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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

The BBC: A People’s History

This unique 638 page ‘authorised’ history of the BBC by Professor David Hendy succeeds in being readable, scholarly, interesting and entertaining.

The last time an official history was researched and written was by another Professor at Sussex University, Lord Asa Briggs.

That needed five volumes, took 35 years, and comprises nearly 4,000 pages. Volume V was published by Oxford University Press in 1995.

I have often thought how many broadcasting and media historians who have the full set on their bookshelves have ever read the collection from beginning to end.

It is a bit like the justifiable scepticism of there being many more owners of James Joyce’s Ulysses than those who have actually read every word of the novel.

In Hendy’s case, he has written a book that is more likely to be read than merely owned as a trophy bookshelf item forming the backdrop of a television Zoom interview.

The key appeal is in it being a BBC people’s history.

Hendy has had the advantage of having access to the BBC’s oral history collection.

And how he has used it.

The warm, humanitarian and sympathetic accounts of individual emotions, frailties, joys, failures and achievements so candidly offered in this archive have been woven into the narrative with great effect.

Hendy reminds us that this august, significant and national institution has been developed through the lives and personalities of everyone employed by it.

For example, the story of the BBC’s Second World War is book-ended with the reminiscences of Broadcasting House lift attendant John Daligan.

He was there in 1939 shovelling sand into bags along with the Corporation’s Director of Music just before being called up into the Royal Artillery.

And he was there at the end, six months after VE day in 1945 having seen front-line service: ‘…it was a bit of a shock to find out how badly it [Broadcasting House] had been knocked about.’

Hendy covers the story of the BBC’s 100 years across four phases: ‘Crucible’ between 1922 and 1939; ‘War’ between 1940 and 1945; ‘Consensus and Conflict’ between 1946 and 1981; and ‘Trade and Treachery’ from 1982 to the present day.

There is something so charming and poignant about chapter 1 having the title ‘Making a New World’ and the final chapter 15 being called ‘On the Rack’, which as we all know the BBC is very much experiencing from the metaphorical point of view.

When it began it really was as if the early pioneers had to conjure up the new world of broadcasting. There was no blueprint. Radio as a social and cultural medium had just been invented.

Will Sussex University still be around to provide a social and cultural historian to write about the BBC’s 200 year story in 2122?

The final chapter ‘On the Rack’ and the book’s Postscript were written in recent torrid times when the BBC has struggled to cope with the Jimmy Savile and Martin Bashir scandals.

Increasing competition from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime raises so many existential questions about the BBC’s funding model and the purpose and relevance of the licence fee.

Generations under the age of 50 have not been culturally and socially conditioned to connect with news on radio and television. They belong to the digital information age of social media and smartphones.

The book’s publication coincided with current Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ warning that she believed the BBC’s current licence agreement is likely to be its last.

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine may have shifted the centre of gravity and thinking.

The Culture Secretary has been fulsome with her praise of British journalistic coverage.

Andrew Marr, John Sopel, and Emily Maitlis may have abandoned the BBC ship for the lure of profits and liberation of impartiality offered by Global and LBC.

But Clive Myrie, Lyse Doucet, Orla Guerin and Sarah Rainsford and many others have reminded Westminster and the public that in the worst outbreak of war in Europe since 1945, the British Broadcasting Corporation needs to endure strongly.

The World Service cannot exist on its own with Foreign Office subsidy. It thrives in a wider BBC national infrastructure of news and current affairs talent, experience and tradition.

During the BBC’s history many of its journalists and staff have given their lives so that nation can speak unto nation. John Schofield was only 29 years old when he was shot dead by Croatian soldiers on 9 August, 1995.

Remembering the BBC’s John Schofield killed by a sniper when reporting from Croatia in 1995 and Simon Cumbers assassinated in Saudi Arabia in 2004. In the Journalists’ Church of St Brides Fleet Street. Image: Tim Crook

In more recent times the death toll reminds us of the more diverse nature of the BBC- Ahmad Shah in 2018, Mohammed Nazir in 2017, and Ahmed Omed Khpulwak in 2011- all of whom were killed in Afghanistan.

The second and penultimate chapters ‘Riding the Tiger’ and ‘Expanding Labyrinth’ offer an explanation of the hurricane nature of sociopolitical challenges the BBC has had to survive.

In the beginning creative and adventurous young adults, many of whom had survived the terrors and tragedies of the Great War, improvised and professionalised the extraordinary potential of educating, informing and entertaining millions of listeners in the radio medium.

Hendy characterises the experience through the narratives of immensely talented and brilliant pioneers of communications culture.

Hilda Matheson was gay, very left-leaning and the highest ranking BBC woman executive in the 1920s. He explains that under her influence ‘Talks’ rapidly became the most exciting part of the BBC in which to work.

He profiles her with zest: ‘Colleagues would describe how she would hurry along the corridors of Savoy Hill (the then BBC’s HQ on the Thames Embankment near the Savoy Hotel) “at a half run”, then sit on the floor of her room with her dog Torquhil at her feet and gather her team around the gas fire.’

When not sleeping in her office Torquhil ‘was usually to be found in the rabbit warren of corridors, being taken for a walk by one of Savoy Hill’s “office boys.”‘

Una Marson was the BBC’s first black woman producer and also a significant playwright, journalist and poet.

She was one of the most brilliant and creative people to have ever worked at the BBC, founding the iconic series Caribbean Voices, but as she wrote to one of her old bosses, Laurence Gilliam, many years after she left: ‘My years at the BBC now seem like a dream – an exciting dream which ended in a nightmare.’

An analysis of the archives reveals awful evidence of how the racial prejudice she faced contributed to her nervous breakdown and mental illness.

In a sobering and reflective chapter titled ‘Strangers’, Hendy writes how the BBC’s treatment of ethnic community staff and talent was an uneven and problematic narrative: ‘Even the Corporation’s more progressive programme makers still saw their role as educating immigrants, not being educated by them.’

Professor Hendy’s book is a masterful biography of a people’s BBC which is fair, critical, and elegantly written.

Its appeal extends beyond BBC people, media academics and their students to include the general reader.

It is a triumph of research and writing on the cultural history of broadcasting.

The BBC: A People’s History by David Hendy, published by Profile Books, 2022. Hardback £25.