Lord Haw-Haw | The Nazi broadcaster who threatened Britain

Record of Conversation with Sir John Reith

A BBC Director-General disagrees with his predecessor.


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File [handwritten]

TO BE FILED WITH RELATIVE PAPERS [printed in the margin]

Record of INTERVIEW at [left blank]

SECRET [typed]

With [printed] Sir John Reith [typed]
On the subject of [printed] B.B.C. and Government [typed]
Date [printed] February 23rd,1940. [typed]

Reith came to see me here yesterday, - the first time he had been in Broadcasting House since he left in 1938. (I gave him a copy of the B.B.C. 1940 Handbook, inscribed with greetings
and best wishes from the Old Firm.)

He had four points:-

1. He said with great emphasis that, in his view, nothing would be better calculated to raise the morale of the Home Front, for which he was told he was responsible, than a daily series of talks at about 9.0 p.m. of a "heartening kind", - hitting at Haw-Haw, telling cheering stories of bravery in the fighting services or at home, etc. He put it as a personal and urgent request from him to me that this should be done as soon as possible. I said that I would have it considered here and taken up with the Ministry. I naturally did not commit myself to any undertaking.

2. He said that the Enemy Propaganda Unit would shortly be returning to the Ministry, Halifax having agreed.

3. He emphasized the supreme importance of broadcast propaganda to Germany, with which I of course agreed, and suggested that we ought to be broadcasting to Germany almost continuously throughout the day, - not merely news and sonderberichte, but concerts, entertainments, etc. after the manner (he said) of Fecamp or Luxemburg. In his view this was much more important than the services which we were doing to many other countries, e.g. Bulgaria. I said that the allocation of time to Germany was shortly to be increased by three additional periods; and that, in general, the B.B.C. felt - apart from the Empire Service - that the allocation of time in the foreign language services was fundamentally a matter for Govern-

Signature [left blank]
Dept or Section[left blank]

BBC/A127 30.10.39 [printed in margin]

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ment, and that of course our present schedules were based throughout upon specific Government advice.

4. He asked about the history of the war-time relation between the Government and the B.B.C., and particularly why it was that there had been a change from the plan as he had left it, viz. that the outside Governors were abolished and that the P.M.G. exercised his option of takingover the B.B.C.. I felt that it was no part of my business to give him the full story, and I therefore said that in the summer of 1939 the Governors and the Government had agreed that the Board of outside Governors, reduced in number, should be retained, and that the P.M.G.'s option to take the B.B.C. over had not in fact been exercised.

He said he had always felt that it would be simpler for the B.B.C. to be taken over, and that this would make things easier for the B.B.C.. (In this context he quoted the general strike, and said that it would have been much easier at that time if the B.B.C. had been taken over. This surprised me greatly, as I had always felt - both as a member of the public, and since I came to the B.B.C. - that the general strike was an important turning point in broadcasting history, and that the B.B.C. had then succeeded to some extent in reflecting not merely the Government's point of view but the national issues at stake.)

He asked me my personal view. I said that I was not interested in whether things were easy or difficult for the B.B.C., and that it was a small price to pay for independence to have the occasional nuisance of carrying a Government baby, e.g. the racketeering between the Admiralty and the Foreign Office over the news of naval sinkings, which he had quoted.

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Record of INTERVIEW at [left blank]
TELEPHONE CONVERSATION [printed][left blank]

With [printed] [left blank]
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The fundamental point, in my view, was that the constitutional independence of the B.B.C. was of supreme importance, not only for the B.B.C. as a body presumably continuing into peace time, but much more now for the Government and for the country at large. The Government was not an all-Party Government, and many members of the Cabinet had told me of the value which they attached to the B.B.C. being able to diffuse with reasonable freedom views which did not conflict with the national interest but were very far from being those of the Government itself. Democracy was one of the issues at stake in this war, and the B.B.C. in its present setting could do much, and was doing much, to reflect freedom of opinion both to this country and to the world.

Reith then said that overseas the B.B.C. was regarded more or less as a Government institution, and asked what I should think if Government took over the Overseas part of the B.B.C.'s work. I said that the damage done by an artificial dyarchy of this kind would in effect be just as serious as if the Government took over the B.B.C. altogether. And I asked what he thought would be gained by a change of this kind, which would be formal and inevitably spectacular, but did nothing in itself toimprove what chiefly mattered, namely the day to day work of broadcasting. The B.B.C. was already in the closest touch with various Government Departments,particularly of course E.H. and the Ministry, and I described in some detail our relations with E.H., of which Reith obviously knew very little. I said that, so faras I was aware, the de facto arrangements with E.H. were thoroughly satisfactory to both parties, and I hoped that the same was true of our relations with the Ministry.There was a free two-way traffic of ideas and suggestions; and if any Government Dept. felt at any time that there was a need for closer cooperation, we on our side were

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Record of INTERVIEW at [left blank]
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always delighted to consider ways and means.

On leaving, Reith said that he had only been exploring the position in a personal, not an official, way.

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BBC/A/127 30.10.39 [printed in margin]

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Document Type | Record of a meeting.

23 February 1940

Document version




Sir Frederick Ogilvie (Director-General of the BBC, 1938-42) recounts a conversation with Sir John Reith (Director-General of the BBC, 1927-38) and reveals the difference of opinion between them over the BBC's wartime status. While Reith is prepared to give complete control of the BBC to the government, Ogilvie disagrees, underlining the importance of maintaining its independence, not only to safeguard its own future but also to preserve democracy for the good of the country and the government itself.

Did you know?

Before joining the BBC, Sir Frederick Ogilvie (1893-1949) taught economics and, prior to that, fought in World War I. Despite being seriously wounded, he stayed in the Army until after the Great War ended. He succeeded Sir John Reith in becoming Director-General of the BBC in 1938, only to resign in 1942. Reportedly, this was due to a lack of skills necessary to deal with the fast pace of administrative and technical changes that the BBC underwent during World War II. Despite the wartime challenges, however, he kept the principles of truth that helped the BBC to preserve some independence.


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