The BBC started life not as a public corporation but as a private company. Formed in 1922, the early BBC operated as a cartel, consisting of several wireless manufacturers, including the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, one of the main pioneers of wireless telephony.
Though it was to all intents and purposes a private enterprise, its license to broadcast in Britain was regulated by the state, under the auspices of the Post Office. A further peculiarity of British broadcasting was that, just as broadcasters required permission to broadcast, so too were the listening public required to obtain an official license for listening in.
Whilst these regulatory provisos conferred certain economic benefits upon the BBC, not least an exclusive monopoly to broadcast and an entitlement to half of the license fee, broadcasting was subject to what was then an unusual degree of public control and officialdom by comparison with other media. This was especially so during the early years of the BBC when it had to weather a number of national crises (e.g., the General Strike in 1926), during which it was expected by the government of the day to represent the national interest, taken to be synonymous with the government’s aims and objectives. Having said this, for reasons of political tact it was important that the BBC maintain an appearance of neutrality. The answer was to reshape the Company into a quasi-autonomous public authority, effectively run by a state-appointed executive Board of Governors.
Transformation To A Public Corporation
The transformation of the BBC into a public corporation was signaled by the Crawford Parliamentary Committee, called into being to specifically consider the future of broadcasting. Of the many recommendations, the most significant proposal was that “broadcasting be conducted by a public corporation acting as a Trustee for the national interest, and that its status and duties should correspond with those of a public service.” And so it came about that on January 1, 1927, the BBC was effectively nationalized under Royal Charter, and as such became one of the earliest examples of a national public utility.
One of the main advocates of the BBC’s alteration into a public corporation was John Reith, the first General Manager and Director General of the BBC. Born a Scotsman, and a lifelong devout Christian, Reith’s part in shaping the policy of the BBC, not least its public service ethos, was distinct. Following the example of Matthew Arnold, the nineteenth-century poet and educationalist, Reith wanted to make available as widely as possible the best that has ever been thought, said, or written. However, Reith’s lofty idealism and high-mindedness bore all the hallmarks of nineteenth-century conservative paternalism. Ridden with a deep-rooted contempt for anything that detracted from his own political and religious beliefs, Reith was specially incapable of empathizing with the listening public. Consequently, much BBC culture during the interwar period was restricted to programs that were deemed appropriate for the moral and cultural wellbeing of the nation, prompting some listeners to tune in to the European radio stations (e.g., Radios Normandie and Luxembourg) for more popular programming, particularly on a Sunday when the BBC would permit only religious broadcasts.
Changing Programming Policies
The outbreak of World War II in 1939, a year after Reith retired as Director General, marked a new era in the history of the BBC. Wartime placed new demands on radio: Britain now faced a crisis in national security. In its programming policy the BBC had to discover and broadcast what actually, as opposed to ideally, constituted the nation’s identity. It had to identify with and personify the things for which Britain and its people were fighting if national morale and the war effort were to be sustained. Contrary to Reith’s policy of cultural uplift, BBC policy was now defined principally in terms of popular entertainment, as evidenced in the establishment of the Forces Programme (later to become the Light Programme) and programs such as Worker’s Playtime and Music While You Work.
This populist tendency was to prove irreversible, even after the war ended. The prospect of having to undergo yet another period of social reconstruction forced the BBC to follow a path of development less tied to the cultural and political rationalities that had characterized much of the interwar period. Though intended as a “cultural pyramid” for listeners to work their way up through, the BBC’s adoption of a new tripartite system – banded into highbrow (Third), middlebrow (Home), and lowbrow (Light) – immediately after the war was indicative of the way in which the Corporation became increasingly resigned to continuing its output of popular broadcasts and allowing the listener to choose what they preferred to listen to.
This change in policy was even more pronounced from the 1950s onwards following the introduction of Independent Television (1955), based on the American model of commercial broadcasting and the attendant rise in disposable income and mass consumerism. Though radio broadcasting remained popular, demand for television coverage increased dramatically, forcing the BBC to acknowledge that the new medium was here to stay and that it would have to embrace television if it was to remain the main channel for broadcasting in the UK. For many BBC employees this was deeply problematic insofar as their preference was for the spoken word and sound broadcasting generally. Television, however, placed greater emphasis on the image, which, in comparison to radio, was deemed vulgar and lowbrow. Ironically, those employees who were enthusiastic about pioneering the new medium were lured away by the better pay offered by ITV (Independent Television).
A further problem for the BBC was that television was expensive to produce. Unlike ITV, which received advertising revenue and benefited considerably from increases in transmission hours, the BBC had to make do with the income it received from the yearly license fee. Nor could it spend its budget just on television, as could ITV. Not surprisingly, the BBC’s audience share decreased significantly, a position from which it would recover only some years later. Whilst ITV undoubtedly challenged the BBC’s ascendancy, in fact the two systems complemented one another reasonably well, and effectively operated as a “cozy duopoly” until the introduction of Channel 4 in 1982.
Another major change during this period was the emergence of so-called pirate radio in the 1960s (e.g., Radios Caroline and London). Unlike the BBC, which still offered only mixed programming, pirate stations broadcast continuous pop music, making them highly popular, particularly with young listeners. The BBC responded with the launch of Radio 1 (1967), its first dedicated pop music network. At the same time, the Light Programme was renamed Radio 2, the Third Programme became Radio 3, and the Home Service was called Radio 4. Pirate radio was also to provide the catalyst for the development of more interactive radio formats during the 1970s, such as “access radio,” whose output tended to be more participatory and community-focused. Reactive as ever, the BBC belatedly established a network of local radio stations in many of Britain’s major urban centers. However, it would be some time before the local stations were properly funded, and even then, BBC headquarters regarded them to be of secondary importance.
In spite of the pressures from increasing competition, the BBC continued to inspire a regulatory regime in which it was seen as providing a touchstone against which conceptions of impartiality, diversity, quality, and public service were measured and configured into statutory or discretionary regulatory mechanisms and codes of practice. Even the commercially funded ITV contractors were required to broadcast public service programs; those that failed to fulfill their public service remit risked having their franchises revoked when they came up for renewal, and some did. The BBC, on the other hand, could do no wrong, as evidenced in the findings of the Pilkington Report (1962), whose recommendations resulted in the BBC being awarded a second television channel, which it called BBC2 (1964). The new channel gave the BBC a fresh appeal, with an emphasis on experimental and minority interest programs (e.g., the science series Horizon, epic documentaries such as Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, and The Great War, and the talk show Late Night Line-Up). It also broadcast populist programmes, taking the fight for ratings to ITV, and in some cases, beating them (e.g., Match of the Day, Till Death Us Do Part, and The Likely Lads). Yet another triumph was the introduction of regular color broadcasts (1967), the BBC being the first European network to do so. The BBC had vindicated itself and in so doing silenced its critics, for the time being at least.
The institutional influence of the BBC and the Reithian public service legacy upon which it was founded only really abated with the 1980s and 1990s, a period that witnessed what was then the most significant overhaul to the ecology of British broadcasting, particularly the infrastructure of the BBC, which was made to adapt to the cultural hegemony of neoliberalism. This was particularly so during the Thatcher years (1979–1990), throughout which the BBC was subject to unprecedented criticism and external pressures. The Conservative government was particularly critical of the BBC’s license fee, which was antithetical to laissez-faire market economics. A committee of inquiry was set up under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Peacock to recommend alternative means of funding. To everyone’s surprise Peacock’s report fell short of recommending that the license fee be replaced or supplemented by advertising or pay-per-view. Meanwhile, the BBC continued to produce programs that questioned the political status quo (e.g., news reportage of the Falklands War, and controversial series such as Real Lives and Secret Society), thus asserting its editorial autonomy and commitment to impartiality, even though this period culminated in the sudden departure of Alistair Milne, the first BBC Director General to resign as a result of political meddling.
The hostilities between the Conservative government and the BBC have since been characterized as a battle between competing ideologies, the effects of which are still being played out today. In response to renewed attacks from the commercial broadcasting lobby demanding it become more publicly accountable, the BBC has reinvigorated the discourse of public service with its newly pledged commitment to “building public value,” a managerial discourse aimed at cost-cutting and efficiency drives, all of which has impacted on the quality and creativity of its program-making. Other examples of the ways in which the BBC has become more market-responsive include BBC Online, the move of the evening news from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., increased competition with satellite and cable broadcasters for a greater audience share of new digital media, the use of consumerist rhetoric to justify its public expenditure, and plans to relocate parts of the BBC to the regions, such as Manchester in the north of England. Whilst some of these developments are to be commended, others are potentially detrimental to the BBC’s public service ethos and its unique relationship with the public as citizens.
The BBC Legacy
Notwithstanding the continuing shift towards populist broadcasting, the BBC remains one of the world’s most influential and celebrated cultural institutions, widely revered as an authoritative source of information, trusted worldwide as a keeper of truth and the public interest. For many, its public service model still embodies the cornerstone of British broadcasting and is held up as a beacon for guiding any future regulatory reforms. The 2006 –2016 Agreement and Charter largely guarantee the immediate future of the BBC as being allowed to continue to function as an independent, publicly funded broadcasting service.
Whilst no government has abused its position as paymaster, the threat to do so is always a possibility and cause for anxiety at times when the two institutions have been at loggerheads, as has been the case following the recent spat surrounding the war on Iraq and the controversial Hutton report. What is clear is that media institutions like the BBC will, more than likely, play an increasingly important role representing a diversity of competing political, cultural, and geographical communities, movements, and groups, not just in Britain but worldwide. The government has a responsibility, therefore, to ensure the BBC is appropriately funded and protected from the increasing pressures of creeping commercialism, whose sole concern is the pursuit of profits, often at the expense of democratic broadcasting. Such guarantees would ensure the future well-being, not just of the BBC, but of the ecology of British broadcasting as a whole.
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