5. This is the BBC 1922 - 1926

I hadn't the remotest idea as to what broadcasting wasJohn Reith

John Reith and the BBC Control Board of 1933

In March 1922 Reith left William Beardmore & Co. for London. Although he had reorganised the factory, it had failed to win the orders he was expecting and was virtually closed down after he left. According to Reith's daughter Marista in her book My Father, it was a sign he was more interested in changing things internally than understanding what customers wanted. Once in London, Reith dabbled in politics. He was not a Conservative, but he did work on behalf of Unionist Tory MPs who wanted to maintain the wartime coalition under the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George. He met the Conservative Unionists' leader, Austen Chamberlain, and Lloyd George, who said Reith ought to be in Parliament.

But his place in history came when he saw an advertisement in The Morning Post for a general manager for the British Broadcasting Company. The company was being set up by a consortium of British radio manufacturers to produce programmes that could be heard on their wireless sets. Reith's preparations for the job were amateurish. Only after he posted his application at his club did he check Who's Who? to look up the man he was applying to. He then had to persuade one of the club staff to retrieve the envelope from the locked letterbox so he could re-write the application, and tell the Aberdonian Sir William Noble of his own Aberdonian ancestors. As for the interview, Reith did little preparation other than prayer:

'They didn't ask me many questions and some they did I didn't know the meaning of. The fact is I hadn't the remotest idea as to what broadcasting was. I hadn't troubled to find out. If I had tried I should probably have found difficulty in discovering anyone who knew.'

Still, his prayers were answered. The next day, he was offered the job, for £1,750 a year.

The cast enters

'I saw at once that he would never do'

The new company was due to start on Monday January 1st 1923. The workaholic Reith was at its office in Kingsway, London, at 9am the previous Saturday. Half an hour later, the company secretary turned up in silk top hat. He was called Major Anderson. It was the first time Reith had seen him but immediately he made his first executive decision: "I saw at once that he would never do." Reith's first appointment was a personal secretary, one of a long line of intelligent women who would work for him: Isobel Shields went to Girton College in Cambridge and was recommended by Lloyd George's secretary Frances Stevenson (Stevenson was also Lloyd George's mistress and later wife). As for the job of Reith's deputy, 'if things had been otherwise' he wrote, he might well have appointed Charlie Bowser. Instead it went to a recently-retired Rear Admiral, Charles Carpendale. The Chief Engineer's job went to Peter Eckersley, a former wireless equipment officer who had been working for Marconi. Eckersley was far more experienced in broadcasting than Reith. He had been in charge of both engineering and programme-making at Marconi's experimental radio station at Writtle in Essex, 2MT.

The new Caxton

'We're leaving it all to you'

The BBC that Reith was setting up was all his own work: he compared himself with William Caxton who introduced the printing press to Britain in the 15th century. As he wrote in his autobiography Into the Wind, he had been given a free hand by Sir William Noble, the director who interviewed him:

'"We're leaving it all to you. You'll be reporting at our monthly meetings and we'll see how you're getting on." Leaving it all to me. I thought of what that "it" involved. He misunderstood my silence. "That's all right, isn't it?" Quite all right.'

There was much to organise. As well as appointing staff, there were broadcasts to organise. Big events of 1923 included opera from Covent Garden and the wedding of the Duke of York, later George V. Reith won the support of the Dean of Westminster to broadcast the marriage service, but the Chapter of Westminster Abbey vetoed it. He also hoped to broadcast the Remembrance Day service from the Cenotaph. Again his efforts were rebuffed. But he did get to broadcast speeches from the Lord Mayor's Banquet in November 1923; and he received an invitation to the banquet. He turned it down, though: 'on discovering that my place was set in a sort of housekeeper's room.'

London Calling

'Why don't you drop all that rigmarole about 2LO?'

Reith's ability as a manager who could make quick decisions without bureaucracy is illustrated by an incident not long after the BBC started broadcasting. Its call sign in those days was 2LO (LO was London and the Post Office had 1LO). Broadcasts would begin with the announcer saying: 'This is 2LO, the London station of the British Broadcasting Company. 2LO calling.' An American called H M Pease was on the BBC board and one day asked Reith: 'Why don't you drop all that rigmarole about 2LO? Why not just London Calling?' Reith wasted no time: 'I went across to a telephone; gave the order to Burrows [Arthur Burrows, the BBC's first announcer] for immediate implementation everywhere. The Post Office must have noticed it; nothing was said. London calling'.

A money-spinning idea

'I would have thought it hardly proper to accept the money.'

One of the problems Reith had to sort out for the BBC was how to publish its schedules. The newspaper owners were wary of this newcomer and had already limited its ability to broadcast news to protect their interests. They believed the BBC's schedules should appear as paid advertising. The Director General decided to face them down. Gordon Selfridge, of department store fame, booked regular advertisements in the Pall Mall Gazette and offered Reith to include the schedules in his adverts. Far from the BBC damaging the Gazette' s sales, itscirculation went up. The popularity of the schedules gave Reith the idea of starting the Radio Times – he even came up with the name. When it first appeared in September 1923 it was a huge success and its print run of 285,000 could not meet the demand. It was such a money-spinner that the BBC board suggested Reith had a share of the profits – a proposal that could have quadrupled his salary. But the moralist Director General refused, explaining: 'the trade had put me in office; expected me to look out for them; there was a moral responsibility to them. I would have thought it hardly proper to accept the money."

Special requests

'Whoever holds your office is, or should be, the most influential man in the country.'

While money was far from Reith's prime consideration, he did seem to glory in the status of his job. On one occasion he invited the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Randall Davidson to his flat in London. The Archbishop said he liked piano music, so Reith rang up the BBC's director of music Stanton Jeffries. A short time later, Jeffries playing Schubert's Marche Militaire came over the radio for the Archbishop's benefit. Another admirer was the Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. At a private dinner, Baldwin spoke about a perk of being PM: he had been driven to an engagement on the wrong side of the road to avoid the London traffic. Reith topped that. He told Baldwin he could pick up the phone in his study, give two simple orders to the BBC and his voice would be transmitted to the homes of several million people around the country. 'He agreed that that was more impressive than his car exploit.' A later Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Cosmo Lang told Reith: 'Whoever holds your job is, or should be, the most influential man in the country.'

From Company to Corporation

'The brute force of monopoly'

However you looked at it, Reith's running of the British Broadcasting Company was a success. The number of listeners and licence-fee payers was rocketing, the wireless manufacturers were making money and the company was becoming established as part of the British way of life. But the BBC had a licence to operate only until the end of 1926 and there was no guarantee that things would carry on as before. Reith's big fear was what he called 'the brute force of monopoly' might disappear and competition would force down standards. He believed in public service broadcasting. He did not invent the expression 'entertaining, informing and educating' – that was the American broadcasting pioneer David Sarnoff in 1922 – but he made it so central to the way he ran the BBC that his name became a byword for it: Reithian. Pure entertainment was a prostitution of broadcasting. Instead he saw it almost as an extension his father's pulpit. Without a broadcasting monopoly…

'…The Christian religion and the Sabbath might not have had the place and protection they had; the place and protection which it was right to give them…. One day in the week clear of jazz and variety and such like…Almost everything might have been different. The BBC might have had to play for safety; prosecute the obviously popular lines; count its clients; study and meet their reactions; curry favour; subordinate itself to the vote…'

Reith's passionate belief in public service broadcasting led him to propose an innovation to the running of the State. He put forward the idea of a public corporation, run at arm's length from the government, but supervised by a board of governors. The corporation would still be run day-to-day by its managers, but instead of representing a company's investors in the drive for profits , the governors would put the public interest first. It was a model later taken up by the post-Second World War Labour government in its nationalisation programme, but it still worked best at the BBC where Reith established its traditional independence.

The General Strike

'Trust the BBC to do what's best'

The BBC's role in the 1926 General Strike, when it was the only independent voice available to the nation, is told on other pages of this BBC website. But the result firmly established the broadcaster – still the British Broadcasting Company – as the impartial voice of news. The Director General John Reith was central to that reputation. Because of his warm relationship with Prime Minister Baldwin, he wrote a direct appeal for BBC independence, against ministers including Winston Churchill who thought it should be a government mouthpiece. Baldwin told Reith to appeal directly to the Cabinet committee dealing with the strike, chaired by the Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks - Jix as he was known. He wrote about the meeting:

'Jix said he had been authorised by the Prime Minister to say that he preferred to trust the BBC, in particular Mr Reith the managing-director, to do what was best; he added that he himself entirely agreed. Churchill immediately and emphatically objected.'

During the strike Reith vetted almost all the bulletins, while also dealing with the political aspects. He decided to refuse the Archbishop of Canterbury's request to appeal for an end to the strike; but allowed reporting of TUC statements. He helped Baldwin write a speech to the nation, which was delivered from Reith's home in Westminster. And when the strike was called off, it was Reith who wrote a homily about it. It ended with Blake's poem Jerusalem and as he read the words, an orchestra theatrically played behind him. For the final verse, a chorus swelled up. Later, Reith mused on whether he should have let Churchill get his way and commandeer the BBC:

'My conclusion was that it would have been better for me, worse for the BBC and for the country.'

Arise Sir John

'An ordinary knighthood is almost an insult'

Reith's work on behalf of the BBC was honoured in a knighthood in December 1926, just as the British Broadcasting Company was about to become the British Broadcasting Corporation. But the man who had turned down an invitation to the 1923 Lord Mayor's Banquet because his seat wasn't good enough, was again filled with his own importance. He was dismissive of his 'ordinary' knighthood and thought he deserved a higher rank – even the highest award of chivalry, Knight of the Garter. So when the letter putting forward his name for a knighthood arrived, his reaction was underwhelming:

'I should have been surprised if it had not come, but was by no manner of means pleased. I am not keen on titles anyhow and a KG would not have been too much for what I have done…. An ordinary knighthood is almost an insult.'

Reith could not decide whether to accept and he only did so after receiving a phone call from Downing Street telling him to make up his mind.