Sight Magazine – Essay: BBC at 100 – a century of information, education and entertainment


The BBC as it is known in Britain – as an integral part of our political and social life, the soundtrack to our private lives, our thinking as citizens and our voice to the world – was born from a conflict.

It was a reaction to the nihilistic massacre of World War I, created by a small group of young visionaries in 1922, who rejected the overwhelming propaganda of war. Their vision was of a new public space, making good use of the technological limitlessness of broadcasting – itself ignorant of conventional hierarchies and barriers.

The main entrance to Broadcasting House, the BBC’s London headquarters in 2014. IMAGE: IR_Stone/iStockphoto.

One of these pioneers, George Barnesdefined a quality which would become the essence of the BBC – it would be an instrument to ‘radiate fun and instruction’. John Reith, the first administrator and then the first general manager of the corporation, wanted it to be “the expression of a new and better relationship between man and man”. Equal access to information for all would allow individuals “to be able to form their own opinions on many issues of vital importance”.

It was about making everyone’s life richer, their choices smarter, and making society work more fairly and efficiently. Doing so would help people think of the world as a cohesive whole, and not “just atomized particles.” Pioneers believed in the ability of ideas to transform lives and societies.

“[P]People came to trust him to tell them as accurately as possible what was going on and, in that sense, to be completely on their side. Impartiality – never perfect and always improvable – was rooted in the project. The BBC would tie everyone to reality (as well as stupidity and beauty). The BBC had gone on an expedition whose outcome was unknown to try to hold power to account and to side with the public.”

But the company as an institution, guardian of propriety, was also forged in the heat of political conflict – the shattering division, four years after its foundation, of the general strike. As 11,000,000 miners fought against a pay cut, the government sought to break the strike and Winston Churchill campaigned to take control of the BBC to influence the government to crush the miners.

It was at this most precarious moment that the BBC became a ‘public service’. The BBC told a divided nation what was happening during an acute crisis. And, although later criticized for being too much on the side of the government, he managed to get representatives from both sides of the issue on the air.

More importantly, people came to trust him to tell them as accurately as possible what was going on and, in that sense, to be completely on their side. Impartiality – never perfect and always improvable – was rooted in the project. The BBC would tie everyone to reality (as well as stupidity and beauty). The BBC had gone on an expedition whose outcome was unknown to try to hold power to account and side with the public.

The government and the BBC
The BBC’s history is littered with explosive conflicts with the government of the day. It’s a sorry (but glorious) story of attacks on the BBC for bias, injustice and being a pest.

At the start of the Second World War, the BBC mandarins brokered an inevitably close relationship with the government, but fought to preserve editorial independence in a general sense of national effort. The BBC made the most of Britain’s crushing defeats from 1940 to 1942 – but never tried to deny them.

After the war, the relationship went through many hardships. Famously, during the Suez invasion in 1956, the BBC reported the failure of the British and French expedition and was punished by a furious government with a license fee reduction.

There was furor over BBC reporting on the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and over 30 years of anguished debates between the government and the BBC over Northern Ireland which culminated in outright censorship – prohibiting direct broadcast voices of the “terrorists”.



Governments wrestled with something akin to the Civil War in Northern Ireland as it escalated, and the BBC fought locally, nationally and internationally to describe the origins and impetus of the conflict and explain what was happening in a divided community.

Cover of aside in South Africa and Falklands War further placed the BBC in the government’s crosshairs. During the Iraq war, the BBC says Tony Blair’s government deliberately used disinformation to exaggerate the case for conflict ousted a managing director and chairman) after the allegations were dismissed by a judicial inquiry. Several years later, BBC journalist David Loyn was condemned as a “traitor” in parliament because he was integrated into the Taliban.

But the BBC handled the threats in a way that kept its independence, assessing and evaluating them, but unintimidated. “Without Fear or Favor” is a dangerous place in the contemporary world – but it protects us.

Even now, 91% of UK adults see or hear something on the BBC every week. And contrary to popular belief, 80% of people under 35 are still young. consume BBC content. Overall, the BBC attracts 468 million people per week and is the most trusted news provider by some distance.


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Attacks escalate
As Britain faces a cost of living crisis and a wildly unpopular government, the case for a universal BBC, holding power accountable as it has for so long, and informing all fun and entertaining, have never been stronger. In a time of deliberate misinformation and discontent, you might expect the government to want a reliable and trusted institution like the BBC to ground people in reality. However, political attacks have only intensified in recent years.

Even Margaret Thatcher, who had fierce arguments with the BBC, understood her value at home while projecting soft power into the world. Yet the current ruling Conservative Party has cut BBC funding in 30% over the past 10 years with a license fee payment agreed before inflation set in. These politicians undoubtedly put the future of the company in danger, encouraged by a written press which compete directly with sectarian ideological fervor.

Alarmingly, there seem to be people in government who really don’t believe they shouldn’t be asked the tough questions. Boris Johnson’s government for a time tried the trick often favored by authoritarians to avoid scrutiny and refuse to appear on BBC programmes.

Johnson even reneged on his promise to join other party leaders in being interviewed by Andrew Neill ahead of the 2019 election. Most recently, Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that his interviewer’s line of questioning breached the BBC’s rules of impartiality.

The British public trusts broadcast news more than other news media, as the BBC and other public service broadcasters make programs about Britain that are steeped in British manners and humor. It also carries out programs which become worldwide successes. The UK is the world’s second largest exporter of TV content, thanks in particular to the BBC.

The Government should consider that focusing its energy on endangering the company risks betraying the trust that the British public – and so many around the world – have in its public broadcaster. A century later, the values ​​that animated the founders of the company still resonate. Happy Birthday BBC.The conversation

John Seaton is a professor of media history at University of Westminster and the BBC’s Official Historian. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.


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