Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Broadcasting Britain- 100 years of the BBC

The Chartered Institute of Journalists has never been in any doubt about the importance and significance of the BBC and its history.

We are the oldest established professional association of journalists in the world and we were first established in 1884.

38 years later in 1922 one of our Fellows, Arthur Burrows, was the BBC’s first journalist, news editor and reader, station director and indeed broadcast Father Christmas.

On Christmas Eve 1922 he was Santa Claus metaphorically travelling at the speed of sound through the night sky delivering thousands of presents to children and an audience of around thirty thousand listeners.

The gifts he and the British Broadcasting Corporation have given to British democracy and culture are immeasurable.

The future of the BBC in terms of its funding and licence fee has been debated recently with some political toxicity.

The Institute remains a stalwart and enduring advocate for professional and responsible journalism.

We believe the BBC performs a similar role for broadcasting and much more.

How do you explain the value of all this? It’s a universe of origination, creativity, innovation, and invention in human communication.

How do you define and contain the heritage of the Reithian imperatives of 100 years of education, information and entertainment?

In its flourish of centenary celebration it has managed to do that with one of the most beautiful books published in recent years by DK (book lovers know this stands for Dorling Kindersley) and written by a poet and the BBC’s Head of History, Robert Seatter.

You need a poet of some distinction, as Robert certainly is, to find the style and wit to tell the BBC story with honesty, good humour and panache.

This is combined with high quality reproductions of photographs from the archives.

In the process, popular history is also transformed into an art book.

Complex, controversial, seminal events and developments in broadcasting history are conveyed in elegantly designed single or double pages.

They have been selected and given additional depth of scholarship and authority of consultation with the historians, Professors David Hendy and Jean Seaton.

If you have a friend or relative who works for or has ever worked in the BBC, I would argue this is the perfect gift.

If you have a son, daughter, niece or nephew, and godchildren off to university to study media, broadcasting or journalism they deserve to be delighted with this charming, captivating and informative read.

If you want to enlighten yourself about the BBC you do know, might know, and do not know, this is an enchanting book for you.

You start with 1920s Radio Magic, 1930s Inventing Television, 1940s Radio War and then travel through 1950s National Spectacle, 1960s Pop Goes The BBC, 1970s That’s Life!, 1980s Conflict On and Off Air, and land in the more contemporary resonances of 1990s All Change!, 2000s Online and an exploration of the 2010s and Onwards- ‘Brand GB.’

The BBC was born into the Jazz age and inevitably a popular song with jazz riffing lyrics would be composed:

“I’ll B.B.C-in you, it’s the latest craze,

I’ll B.B.C-in you, it’s quite the craze,

I’ll B.B.C-in you, that’s what they say,

I’ll B.B.C-in you, most any day.’

The book attributes to the BBC’s first Managing Director and Director-General John Reith the classic self-deprecation: ‘What I was capable of compared with what I’ve achieved is pitiable.’

So many of the BBC’s landmarks have the classical Greek mythological aura of Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus, Perseus, Hector and Orpheus combined with poignant Greek tragedy.

Could it not be said the BBC story is also the British national story: joy and regret, hubris and shame, bombast and humility, triumph and apology?

Seemingly ludicrous and farcical improvisation creating miracles and winning against the odds?

There is a reason the drama in sound and vision has been world beating.

The magic had to be conjured with the tricks of the illusionist and the guile of the Wizard of Oz.

In the BBC’s case Oz was often a shivering and terrified engineer extending the possibilities of electro-magnetism on a windy and precarious gantry.

That aspired for value of impartiality had to be forged in blast furnaces of controversy. The General Strike of 1926 would not be the last.

We learn of Hilda Matheson (1888-1940) who became the BBC’s first Director of Talks and established the first radio news department.

She most probably wrote the first book on the sociology of broadcasting in 1933 in which she said ‘broadcasting is rediscovering the spoken language, the impermanent but living tongue, as distinct from the permanent but silent print.’

We learn about the BBC’s first female radio announcer, Sheila Borrett in 1933 who lasted only three months; not because she was not any good, but because a patronymic society was not ready for her.

We learn about the BBC’s first Black radio producer, the poet, playwright and journalist Una Marson in 1941 who founded a legacy of new Caribbean Voices in literature, poetry and broadcasting.

This survived the racism she had to endure in the British imperial society of her time. As does the searing message of her poetry:

You speak good English,

Little brown girl,

How is it you speak

English as though

It belonged

To you?

We learn how the BBC celebrated the contribution and sacrifice of ‘The Man Who Went to War’ in March 1944 with a ballad opera written by the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and an all-Black cast with Paul Robeson declaring in the introduction: ‘It is a play about everyone who is fighting today…all who are determined to win freedom for the world.’

We learn about BBC Television’s first female newsreader Nan Winton in 1960- again facing a backlash of audience prejudice.

We learn how BBC television drama in 1956 would confront the problem of racial prejudice with John Elliot’s play Man From The Sun and Errol John who played the central role of Cleve.

I would argue that in any democratic society public service broadcasting will always be engaged with political controversy. That is the point of it.

The book does not shy away, excuse or resolve events and rows which have shaken the BBC to its foundations: Real Lives in 1984, the Iraq War Dossier of 2003, and The Scandal of Jimmy Savile in 2011.

There will be more to come because I believe that is the purpose of public service broadcasting in a democracy.

The Small Axe five film anthology directed by the Oscar winning Sir Steve McQueen and written in collaboration with Courttia Newland and Alastair Siddons in 2020 is fully acknowledged.

These films educated and consoled British society by providing in the words of Robert Seatter ‘Tributes to Black resilience’ at a time when there was and is continuing to be a worldwide reckoning on racial injustice.

As a historian of broadcasting, I am truly privileged to have a copy of this magnificent book alongside the many exhaustive and comprehensive histories of the BBC and media I have acquired over many years.

A true mark of Robert Seatter’s achievement is that I don’t think of what he had to leave out, but fully appreciate everything he has decided to include across 291 pages (excluding the index).

Broadcasting Britain: 100 Years of the BBC by Robert Seatter (DK, £25)