Sound and Vision - BBC History Seminar
address given at Fyvie Hall, Regent Street Campus,
University of Westminster
who heard radio for the first time in 1922 commented: there is nothing
new under the sun. Well there was. Broadcasting was entirely new, and
it rapidly changed the world.
It is hard
to view the history of the 20th Century without concluding that the
existence of broadcasting, like many new technologies, changed the course
of that history for both good and ill.
western democracies, broadcasting was as important as universal education
in creating a well informed and active participatory electorate.
the dictatorships of the 1930s, broadcasting was the essential tool
by which the people were brainwashed.
any tinpot dictator, mounting a coup d'etat, will take over the television
station before worrying about the parliament building, or even the power
stations and munition factories.
So I believe
that most historians would accept that broadcasting can contribute to
our national life both for the better and for the worse.
hope also that they would accept that, in the case of the BBC, our contribution
to Britain's national life has been almost entirely for the better.
has the BBC become, and has firmly remained, the most trusted source
of news, information and comment in the UK in the past 80 years. It
has also become one of our greatest cultural treasures. I am sure that
this will become clear during Nick Kenyon's session on the Proms later
is probably the only one of the world's great cultural organisations
which has maintained weekly contact with over 90% of its potential national
audience - a unique measure of the extent to which the BBC still brings
information, education and entertainment not just to a privileged minority,
but to the whole of Britain.
be fascinated to know whether the distinguished historians gathered
here today can identify the fundamental reasons why the BBC, almost
alone among the public service broadcasters of the world, has managed
to combine a distinctive offering on radio and television, along with
a mass audience presence.
Is it simply
the legacy of a truly great founder, John Reith? Is it the wisdom of
successive generations of political leaders, who have seen the profound
benefits of a mixed broadcasting ecology, involving the best of both
the public and private sectors? Or is it the basic constitution of the
BBC, which has stood the test of time?
view, which I have expressed on many occasions, is that two fundamental
bedrocks have been essential for the success and longevity of the organisation.
was the way the BBC was established, based on a Board of Governors and
a Royal Charter.
made programme makers immune from day-to-day political interference
- a key ingredient in building audience trust.
was that the licence fee provided the BBC with a secure form of funding,
again at arms length from the political process, and one which has forced
the BBC to build a direct relationship with its ultimate paymaster,
the British public.
either one of these foundation stones, and you might bring the whole
edifice crashing down around your ears.
for an organisation operating from a medium sized European economy,
the BBC has not only done well in its home market, but has also become
the largest and most trusted voice in international broadcasting.
has described the World Service as Britain's greatest gift to the world
in the 20th Century. Anyone who grew up in the remote bush of central
Africa – as I did – would agree with him.
we are combining the radio presence of the World Service with our BBC
World television service, and our global website, to reach more of the
world's citizens than any other international broadcaster.
Reith established the old Empire Service of the BBC in 1932 –
against some opposition, it must be said, from the Foreign Office and
of course the Treasury – he had a remarkable insight.
foreign services, he said, must not be used as a propaganda weapon to
spread the views of the British government, but must be seen as an independent
voice, seeking only to speak the truth to its listeners.
very day, that simple insight remains the most profound reason why so
many millions at home and abroad place their trust in BBC news.
It is the
core reason why the BBC has such a long history of its own to celebrate,
and why the BBC has contributed so much to the history of others.
not take long for historians to recognise that the BBC was an institution
worthy of careful study.
Burrows's first history of the BBC appeared just two years after the
British Broadcasting Company began. And the third edition of Sidney
Mosely's history of television came out in 1933 - three years before
the world's first television service began.
range of the books and studies that have been produced about the BBC
since 1922 speaks volumes for the eclectic tastes of historians.
you will of course be familiar with Cattle at the Crossroads, a book
about the impact of the BBC's farming output on cattle-breeding. And
The BBC and the Danish Resistance Movement will, I am sure, be on many
of your bookshelves.
other end of the scale, though, there is a very great historical work
– the five volume history of the BBC written by Asa Briggs, whom
we are honoured to have here with us today.
thing that I did when I became a Governor of the BBC, in common with
the practice of most of my colleagues, was to read the Briggs' history
from cover to cover.
frustration was that the work ended in 1974, but I am happy to say that
Jean Seaton is now hard at work on the next volume. Jean, you have massive
shoes to fill, but I can think of no one better able to rise to the
reading the history of the BBC will be struck by how similar today's
issues are with episodes which have arisen in the past.
campaign against the licence fee was launched in 1923 by the Daily Express,
which of course realised that a diminished BBC would leave more room
for the Beaverbrook business empire to launch its own radio stations.
the launch of ITV in the 1950s, many people believed that the licence
fee would become untenable as the BBC's share of the national television
audience share of BBC ONE was exactly the same in 2002 as it had been
in 1959 – a quite remarkable fact, given the launch of a few hundred
extra television channels in the meantime.
am bound to say, there have been periodic disputes with the government,
in the course of which the Governors of the BBC have been required to
stand up for its independence. So maybe, after all, there is nothing
new under the sun.
that we have a great history certainly does not mean that the BBC should
become smug and self-satisfied.
BBC is to survive, then it must always reflect the nation it serves.
Director-General, Greg Dyke, is striving to create an organisation that
reflects British society, with its many cultures and faiths, in its
values place audiences at the heart of everything we do. That may seem
obvious. But in fact we were broadcasting programmes for 14 years before
we did any systematic research on what the listeners thought of our
then we were reluctant to bend to their needs. In the 1950s a series
of tests showed that many of our radio talks were incomprehensible to
the listener. Our first response was to challenge the data. We argued
- and I'll read this slowly so you understand it:
is not] possible to discover, through comprehension tests, which talks
have a good structure without making your definition circular, and saying
that good structure is that factor which correlates positively with
comprehension when all other known factors correlating positively with
comprehension have been held constant."
still learning some of the fundamentals of audience behaviour in the
1970s and 1980s.
in his gripping and impish account of his 30 years in the BBC, describes
how it came as a shock to the producers of our leading documentary strands
to discover that viewers do many things, including going to sleep, during
be speaking to the conference later about the value of autobiography.
I am sure he does not mean pecuniary value, since my observation is
that a good number of BBC autobiographies end up as remaindered copies
in the bookstores.
just goes to show that not everything in life can be valued solely in
terms of short term popular acclaim.
A key to
our new culture is greater collaboration. We are determined to create
an organisation that works as One BBC.
a challenge for a concern with so many outlets, but we have come a long
way since the 1950s, where a state of war existed between the Tonight
Programme and Panorama.
Fox, former head of BBC Television, remembers how Tonight staff were
banned by their editor, Donald Baverstock, from sitting with Panorama
staff in the canteen.
has it that Baverstock would try to find out what Panorama was working
on in a particular week, and spike its guns by running his version of
the story ahead of the Panorama transmission. I am sure that no such
thing would ever happen today.
is also of great value to those whose decisions guide the BBC - the
executive board, the governors, and also the politicians and opinion-formers
who have a part in deciding its future.
our history, like the BBC itself, does not belong solely to us. Everyone
has a right to understand the BBC, and the role of the historian is
to provide an independent and definitive judgment.
part, is what this seminar is about.
aware that the number of people who want to study BBC history is growing.
Every year scores of schoolchildren, students, authors and historians
approach us for help on their various projects.
also becoming aware of many other studies, conducted independently and
without our help.
is to enable you, the historians, to identify new ground and, perhaps,
new partnerships with others, who may share similar areas of interest.
our part, it is to create a dialogue between the BBC and those whose
studies could be of value to the BBC of today.
particularly grateful to the University of Westminster, who are hosting
today's conference, but this is intended to be an inclusive event, and
at the end of the seminar we will ask everybody to contribute thoughts
on the right way forward.
much hope that all of you will have an enjoyable and fruitful day.