A conscientious account of the corporation’s first 100 years focuses on boardroom politics at the expense of brilliant programme-making
With the culture secretary Nadine Dorries’s announcement last week that the licence fee will be frozen for two years, the BBC’s future is at best uncertain and possibly terminal, at least in the form that we’ve come to know and often love it. In its centenary year the corporation is under existential threat not just from this government but also the streaming companies that have most benefited from the digital revolution. One hundred years ago the BBC was itself a startup attempting to exploit a relatively new but not very well-understood technology: wireless.
There’s a modern-day wisdom about startups that says only three people are really needed – someone to build the product, someone to make it attractive, and someone to sell it. Or to put it in today’s language, a hacker, a hipster and a hustler. David Hendy, a professor of media and cultural history, opens The BBC: A People’s History with three men looking for an office to house their new enterprise, the British Broadcasting Company, as it was then called. The men are Cecil Lewis, a former fighter pilot still in his early 20s with an idealistic sense of culture’s edifying value; John Reith, a rather stern moralist with an organising zeal; and Arthur Burrows, the only one who actually had experience of working on wireless.
With a certain creative licence, you might say that Burrows was the hacker, Lewis the hipster and Reith the hustler. Hendy doesn’t employ that taxonomy but he does set the scene rather well of these three influential figures at the dawning of what would turn out to be this country’s biggest and most significant cultural institution.
Hendy quotes Clive James: 'The Beeb is a great institution, always to be defended against its enemies, which include itself'
The reader is prepared for a dramatic tale of innovation and determination as the trio succeed in establishing their new business amid a hostile and powerful Fleet Street resistance. Yet no sooner does Hendy introduce these characters than they largely slip out of the narrative. Instead, an array of other functionaries appear and pretty soon Lewis is gone, the BBC has become a corporation and listening to the radio has shifted from an obscure hobby for the wealthy to a national pastime.
Exactly how that transformation takes place is lost in an abundance of information that never quite forms into a dynamic narrative. The book is an authorised history, insofar as the BBC has made its archives available to Hendy, though, as he emphasises, without any editorial control or influence. Yet there is nevertheless a sense of obligation in the writing, a need to cover the ground, even when it’s not that interesting or new.
The other aspect of the book is that it’s a “People’s History”, which means that there is a Mass Observation-style element to it, with the public being frequently quoted to underline the contract between the broadcaster and its audience. It’s a contract that Reith saw in paternalistic terms, requiring the BBC to play the role of nation’s conscience and moral improver, while notionally maintaining a position of journalistic impartiality.
It was and remains a tricky balancing act, further complicated by the BBC’s ambiguous relationship with the state and, more pressingly, whichever government is in power. As Hendy writes: “Since the BBC was never going to please everyone, it often tried instead not to offend anyone.”
These are hoary subjects that the author revisits dutifully without adding any particularly fresh insight. It is, however, to this more political understanding of the BBC that he is repeatedly drawn.
In a narrative of 570 pages, more than 100 of them are devoted to the second world war, when the BBC became the central voice of Britain’s plight and a vital conduit for government propaganda. It was also itself subject to myth creation. Churchill’s famous “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech may have roused the Commons, but was not the inspirational event of legend when he repeated it on radio, as Hendy reminds us.
The war also delayed the development of what would become the BBC’s main concern and purpose, namely television. The suits at the BBC are often accused of being uninterested in programme-making, and the same criticism might be levelled at this book, which is much more inclined to revisit administrative tensions than explore creative talent.
In this era of technological upheaval, when cultural gatekeepers have been falling like ninepins, the idea of a licence fee and a public broadcaster are in danger of appearing increasingly anachronistic – a vulnerability Dorries is busy exploiting. Hendy is understandably sympathetic to the corporation, quoting Clive James: “The Beeb is a great institution, always to be defended against its enemies, which include itself.”
James, however, knew what was great about the BBC beyond its symbolism and sense of purpose. He was a connoisseur of its actual product, and a strong sense of what that has entailed is what is most conspicuously missing from this conscientious but rather pedestrian history.
• The BBC: A People’s History by David Hendy is published by Profile Books (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply