one day provide audiences with a whole menu of programmes, available on-demand at the touch of a button. Consumers would be able to subscribe to their choice of service, with providers offering television, radio and news at high fidelity. All this would, he believed, be provided by “wire”: a cable network supplying all the content that anyone could desire.
Eckersley’s foresight is all the more remarkable given that, in 1941, the BBC had a monopoly of all broadcasting in Britain and provided listeners in the UK with a choice of only two radio networks. It had mothballed its fledgling television service for the duration of the war.
Clearly, Eckersley was a visionary. He was one of the true pioneers of British broadcasting. But he was also one of the first victims of an internal conflict that has come to define the BBC – that thing that happens when trailblazers meet the establishment head-on. This is the story of those early mavericks.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Eckersley became persona non grata at the BBC, and an outspoken critic of the broadcaster. In his 1941 book, he lamented that broadcasting in Britain had become …
… such a feeble thing compared with what it might be. It is a great bore, dull and hackneyed and pompously self-conscious. Its effect is more a drug than a stimulant. Choppy programmes break off a concert to tell us, on all wavelengths, the price of a fat cow; a prayer ends to give, at dictation speed, some news for little ships. Self-satisfaction oozes between salacious jokes, hardly tolerable in a music-hall, while views are given in prosy essays read in a high-pitched whine of emasculated liberalism. Issues are dodged which even a commercial press has no fear to expose. The B.B.C. stands, either remote and dictatorial or pawky and condescending, oblivious of opportunity, hopeless in its timidity.
When I began writing a new, unauthorised history of the BBC, I was aware that we were heading into a centenary year of celebrations. Official histories, special programmes and public events will inevitably emphasise the remarkable contribution made by BBC staff and performers to British culture, society and politics over the last 100 years – and rightly so, as there is much to celebrate.
But I wanted to assess the Corporation by looking into its controversies as well as its achievements. One way to think more critically about its history is to consider the role of nonconformists and rebels like Eckersley; dissident voices within the organisation who sought to do things differently.
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Sometimes, these people were able to effect fundamental and lasting changes within the BBC, helping it adapt to the challenges that it faced. But often, the BBC chewed them up and spat them out. From its earliest days, the BBC was newsworthy, and the resulting conflicts sometimes attracted significant attention from newspaper columnists, particularly from those sections of the press that opposed the idea of public broadcasting.
The man behind many of these very public arguments during the BBC’s first two decades was its chief executive, John Reith; an imposing figure who dominated the Corporation and seldom tolerated dissent or opposition. Reith has often been celebrated as the original mind behind “public broadcasting”, establishing a “Reithian” approach – centring on the idea that this new medium should inform and educate its audiences, as well as entertain them – that set the tone for British radio and television for decades.
Yet historians have also long been aware of the problems that Reith’s complex and sometimes dictatorial personality created for the BBC, and of his difficult legacy. Thinking about the BBC’s rebels and the way that different generations of managers have handled them over the years can help us understand some of the current challenges that the BBC faces as it celebrates its centenary.
The BBC was formed in 1922 to control and discipline what was then a poorly understood new medium of mass communication. Reith, then a young engineer, was appointed to manage what was called the British Broadcasting Company (it became a Corporation at the beginning of 1927, when it received a royal charter and became the property of the nation).
Reith saw the introduction and consolidation of broadcasting as an essentially technical problem. Radio was considered to be a public utility, a bit like water, gas or electricity, and nationalisation the best means to supply it. The challenge was to get it into every home in the country, cheaply and efficiently. The programmes that it provided for listeners were, to some extent, a secondary consideration.
Engineering became a prestigious and important branch of the early BBC. Unlike today, when most of the UK’s broadcasting infrastructure has been sold off or outsourced to private companies, originally the BBC owned and operated most of its own hardware. As the BBC’s first chief engineer, Eckersley set about building powerful transmitters, linked together in a national network, that would provide good reception across the entire country.
Eckersley also took the lead in introducing a second BBC radio network, which he hoped would bring listeners a genuine choice of programmes, and experimental international broadcasting, which would lead to the creation of the “Empire Service” and eventually the BBC World Service.
But before any of these projects were complete, in 1929 Eckersley was named in a divorce case. Reith believed this would damage the reputation of the BBC, and he gave Eckersley no option but to resign.
Reith was a strange man, authoritarian in his approach to management, hostile to criticism, and tortured by self-doubt. Reading his diaries in manuscript, and even in their expurgated published form, gives us some insight into this. At times, Reith comes across as paralysed with self-loathing, at others oblivious of his own emotions and those of the people around him. As one BBC colleague, Lionel Fielden, a BBC talks producer, later put it, Reith had “one of the largest inferiority complexes ever known to man and, as is the way of such things, it [made] him arrogant”.
Eckersley certainly believed he was a victim of Reith’s reluctance to tolerate creativity and initiative among his subordinates. “My friends told me that, divorce or no divorce, some way would have been found to get rid of me because I was not sufficiently subservient,” he wrote in 1941. Eckersley thought that Reith wanted to “eliminate from his staff everyone who would not understand or sympathise with his point of view. What a heterogeneous collection they were at the beginning and what a lot of weeding was necessary”.
Pioneers forced out
Some of the people who left the BBC over the years that followed went of their own accord, unwilling to work in the sort of place that the BBC was becoming. As Fielden, the aforementioned talks producer, recalled in his memoirs:
In the formative years before 1932, the BBC was a new and exciting dish, sizzling over the fire, with Reith, as chef de cuisine, and perhaps too many cooks spoiling the broth: by 1932 it was the heavy though doubtless healthy pudding which it remains – rather soggy now to my taste.
Fielden went off to help establish broadcasting in India, then part of the British empire, where he felt similarly frustrated by the bureaucracy and the forces of conformity that dominated the Raj.
At the BBC, Fielden had worked under Hilda Matheson in the talks department. Matheson was another key BBC pioneer, and she also fell out with Reith and left. She had worked for MI5 during the first world war and joined the BBC in 1926. She took the lead in expanding the range of material that the BBC covered on air.
When it became a Corporation in 1927, many of the earlier restrictions on “controversial” broadcasting were relaxed. Matheson invited influential and pugnacious figures from the world of politics to speak on air, including Winston Churchill and Harold Nicolson, as well as cultural figures like H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.
Bias, resignations and reformers exiled
However, bringing controversy to the microphone was a risky business when the BBC held a monopoly over all broadcasting in Britain. Who should be allowed to talk, and how could some sort of balance between differing opinions be struck? Establishing what was to become an enduring pattern, those on all sides of politics began to complain that the BBC was biased against them.
Notably, right-wing politicians and newspapers criticised the BBC’s talks for being too plentiful, too boring and too left-wing. In 1931, the Daily Mail claimed that BBC talks were promoting socialism, communism and the USSR. Reith demanded that Matheson limit the range of topics tackled on air and cut back the number of broadcast talks. Matheson resigned rather than comply.
Other nonconformists were exiled to places where they could no longer challenge Reith’s authority. When the left-leaning producer E. A. Harding made a special “New Year Over Europe” programme in 1932, which mentioned in passing the vast amount the Polish government was spending on its military, a minor diplomatic crisis ensued, with the Polish ambassador lodging a formal complaint. Reith decided to banish Harding from London, reportedly telling him: “You’re a very dangerous man, Harding. I think you’d be better up in the North where you can’t do so much damage.”
Harding went on to build an innovative features production group in Manchester, making programmes based on the voices of “ordinary” people and illustrating themes in their lives. During the economic downturn of the 1930s, features producers from the BBC North region helped communicate the plight of the unemployed, often in their own words, to listeners around the country.
Another rebel who faced exile was Gladstone Murray, the BBC’s head of publicity, who was sent even further north – to Canada. Murray, who was Canadian by birth, had served with distinction during the first world war as a fighter pilot. He worked capably at the BBC from 1924, creating useful links with journalists and seeking to protect and enhance the Corporation’s public profile. Some thought it was his drinking and liberal use of his expense account that led to his fall from grace. Others believed it was his dynamic approach to press work, which Reith and others viewed as undignified, that sealed his fate.
Either way, he was about to be forced out when in 1936 he received the offer of running the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). We now know, from material in the BBC’s archives, that Reith agreed to keep the allegations about his behaviour quiet, and to let him take the Canadian job. In Canada, perhaps surprisingly given the way he had been treated, Murray proved a good friend to the BBC. He helped cement the links between British and Canadian broadcasting in the run-up to the second world war and in the crucial early years of that conflict, before further allegations concerning his drinking, expenses, and links with the British secret service led to his downfall. He was shunted into a job with an impressive title but no real power, and eventually left the CBC. He went on to run a public relations business and to act as a prominent anti-communist campaigner during the cold war.
One of the other notable nonconformists to leave Reith’s BBC was Richard “Rex” Lambert, editor of the Listener, the BBC’s “magazine for intelligent listeners”. In his spare time, Lambert was an aficionado of the paranormal, and he investigated the celebrated case of Gef the talking mongoose. Gef, supposedly either a spirit or an extraordinarily clever animal, lived on a farm on the Isle of Man. The family who owned the farm claimed that Gef made noises, moved things, spoke to them, and could sing in several languages. In 1936, Lambert published his findings in a book, The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap. This prompted Sir Cevil Levita to seek Lambert’s dismissal from the board of the British Film Institute, on the grounds that he was insane.
Lambert responded by taking Levita to court for slander. Fearing the negative publicity that would result, the BBC attempted to pressure Lambert into dropping the case, saying his career would suffer if he did not do so. Producing evidence of this threat in court helped Lambert win substantial damages from Levita. Unsurprisingly, the case was widely reported in the press and questions were asked in parliament. In the end, an official inquiry was conducted and BBC employment practices were supposedly reformed. Lambert eventually followed Murray into exile in Canada at the CBC. According to Lambert’s 1940 book about the BBC, Reith began to “withdraw into seclusion”, having less and less to do with the daily running of the BBC. He resigned as director general and left the Corporation in 1938.
Not for the last time, the BBC had been publicly humiliated over an issue of governance. Such cases have become all too familiar over the last two decades – most notably, concerning Jimmy Savile’s crimes committed on BBC premises and Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana. They reflect the fact that the BBC has, for good or evil, been left largely to regulate itself until recent reforms introduced greater oversight.
The 1930s were described by Maurice Gorham (who started his BBC career at the Radio Times and ended it as head of the television service) as “the great Stuffed Shirt era, marked internally by paternalism run riot, bureaucracy of the most hierarchical type, an administration system that made productive work harder instead of easier, and a tendency to promote the most negative characters to be found amongst the staff”.
It took a long time for this legacy to fade, as was demonstrated by the BBC career of Norman Collins. A best-selling novelist with a distinguished career as a publisher behind him, Collins had joined the wartime BBC and worked his way up through the hierarchy. By the end of the war he was director of the BBC Overseas Service, and in 1947 he was put in charge of the television service, which was starting up again after its wartime hiatus.
Collins was increasingly frustrated by the BBC’s refusal to make the development of television a priority, and management’s continued determination to focus resources on radio. BBC managers eventually agreed to his proposal that a director of television be appointed to the BBC’s top committee, the Management Board, to give the medium a more influential voice within the Corporation. However, instead of Collins, a less troublesome executive was appointed to that role, over Collins’ head. The internal politics of the BBC remained newsworthy: the Manchester Guardian reported Collins’ resignation on October 14, 1950. As he left the BBC, an enraged Collins announced to the press that he was unwilling to see the Corporation continue to subordinate television to “the colossus of sound broadcasting”.
All this seemed reminiscent of the way the BBC had treated people like Eckersley and Matheson in the past. The Daily Mail’s radio and television columnist, Collie Knox, dubbed the BBC the “British Borgias Corporation”, likening it to the “endearing medieval family [who] had the cutest way of getting rid of their nearest and dearest whenever the said nearest and dearest became ‘awkward’ and would not toe the Borgia line”. Instead of poisoning its victims, the BBC promoted them to key positions, and then when they showed any “signs of initiative, personality, ambition, or public-spiritedness”, sidelined them until they inevitably resigned.
Collins continued to be outspoken in his criticism of the BBC, as he launched a campaign to end its monopoly of British broadcasting. A report in the Daily Mail on September 25, 1953 quoted Collins as saying: “It is entirely impervious to criticism, it is imperturbable and impenetrable. It is broadcasting by the unteachable to the untouchable.”
The BBC’s neglect of television proved a serious mistake, opening the door for critics like Collins to advance the case for commercial broadcasting. Winston Churchill’s Conservative government was receptive, and in 1954 created the Independent Television Authority to manage and regulate commercial television, along the lines suggested by Collins. As soon as the government announced its plans to end the BBC monopoly, Collins helped form a company to provide a commercial television service, which eventually became part of Associated Television and won an ITV franchise. Collins also went on to play a significant role in the running of Independent Television News (ITN). Weeding out this particular nonconformist cost the BBC dearly.
Once commercial broadcasting was established in Britain, things were never the same again for the BBC. During the 1950s, it struggled to compete with ITV for viewers. That changed after 1960, when a new director general was appointed, Hugh Carleton Greene (brother of the novelist Graham Greene). He was a bit of a nonconformist himself, with a reputation as a bon viveur, though he also had impeccable credentials as a cold war warrior due to his work in the BBC’s international broadcasting division. More importantly, Greene was reasonably tolerant of criticism and encouraged creativity. He empowered a wide range of people to make entertaining and thought-provoking programmes that quickly won back the majority of the British viewing public to the BBC.
Greene presided over the establishment of BBC2 and the introduction of colour television, the making of provocative television satire in the form of That Was The Week That Was, the screening of enduring classics including Doctor Who, and the production of a whole string of documentaries and dramas that explored all aspects of British life, society, and culture.
Former director general of the BBC, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene. National Portrait Gallery., CC BY-NC-ND
All this probably saved the BBC from dwindling into irrelevance. If it had failed to compete with ITV, licence fee funding could not have lasted. Under Greene, the BBC managed to balance the quest for popularity with the making of genuinely innovative and challenging programmes. Yet this came at a cost. By championing an adventurous new approach to programming and bringing previously taboo aspects of life onto British screens, the BBC became a lightning rod for debates about acceptable standards of taste and behaviour.
It was clear what side Greene was on in this developing culture war: as he put it, criticism of BBC programmes from people like the moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse revealed “the split between those who looked back to a largely imaginary golden age, to the imperial glories of Victorian England and hated the present, and those who accepted the present and found it in many ways more attractive than the past”.
The BBC’s willingness to engage in satire and in more critical coverage of national politics also angered the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who ended up appointing Lord Hill of Luton as the BBC’s Chairman. Luton was the former chair of the Independent Television Authority, ITV’s governing body. David Attenborough was said to have commented that this “was like appointing Rommel to command the Eighth Army”. Greene soon left the BBC. All this pointed to a new trend, which would resurface again and again over the decades that followed: if the BBC was not willing or able to deal with its rebels, then the government would do so.
Nonconformity in the age of social media
Corporate mismanagement has done serious damage to the BBC’s reputation over the last two decades, fuelling calls for a fundamental reform of British broadcasting and the abolition of the television licence fee. In the midst of all this, the BBC continues to struggle to contain its dissident voices. Its current royal charter mandates it to act as a champion for freedom of expression. Yet it is now attempting to impose new codes of conduct on its employees, notably to limit what they are permitted to say on social media platforms.
It is hard to see how this can work in practice, and the history of the BBC suggests it is unlikely to make much difference. As Lionel Fielden put it in 1960, “Whatever rules you may make, in the last resort public opinion will be formed by the men who actually produce programmes … The men who make programmes (generally underpaid) sway the crowd: the administrators and authorities (usually overpaid) do not”.
Since Fielden’s day, the BBC has become less dominated by men, and some of the organisation’s most prominent recent rebels have been women. Emily Maitlis has, for example, been accused on several occasions of breaking BBC impartiality guidelines in her social media output. She is now set to become one of the latest in the long line of nonconformists to jump ship.
Unlike in the days of Eckersley and Matheson, when the BBC monopolised British broadcasting, people like Maitlis can now find work in a wide range of different media outlets. Stifling internal criticism will surely do little to ward off the external threats the BBC now faces. Managers would do well to learn the lessons of the past, and encourage critical and creative thinkers to speak their minds, rather than oblige them to leave.