6. Corporation Man

A man whose overwhelming egoism is as distasteful as his character and ability are overestimatedJohn Reith

John Reith hands over the keys to Savoy Hill for the last time

Corporation Man 1927-1938

It's a measure of how highly the directors of the British Broadcasting Company rated John Reith that they supported his proposals for a public corporation – even though it meant making themselves redundant in favour of governors on January 1st, 1927. Unfortunately for Reith, those former directors had given him a much freer hand to operate than his new ministerially-appointed board - some even wanted to meet daily. Reith distrusted the new chairman, Lord Clarendon, and called him behind his back 'a silly ass'. He was even more vehement about another governor, Ethel Snowden, wife of Philip Snowden, the former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer: "a truly terrible creature, ignorant, stupid and horrid."  The feeling was mutual. Mrs Snowden's description of Reith was: "a man whose overwhelming egoism is as distasteful as his character and ability are overestimated."  Reith stayed at the helm of the Corporation for another eleven years, but the organisation he had created – and in many ways was still creating – was never the same for him.  

A father at last

"The Archbishop had on his proper robes… and looked very fine"

Reith was nearly 39 and had been married six years when, in 1928, he and Muriel had a baby boy, Christopher John (they had a daughter Marista four years later).  And it was clear only the best would do for their first-born. Reith immediately decided to put his name down for Eton; and asked his friend the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, to perform the baptism. For a son of a Scottish Manse to ask a Primate of the Church of England to perform the ceremony raised some eyebrows.  A couple of years earlier he had turned down an invitation to become a church elder at St Columba's in London because it was part of the Church of Scotland; he explained he wanted to keep his links with his father's denomination, the even more strictly Protestant United Free Church of Scotland. Now he wanted his son to be baptised into what St Columba's minister reminded him in a letter was 'the Anglican branch of the Catholic Church'. Reith, not for the first time in his life, was impressed by the trappings of British society.  With pleasure he observed after the baptism at Lambeth Palace that 'The Archbishop had on his proper robes with the GCVO ribbon and looked very fine.'

The BBC announcer

"I will not read any slower; I am going on announcing"

Reith was no behind-the-scenes administrator.  When it came to historic events, like the General Strike and the 1936 Abdication speech of Edward VIII, Reith himself took to the microphone.  Another occasion was the 1929 election, which was won by Labour's Ramsay MacDonald. Reith had been in contact with the parties beforehand about their election addresses.  'MacDonald was ineffective', he noted, though Prime Minister Baldwin impressed him by asking about the social make-up of the radio audience.  The senior Conservative Neville Chamberlain was more cavalier; and Reith in his memoirs complained he didn't take the power of broadcasting seriously enough:

'Neville Chamberlain on arrival at Savoy Hill said he was going to make a poor show – in fact he did – as he had no time for preparation.  What more important work could he have been doing during the week?'

But Reith's own election performance turned out to be a let-down.  The BBC's election results service had been rehearsed, but during the second bulletin of the evening, Reith announced he would read all the results himself until 1.30am.  He hadn't been doing it long when listeners rang asking for the reader to be clearer and to read slower.  The man with the job of explaining this to his Director General was the announcer Eric Dunstan.  He later recalled: 'I did my best politely to inform him of the position, but all he said was: "I will not read any slower; I am going on announcing" and he turned his back on me.'  A furious Dunstan stormed out of the building.  He said afterwards:  'The listening public wants clear and efficient announcing, and this is the announcer's job and no one else's.'  Dunstan was replaced the next day.

The Eckersley Affair

"Under the control of that rare individual who acts according to his spiritual convictions"

Reith's reputation as a hardline religious boss was cemented by events in 1929 involving his chief engineer Peter Eckersley.  Popular perception has it that Reith sacked him for an extra-marital affair.  It wasn't so clear-cut.  Certainly Reith had a religious streak to him; one BBC interviewee in the1920s remembers being asked by the Director-General: 'Do you accept the fundamental teachings of Jesus Christ?'  But it was the disapproval of Eckersley's senior engineering colleagues that brought matters to a head. 

The 'other woman' was Dorothy Clark, the estranged wife of the BBC's music adviser, Edward Clark. Before their marriage, she seems to have been what is now known as a "wild-child"; the daughter of affluent parents who became an actress and twice got pregnant while on tour. Eckersley first saw her when she was already separated from Edward and was visiting the BBC's Savoy Hill headquarters.  Once their affair began, it seems Edward had no objections. On one occasion he plotted with Eckersley for both to visit Germany on BBC business and take Dorothy with them.  Later, the chief engineer got bolder, taking Dorothy on a BBC visit to Brussels and regularly being seen with her at Savoy Hill. Colleagues who knew his wife Stella, were outraged.  In January 1929, it was brought to Reith's attention.

Reith acted cautiously.  He first spoke to Eckersley, then invited him and his lover to his flat to explain that Eckersley risked losing his job unless the affair ended.  Reith's wife Muriel broke the news to Stella, who knew nothing about the romance. The governors were consulted.  Ethel Snowden wanted instant dismissal, though the chairman and Reith were more cautious and wanted Eckersley to resign and be reinstated later if his marriage could be patched up.  Reith asked for advice from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Admiral Byng, who was far more hard-line.  He said a BBC man was like a policeman and never off duty: Eckersley, Byng believed, should be sacked. 

But Reith didn't follow the advice. Eckersley promised to end the affair and offered his resignation.  He let Reith decide what to do with it and Reith recommended to the Governors that he should stay. It was a brief respite. In April 1929,  Eckersley ran into Dorothy at a party and decided on the spot to leave his wife. The popular image is of Reith pointing to the door like an Old Testament prophet and condemning Eckersley for straying from the paths of righteousness. In fact, when  the governors accepted the chief engineer's  resignation, they awarded him £1,000 in recognition of his valuable service and kept him on as a consultant for another year.

Eckersley in his memoirs believed Reith, as both a Christian and the head of a national organisation, was entitled to sack him, though he thought a different boss might have been more lenient: ' I happened to come under the control of that rare individual who acts according to his spiritual convictions.'

A new home

"It would have been fun to have had the hammer and sickle flying over Broadcasting House"

During Reith's time, the BBC had three headquarters buildings in London.  It began at Magnet House in Kingsway, with the 2LO studios further down the road in the Strand.  Soon after in 1923, it began moving operations to nearby Savoy Hill.  But as the BBC expanded, it outgrew this too.  Reith seems to have been unimpressed by the new Broadcasting House, which opened in 1932.  He wrote – a decade after he left the Corporation - that he had not been happy with it, and had left the development to others. He thought it was too early for what he called 'a comprehensive headquarters for British broadcasting.'  The BBC flag first flew above the 'prow' of the ship-like BH on May 2, 1932, but when overseas broadcasting dignitaries visited, the flags of their countries would be run up instead.  Impishly Reith wrote:

'To my regret the head of the Russian system never came to London; it would have been fun to have had the hammer and sickle flying over Broadcasting House and hear what some people had to say.'

Governing the board

"What a miserable lot they are"

Reith's struggles with his Board of Governors continued for years.  The week after Peter Eckersely resigned in 1929, he was surprised how smoothly the governors' meeting went.  Then he found out they had been rushing off to the chairman Lord Clarendon's house for an informal meeting without their Director General.  'What a miserable lot they are, ' he wrote.  He was also annoyed the Governors would lunch at the Savoy without inviting him. 

It was a relief when Clarendon was replaced in 1930 and by that time Reith decided he would prefer to be BBC chairman than Director General.  When the Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald didn't give it to him, he described himself as disgusted.  He saw MacDonald at a funeral service shortly after and 'I directed a glare of malevolence'.  The new chairman was a former Commons Speaker,  John Henry Whitley who was nervous about working with the fearsome DG.  But the Postmaster General Hastings Lees-Smith told him not to be daunted, telling him Reith wouldn't be long at the BBC "because he will end up in a lunatic asylum".  He was wrong, but not wildly so. Reith did receive treatment at the  Psychological Clinic of Glasgow during his break-up with Charlie Bowser a decade earlier; and and in later life received electric shock treatment for depression.  Also, Reith's brother Ernest died in a lunatic asylum.

Getting a reputation

"Where does he get his Mussolini traits?"

By the 1930s, Reith had an image problem that never left him.  It was made worse because – in an age of dictators - it was easy to make comparisons.  When Reith took his mother to tea at the House of Commons, the MP Nancy Astor asked if he got his 'Mussolini traits' from her.  During a Commons debate in 1936 on the BBC, the Labour MP George Lansbury said Reith "would have made a very excellent Hitler for his country." Another Labour member, Hastings Lees Smith – the former minister who predicted Reith would end up in an asylum – called the BBC 'the nearest thing in this country to Nazi government that can be shown.'

Reith's own comments didn't help.  He said he admired Mussolini and talked in 1939 of Hitler's 'magnificent efficiency'.  He also had a sneaking admiration for the German broadcasters: 'Germany has banned hot jazz and I'm sorry that we should be behind in dealing with this filthy product of modernity.' 

The view from the inside

"We are thoroughly disgusted with the false and malignant statements about the Director General"

During the 1930s, Reith fought off attempts to introduce a staff association in the BBC to give employees a bigger say.  One supporter of the idea was  Clement Attlee, later to be Labour's postwar Prime Minister. Attlee suggested that Reith ruled 'a little by fear'. But in a comment that shows his firm belief in managerial hierarchy, Reith denied the charge:

'…unless the awareness and respect which a subordinate should feel of and for his chief is to be called fear – the fear a man should have of not doing as well as he might; of letting himself down; of letting his chief down.'

In 1934 Reith appeared in front of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs.  He expected a rough ride from critics about staff relations, based on newspaper campaigns against him. But when challenged, he passed a letter to the chairman, signed by 800 members of staff that was given to him as he left Broadcasting House for the meeting.  It read:

'The undersigned members of the staff of the BBC, thoroughly disgusted with the false and malignant statements about the director-general being published in certain newspapers, wish to record their detestation of the newspapers concerned, and to reaffirm their loyalty and gratitude to the director-general.'

The committee's critics melted away after that coup de theatre. But then Reith's sense of the dramatic was honed with the BBC's staff amateur dramatic company. The man accused of being aloof from his workforce  regularly appeared in its productions.  His last role was in 1936 playing a butler in a play performed at the Fortune Theatre in London. The Daily Mail reviewer described Reith as 'looking uncommonly like Boris Karloff at his most sinister'. 

Wider Still and Wider

"Usually on holiday when significant events in television took place"

Throughout Reith's time at the Corporation, it continued to expand. His determination meant its radio broadcasts spread to the Empire, too. The idea of an Empire Service was well received by politicians, but they could not agree who would pay the costs. It was Reith who took it upon himself – and the British licence payer – to go ahead without them. What became the World Servjce was later described by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as "Britain's greatest gift to the world in the 20th century." On the first day of the Empire Service, in 1932, Reith personally delivered the opening address.  Because of the different time zones, he had to deliver his words live five times over the next 15½ hours.

He was less interested in the development of television.  Anthony Kamm, the biographer of television's inventor, John Logie Baird, says that Reith usually managed to be on holiday when significant events in television took place.  One explanation is his background in the Free Church of Scotland, where the Word was what mattered and church decoration was kept to a minimum  to avoid distractions. The BBC historian A S A Briggs believes Reith saw television as a threat to society: 'he thought it would really corrupt and ruin the nation and you can't go much further than that.'  At the 1937 Coronation of George V Reith declined an invitation to put the BBC in charge of filming. One of his leaving gifts when he left the BBC in 1938 was a television set. He said he would never look at it. 

The King Abdicates

"Good evening, Reith. Very nice of you to make all these arrangements"

In 1936 the new King Edward VIII renounced the Throne to marry the divorcee Mrs Simpson.  The King wanted to speak to the nation about the affair, but had to wait until the abdication was approved by Parliament.  Reith went personally to Windsor Castle, where engineers had set up a microphone for the 10pm broadcast.  The former King was grateful: 'Good evening, Reith.  Very nice of you to make all these arrangements and to come over yourself.'  Reith made the introduction, calling him 'His Royal Highness the Prince Edward', then slipped out of the chair for the prince to take his place.  As he moved in, Edward kicked the table leg with a bang clearly heard over the microphone.  Listeners thought it was a sign of Reith's disapproval, imagining the moralistic DG had walked out and slammed the door behind him. 

Flight to Imperial Airways

"A frightful mistake"

Why Reith left the BBC in 1938 is still a mystery, which even he doesn't seem to have understood. He later called his resignation 'a frightful mistake', though his daughter Marista thinks he was trying to cover up the fact that he'd been pushed out. Reith's biographer Ian McIntyre says he wasn't pushed: he jumped.  He'd been announcing for years he wanted to leave.  Indeed as the BBC began a new Charter period in 1937, he offered the Governors his resignation so they could begin this new chapter with a fresh face.  Reith's diaries talk about his constant search for new challenges, though the BBC historian  A S A Briggs says there were challenges enough in the BBC, had he wanted to take them; like developing  television and how to handle mass communication in wartime. 

But the facts of his departure are these. He was called to Downing Street early in June 1938 to see the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's top adviser Sir Horace Wilson. He offered Reith the full-time job as chairman of the struggling government-subsidised Imperial Airways, 'starting tomorrow if possible'.  Reith had already heard his name linked with the job so wasn't surprised, but he insisted on Chamberlain making the job offer personally. His interview with Chamberlain sounds bizarre. Reith didn't fight to keep his BBC job and didn't argue with the Prime Minister. Nor did Chamberlain 'instruct' him to take it.

'He said he wasn't using that word. So I asked if he wanted me to go.  He said again that was maybe too strong but that if I went he would be very glad.'

And that was how, after 18 years in charge of British broadcasting, Reith got a new job. It wasn't an order, he could have refused and he didn't even get a peerage or extra money out of it.  In his memoirs he wrote: 'I said I was getting £10,000 from the BBC and would not require any increase on that.'

Last days at the BBC

"I resign, I shall resign, I have resigned.  There it is – in all three tenses…"

Reith's had hoped his new job running Imperial Airways would not cut all his links with the BBC and he might be appointed a Governor.  But the chairman, R C Norman, told him that his presence on the board would be unfair on his successor.  The governors also decided he should not help to choose his replacement, who turned out to be Sir Frederick Ogilvie, Vice Chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast.  Reith had wanted an internal appointment, but on the governors' behalf had rung up Ogilvie to see if he was interested.   Reith's view of him: 'a man of fine character and outlook; of personal charm…. I was quite sure he was not the man for the BBC.'

On June 30th, 1938, Reith left Broadcasting House for the last time as DG.  He had asked to go without ceremony and – as he put it – 'one walked out as quietly as one had walked in'.  He carried out one more duty.  Along with his secretary and his deputy Cecil Graves – the man he wanted to replace him – they drove to the BBC transmitter at Droitwich in Worcestershire to switch it off at midnight.  He signed the visitors book: 'J C W Reith – late BBC'.  

There was a postscript to this.  A week later, the BBC governors realised Reith had not handed in a written resignation. The chairman had to remind him. In a bitter reply, Reith responded: 'I resign, I shall resign, I have resigned. There it is – in all three tenses…'