Laying the Foundations
Policies, Practices and a Public Monopoly
The early political context for broadcast journalism
The arrival of television in Britain, formally inaugurated by the BBC on 2 November 1936 and covering only the London area, was barely noticed. Sir John Reith, the BBC's ‘founding father’ himself, regarded it as an unnecessary distraction from the real business of radio, and was anyway becoming engulfed – as was the rest of the country – in the rumours of impending constitutional crisis surrounding the King's relationship with Mrs Wallace, which culminated in his abdication the following month. Those who had been raised on the disciplines and practice of radio broadcasting were both unschooled in the practice of translating entertainment or information into vision and, more importantly, highly distrustful of the medium. For those who ran the BBC, radio was conducive to the thoughtful and the serious; television was only good for pantomime. In the words of Grace Wyndham Goldie, who was to become one of the great pioneers of early BBC television journalism, ‘they associated vision with the movies and the music hall and were afraid that the high purposes of the Corporation would be trivialised by the influence of those concerned with what could be transmitted in visual terms’.1 The thesis which Neil Postman came to personify in the 1980s was pre-empted by a good 50 years, even before television had entered most people's consciousness.
As Wyndham Goldie also pointed out, however, BBC television's journalistic legacy from radio was fundamentally important because it inherited ‘two essential freedoms, achieved by few other television services as they developed around the world’:2 freedom from government intervention (although only the most ardent purist would say there was no government influence); and freedom from influence by commercial interests. Both these freedoms were not just the cornerstone for television journalism on the BBC but for the commercial television service that followed.
This legacy, while partly down to the tenacity of Reith and his determination to keep the meddlesome hands of politicians away from any direct interference, was also attributable to the committees which had been set up during the 1920s and 1930s to make recommendations for the future of broadcasting. This was no accident: these committees reflected the mood of the moment and the psyche of a nation that was not naturally inclined to hand over institutional control of a major organ of public influence to the State but was also somewhat distrustful of the wholly commercialized, commodified approach that personified American radio. The Sykes Committee was set up by the Post Office in 1923 to solve the funding problem of the British Broadcasting Company in the wake of widespread evasion of the tax on wireless sets, but understood clearly that ‘broadcasting holds social and political possibilities as great as any technical attainment of our generation’. It therefore concluded – in words which would have resonated throughout Western Europe – that ‘the control of such a potential power over the public opinion and the life of the nation ought to remain within the State and the operation of so important a national service ought not to be allowed to become an unrestricted commercial monopoly’.3
However, Sykes was also quick to point out the distinction of control remaining ‘within the State’ rather than broadcasting being managed by the State, which it firmly opposed. The reasons were twofold, and not only confined to fear of government censorship; there was a secondary concern simply about making news too boring: ‘If a Government Department had to select the news, speeches, lectures, etc. to be broadcast, it would be constantly open to suspicion that it was using its unique opportunities to advance the interests of the political party in power; and, in the endeavour to avoid anything in the slightest degree controversial, it would probably succeed in making its service intolerably dull.’4
Ironically, concern about the impact of State intervention on news was superfluous given that discretion for news broadcasting on radio had been entirely circumscribed by the newspaper owners’ terror of losing newspaper sales. The BBC was only allowed to broadcast news from ‘certain approved News Agencies’ and even then not until 7 p.m. so as not to interfere with the sale of evening newspapers – a restriction justified by Sykes on the grounds that newspapers spend heavily on news collection and distribution, and ‘urge with justice that it would not be in the public interest that the broadcasting system … should be allowed to publish news otherwise than from authoritative and responsible sources of information’.5 In 1923, then, the nascent radio service was not trusted to treat news with the same respect for journalistic values as those virtuously embodied by an authoritative press.
Less than three years later, the Crawford Committee reported its conclusions on what should happen when the British Broadcasting Company's licence to broadcast expired at the end of 1926. Crawford, like Sykes, rejected a State-run institution in favour of a new corporation whose ‘status and duties should correspond with those of a public service’. Crawford, however, seemed to move towards a greater flexibility about the BBC and news. The new organization should not be providing material ‘as it pleases’, said the committee, but then added – with what might be interpreted as astonishing foresight – that newspapers will adapt ‘perhaps depending more upon narrative and criticism than upon the mere schedule of facts’. Moreover, it said, broadcasting could even have a promotional impact, heightening interest in news and therefore improving circulation figures.6 And while it was tentative on the subject of whether ‘controversial matter’ could be safely entrusted to the new Corporation, on balance it was prepared to accept that ‘if the material be of high quality, not too lengthy or insistent, and distributed with scrupulous fairness, licensees will desire a moderate amount of controversy’.7
The first test of independent journalism – the general strike
In fact, even before its inauguration as a public body, the BBC had an opportunity both to engage in unfettered news dissemination and to test political commitment to the principle of independence. On 3 May 1926, the unions called a general strike in support of the coal miners. Not only did this pitch workers against the government in a major political confrontation, it also took newspapers off the street because of the involvement of the print unions. Apart from the government-sponsored British Gazette – printed in Paris, flown to Britain daily and known to be essentially a government propaganda tool – the only source of news for a nation on the brink of industrial paralysis was the wireless and the BBC. Reith asked for and was given authority from the postmaster general to broadcast news at any time, and instituted bulletins every three hours from ten in the morning using material from Reuters. It was a difficult balancing act, given that influential cabinet voices – including the Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill – were arguing vociferously that the government should use its emergency powers to commandeer the BBC. Asa Briggs draws a distinction between the ‘constitutional’ position of the BBC – the government had legal authority to take it over – and the ‘diplomatic’ position held by a majority in the cabinet that ‘it would be wiser to leave the BBC a measure of independence or at least of “semi-independence”’.8
In order to dissuade the Prime Minister from a wholesale takeover, Reith decided to commit his argument to paper. Two days into the strike, on 5 May, Reith penned what his biographer overenthusiastically called ‘a classic statement of the case for broadcasting to be independent of government’:
The BBC has secured and holds the goodwill and affection of the people. It has been trusted to do the right thing at all times. Its influence is widespread. It is a national institution and a national asset … This is not a time for dope, even if the people could be doped. The hostile would be made more hostile from resentment. As to suppression, from the panic of ignorance comes far greater danger than from the knowledge of facts.9
It was, in fact, a rationale which owed more to political survival than any grand vision of democratic intent: a source of information which was neither run by the government nor identified with it – but which behind the scenes had close links to it – was just what Prime Minister Baldwin and the like-minded members of his cabinet wanted. Thus, BBC coverage of the general strike was the first example of engagement in the delicate realpolitik of an independence that has always been conscious of – and sometimes constrained by – the BBC's relationship with the State. This has not, as we shall see, prejudiced its ability to conduct vigorous and independent journalism that can deeply antagonize governments, but it has – at some times more than others – involved an awareness of the political environment that can spill over into undue caution and voluntary self-censorship. As the BBC evolved into a self-sufficient journalistic institution – and as its values and constitution increasingly served as a model for other countries searching for a viable compromise between market and State in the evolution of broadcasting – this notion of ‘constrained independence’ is perhaps a more useful concept than Briggs’ description of ‘semi-independence’.
Since it had no journalistic resources of its own, the BBC took its news of the strike from two sources: the Admiralty office of the Deputy Chief Civil Commissioner, who acted as the link between government and Reith during the strike, and Reuters. According to Briggs, ‘One or two BBC employees actually went out collecting news,’ but bulletins were essentially rewritten second-hand affairs which tried to encapsulate the essence of what was happening around the country. Reith was keen to impress on listeners the BBC's sense of its own responsibility, himself telling listeners in the 10 o'clock bulletin of 4 May: ‘The BBC fully realizes the gravity of its responsibility to all sections of the public, and will do its best to discharge it in the most impartial spirit that circumstances permit … We would ask the public to take as serious a view as we do ourselves of the necessity of plain objective news being audible to everybody.’ The limits to that impartiality were manifested in examples of inaccurate reporting that have an uncanny echo of complaints made against television broadcasters in Britain during the bitter miners’ strike of 1986: accounts of engine drivers and firemen returning to work in Oxford, for example, or the strike breaking down in Salisbury.10
It is therefore fair to conclude with Briggs that ‘BBC news assisted the government against the strikers’ not through blatant propaganda but, first, through selective presentation of news reporting and, second, through its ability to dispel any ugly rumours which might have fanned the flames of revolution (e.g. stories about the murder of police officers or riots at Hyde Park Corner). Some accused the BBC of producing news bulletins which were ‘doped’ and called it the BFC – the British Falsehood Corporation. It was not the last time the acronym was to be parodied in accusations of deliberate bias. In response to these general observations of partiality, Reith acknowledged openly in the Radio Times that the BBC had lacked ‘complete liberty of action’ during the strike but did not believe that any government ‘would have allowed the broadcasting authority under its control greater freedom than was enjoyed by the BBC during the crisis’.11 Given the nascent condition of broadcasting, he was certainly right. This was an organization searching for a new journalistic culture within the constraints of what was deemed acceptable by an establishment used to controlling information in a crisis. The BBC, in Briggs's words, ‘reinforced authority’ in a way which it found very hard to shake off – arguably even until the arrival of a new era and an iconoclastic director general in the 1960s.
But Reith had achieved two things for the future of broadcast journalism, with repercussions that arguably extended well beyond the confines of the United Kingdom as the BBC's influence began to be felt internationally. First, he had ensured that the then very vulnerable concept of ‘impartiality’ – however compromised it had been in practice – had at least not been uprooted and cast aside; it remained a legitimate aspiration for the broadcast medium (albeit currently limited to radio) and for broadcasting institutions. Second, he had ensured that broadcasting was now recognized as a potent force in national life. When it came to the BBC's next test of journalistic integrity, in the run-up to the Second World War, the second of those was rather more visible than the first.
‘Constrained independence’ consolidated
In the meantime, BBC progress towards a self-sufficient independent journalism moved slowly against the joint suspicions of government and press. With the beginning of the new corporation in 1927, the BBC was given permission not only to subscribe to news agencies but to undertake its own reporting. A year later, in March 1928, the ban on reporting matters of controversy was withdrawn on an experimental basis in the light of the ‘loyal and punctilious manner’ in which the BBC had conformed to its obligations.12 This gradual loosening of the apron strings was assisted by the new constitutional system that established a ten-year Royal Charter and independent ‘governors’, thus ensuring that the new British Broadcasting Corporation was dominated neither by the commercial marketplace nor by the State. As Reith wrote in the first BBC Handbook: ‘The Royal Academy and the Bank of England function under Royal Charter. So does the BBC. It is no Department of State’.13 Reith's cautious approach to controversy had not only paid dividends in terms of a secure future for the corporation; it had also established important ground-rules for a journalistic independence which made overt government interference quite awkward. The ‘experiment’ on covering controversy continued over the next 12 years, during which time it was understood (and explicitly stated in Parliament) that it was up to the independent BBC Governors to monitor and interpret the relevant material.14
Lack of direct intervention did not, however, mean lack of accommodation at sensitive times. The time limit on its Royal Charter meant that, as each ten-year expiry date neared, the BBC was subject to government review. An early example of the potential impact on BBC journalism of these delicate negotiations came in 1935, when the BBC Governors approved a proposal to broadcast talks from a renowned communist, Harry Pollitt, and a renowned fascist, Sir Oswald Mosley. The government disapproved and, while not prepared to intervene directly, did indicate that the strategy was unwise given the Charter's imminent expiry at the end of 1936. In the event, Pollitt and Mosley were discreetly dropped without any public suggestion of interference, and the BBC retained its reputation for independence. This sensitivity to negotiations around Charter renewal presaged similar examples of journalistic caution in the decades to come. As Seaton says: ‘This cautious self-protection was shrewd, and may have been the only strategy available. However, it made the BBC vulnerable to bullying … the most important constraint came to be the Corporation's anxiety to pre-empt the threats.’15 This sensitivity of a publicly funded broadcaster to government thinking – which later became more memorably known as the ‘pre-emptive cringe’ – again resonated in other countries seeking to emulate the BBC model.
In the event, the 1936 Ullswater Report into the BBC's future was an almost unconditional endorsement of the BBC's achievements. No doubt aware of the propaganda techniques already being employed in Italy and Germany, it reiterated the need to safeguard a powerful medium of political expression. But it went further than its predecessors by arguing for more freedom in the broadcasting of news and for a ‘strong and impartial editorial staff’. There was specific recognition of the importance of broadcasting in tackling controversial matters in ways that were relevant and covered different perspectives: ‘If broadcasting is to present a reflection of its time, it must include matters which are in dispute. If it is to hold public interest, it must express living thought. If it is to educate public opinion, it must look upon the questions of the hour from many angles’.16 This recognition was automatically extended to the television service, which had been entrusted to the BBC on the recommendation of another government report headed by Lord Selsdon a year earlier. At the same time, the balance of power between press and broadcasting had shifted significantly, and in November 1937 the BBC told the press agencies that it was terminating their agreement. Thus, from its modest beginnings on 2 November 1936, the BBC's television service started with both a clear mandate for reporting and with its institutional independence now cemented – albeit with qualifications – by the trust earned by Reith.
Early BBC news culture and the Dimbleby effect
By 1931, roughly half the UK population were reckoned to be listeners to radio but the 1931 BBC Year Book was still saying that ‘the supply of news is mainly the task of the Press’.17 Despite the cataclysmic political changes unfolding throughout Europe during the 1930s, therefore, the BBC's approach to news was sparing, with a concentration on quality and presentation; when there was insufficient news deemed to be worth broadcasting, the announcer said simply that ‘there is no news tonight’. Although the definition of ‘quality news’ was never made explicit, the BBC's news values were very distinct from the popular press: the dress sense of 1930s film stars or footballers’ wives did not feature in bulletin running lists.
Two other factors beyond the self-defined ‘broadsheet’ nature of the institution dictated how broadcast journalism developed within the BBC and applied equally to the culture of television journalism as it evolved – somewhat later – in other countries: an acute sense that audiences were more heterogeneous and variegated than the self-selected readerships of newspapers; and an awareness that the immediacy of the broadcast medium might demand a greater sensibility to the impact of stories on listeners. Scannell and Cardiff record a letter sent as early as 1923 from the BBC to the Broadcasting Editor of Reuters reminding him of the subtle differences between reading news from a newspaper and hearing it through a wireless, which might make the impact of crimes or disasters more shocking: ‘we think it is a good policy as far as possible to eliminate from bulletins all crimes and tragedies that have no national or international importance. The hanging of a criminal, the burning of a child, or the assaulting of a woman are not news items suitable to a broadcast service.’18
When a tiny news section was created in 1927, its head described the object of the BBC news service as being specifically ‘to avoid the errors into which journalists, as such, seem inevitably to fall’, defining those errors in terms that became very familiar to critics of early twenty-first century journalism: sensationalism, inaccuracy, partiality and overstatement. The BBC was there, he said, to ‘present news of all that is happening in the world in a clear, impartial and succinct language’.19 Anticipating the day that the BBC would be able to ditch the agencies and take full editorial responsibility, the news section commissioned a report on how the news service might be established. The 11-page document noted in particular that the radio audience was drawn from all sections of the population, and that a news service designed to appeal to the mass population could not ignore human interest stories. Thus, at the very beginning, was introduced a conundrum with which latter-day broadcasters are still grappling: how do you reconcile authority, impartiality and lack of sensationalism with journalism that engages the audience?
The first radio bulletin emanating entirely from the news section went out on 10 February 1930. It became an independent department in 1934 and recruited its first two professional journalists – a home news editor and a foreign news editor – from the broadsheet press, along with two subeditors. President Roosevelt's inaugural speech was broadcast live in 1933 and there were the beginnings of independent reporting both at home and abroad – with the emphasis on accuracy and impartiality, and, of course, with appropriate deference to authority. The BBC was not there to probe but to relay. On the other hand, its journalism was also evolving in reaction to the needs of unfolding diplomatic dramas in Europe and in recognition of the liveness and immediacy of the broadcast experience. It was a delicate balance to maintain the authority of the institution and avoid the popular vulgarity of sensationalism while at the same time attempting to convey real-time vividness. The most important exponent of this new brand of live journalism that fused these conflicting editorial values was a 23-year-old journalist called Richard Dimbleby.
Having first been refused a job in the BBC News Department in 1936, Dimbleby wrote again outlining his vision for broadcast journalism. BBC news, he said, could be enlivened without compromising authority. BBC reporters could be available to cover unexpected (today we would say ‘breaking’) stories: fires, strikes, civil commotion, railway or pit accidents, or any other major catastrophes could be covered by a reporter sent from Broadcasting House who could broadcast an eyewitness account and secure interviews from people on the spot. ‘News could be presented in a gripping manner, and, at the same time, remain authentic.’20 The idea of exploiting the broadcast medium to combine immediacy and authenticity may seem ludicrously self-evident today, but at the time it was revolutionary. It was also expensive and cumbersome in terms of equipment, and therefore difficult to implement. Dimbleby got his job, and first marked the arrival of dramatic on-the-spot reporting when on 30 November 1936 he rushed to the scene of the huge fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace in south London and described the scenes of conflagration to radio listeners from a public phone box.
Nevertheless, developing an independent news culture was a slow process. While tension was building towards a crisis in the European capitals of Prague, Munich, Berlin and Vienna – and while Americans were being treated to the brilliant on-the-spot reportage of journalists like William Shirer and Ed Murrow from the heart of Europe – the BBC's News Department was still fledgling and overly dependent on the agencies. The years of delicate negotiation to avoid upsetting the press barons, and the diversion of resources into plays, talks, arts and music rather than journalism, were taking its toll. Moreover, the agencies were not delivering: Reuters’ main clients were the popular press, which cared more about the domestic and the sensational than such foreign niceties as the annexation of the Sudetenland or the fall of the French cabinet. And even when the problem was recognized, the bureaucratic wheels of the BBC moved slowly. When eventually the decision was taken to hire more journalists, Dimbleby famously found himself on the Franco-Spanish border to witness the last stages of the Spanish Civil War and produce the kind of broadcast journalism to which the United States had become accustomed. In the words of Scannell and Cardiff, Dimbleby ‘returned to London, deeply shaken by the experience, to the congratulations of his colleagues and – unprecedented tribute – a commendation for his work from the Board of Governors’.21
Those months of pre-war diplomacy saw another, more blatant example of BBC self-censorship. In a country that still collectively remembered the terrible horrors of the Great War which had ended barely 20 years earlier, almost anything was preferable to another conflict. Moreover, there was considerable unease over the harsh restrictions on Germany imposed by the Treaty of Versailles and the dire economic consequences. So as Hitler inexorably continued his rearmament and annexation policies during the course of 1938, the British government sought ever more ingenious ways of avoiding a confrontation. The National government, under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, vigorously pursued this policy of appeasement with the support of most of the country, most Members of Parliament and most of the establishment including newspaper editors, senior civil servants, academics and members of the royal family.
There were, however, some vocal and influential dissenters. Anthony Eden resigned from the government as Foreign Secretary in protest in February 1938, but the most vociferous opponent was Winston Churchill. The crisis over Czechoslovakia came to a head in September 1938 when the leaders of Germany, Italy, France and Britain met in Munich in an attempt to avoid war. Chamberlain's return to Britain, having conceded the Sudetenland to Hitler in return for very little except the avoidance of war, was recorded by cinema newsreels as being unremittingly triumphant. Very few expressions of doubt or foreboding were heard, let alone any outright opposition. This is scarcely surprising since, as former ITN Editor Stewart Purvis discovered from the newsreel archives, contrary voices had effectively been silenced: the American-owned British Paramount News received instructions from its head office to delete interviews with two prominent critics of appeasement.22 A newsreel interview with anti-appeasement MP Harold Nicholson, on the day Chamberlain set off to Munich, was never screened. The public and journalistic reactions to Chamberlain's Munich enterprise was, Purvis argues, the result of deliberate news management: ‘With a persistence which Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell would admire, Chamberlain and the Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare worked their contacts amongst proprietors, editors and even correspondents.’
Within such a triumphalist atmosphere of cheering crowds on Chamberlain's return from Munich, the BBC would always have found it difficult to air contrary views. This was a time of genuine public celebration, even if the voices of caution had been airbrushed from the media. As with the Falklands War in 1982 and the Iraq War in 2003, the absence of any concerted oppositional voices within Parliament made it more difficult for the BBC to provide critical voices with the airtime that a neutral and impartial journalistic approach might have demanded. According to Purvis, Richard Dimbleby's commentary on Chamberlain's return just about stayed within acceptable boundaries of objective journalism, but BBC bulletins that evening contained just one counterpoint to the national rejoicing (from Liberal leader Sir Archibald Sinclair). Beyond that, while not adding its own voice to the hyperbole of other media, the BBC made no attempt to temper the jubilation with a more sober or analytical perspective.
An internal report written some time later shed some interesting light on the thinking process within the BBC: ‘There was no censorship by the Government of the BBC news bulletins or broadcast material, though the Corporation naturally kept in close touch with the appropriate departments and the bulletins fell in line with Government policy’.23 In other words, this was compliant journalism by osmosis rather than direct intervention – the BBC as national institution with its roots in the heart of the establishment, rather than an organization in the vanguard of critical journalism. Intriguingly, however, this closeness to government did prompt some serious disquiet within the corporation that it had not properly executed its responsibility to the general public. John Coatman, having moved from head of the News Department to Director of BBC North, wrote a long memorandum on 5 October in which he bemoaned the BBC's inability to give British people the essential information it needed to understand the crisis. In the past, he said:
We have not played the part which our duty to the people of this country called upon us to play. We have, in fact, taken part in a conspiracy of silence … The position of this country is infinitely more dangerous than it has ever been in modern times, and the past few weeks have invested the BBC with a new importance, given it a more vital role in the national life, and have, therefore, laid a new responsibility on us who are its servants. This responsibility is to let the people of this country know, as far as the sources available to us allow, just what is happening.24
Coatman was at great pains to point out that no one was to blame, that the BBC did not conspire willingly or knowingly, and that in view of the short history of the corporation and its ‘peculiar relationship to the Government’, this was not surprising. It was not an unfair analysis, and his recognition that the BBC now had to acknowledge its duty to the people – to its licence payers – perhaps marked a turning point in BBC journalism.
Its problem was how to change recognition into implementation, given that it had become so absorbed into the machinery of State. In the words of Scannell and Cardiff, ‘The continuous routine contact that had built up over the years between senior personnel in Broadcasting House, Whitehall and Westminster meant that they all abided by the same rules and code of conduct.’25 But it was clear that, by the outbreak of the Second World War, there was at least sufficient self-reflection within the BBC for it to recognize its own potential as well its own failings. It would be some time before it could throw off the institutional mantle of deference – it would take a new director general, a new competitor and new social mores – but the groundwork had been laid for a culture which not only dictated the nature of television journalism in the UK but was hugely influential in its development around the world: a public institution that was operationally independent from government and not funded directly by it; that had developed an institutional ethic of impartiality and authority; that had begun to form a relationship with its audience; and that had begun to understand its obligation not only to provide full, independent and impartial information to that audience, but to use responsibly the unprecedented power of the broadcast medium. Unfortunately, there was no time before war was declared to start applying those principles to the nascent technology of television before the first TV service in the world was abruptly terminated – in the middle of a Mickey Mouse film – on 1 September 1939. But when the first post-war broadcast was transmitted on 7 June 1946 – with, fittingly, Richard Dimbleby commentating – television inherited a journalistic modus operandi which still informs many national practices today.
The legacy of war: journalism, trust and BBC independence
The wartime relationship between State and broadcaster was a complex one in which independence was safeguarded but only on the basis that both shared a common aim – the swift dissemination of news, with authority and without compromising the war effort. The BBC Chairman of the time, Sir Allan Powell, used the telling phrase that the BBC was bound by ‘silken cords’ (though he added that these sometimes felt like ‘chains of iron’).26 Briggs describes ‘intimate if sometimes chequered relations’ with almost every government department although the absence of a Goebbels-type figure with an obsessional interest in pursuing a single propagandist line was also instrumental in allowing the BBC to pursue a responsibly independent line.
Apart from consolidating the BBC's institutional and operational independence, the war years inevitably elevated the importance of news and journalism as a vital area of BBC activity. Culture, as we have seen, had been the BBC's driving force, not Information or even Democracy. News had been cautious, brief and uninspiring. But the news imperatives of the war not only galvanized broadcast journalism but started to change the habits of the nation. It was H.G. Wells who announced portentously in 1943 that ‘the day of the newspaper was done’ – a cry which has echoed down the years, as first radio, then television, then the internet have been predicted to bring the newspaper to its knees.27 And George Orwell, while bitterly critical of the BBC's upper-class accents and lack of appeal to ordinary working people, nevertheless paid tribute to its news service and in 1944 wrote in the Labour Party newspaper Tribune that ‘“I heard it on the wireless” is now almost equivalent to “I know it must be true”’.28
This elevation of news and journalism, combined with the emergence of television as a medium of news transmission, placed additional pressure on the BBC's reputation for authority and accuracy. Television was not an obvious medium for ‘doing’ news, and drama was television's main preoccupation at the beginning. Plays could draw on a raft of experienced producers from the theatre and cinema, and a single production in a single studio could fill an hour's TV with a minimum of fuss and expense. The transfer of journalism from print required different skills, and indeed a different concept of journalism from the partisan and opinionated approach of most newspapers. Most importantly of all, the need for pictures might compromise the authority of the institution. When the BBC's newly appointed Controller of Television Maurice Gorham suggested that radio bulletins might be supplemented by pictures with very little alteration to the material, the Director General's response was withering: ‘The fact that the text of the bulletin would have to be received some hours in advance of transmission … shows the necessity that would arise to subordinate the primary functions of news to the needs of visual presentation. Any such subordination would prejudice all sorts of values on which the BBC's great reputation for news has been founded’.29
His caution not only reflected a prescient awareness of the different demands of vision-led news, but also a jealous determination to protect the BBC's reputation for authority. Grace Wyndham Goldie told the story of how, as a radio producer, she had persuaded someone of importance to record an interview, but he insisted that it should be broadcast as if it was live so as not to spoil the sense of immediacy. She was told by her superiors that, even if just two people knew the truth, this was an unacceptable deceit: ‘Once you undermined faith in this way there was no telling where it would end. Trust was integral. Any breach of faith with the public, I was told in what was practically a hushed whisper, might mean that people would not believe the BBC news’.30 This was then, and remains, one of the cornerstones of BBC journalistic practice. It partly explains the furore following its reporting of the government's Iraq intelligence dossiers in 2002, explored in more detail later in this book, and other smaller incidents in which the BBC has been found not to be completely accurate or open with its licence-payers. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, this ingrained sense of truth-telling remains a fascinating counterpoint to some of the journalism practised by the popular press and in the blogosphere, where principles of honesty and integrity have arguably been under more intense pressure than ever before.
Thus, the television pioneers of Alexandra Palace – where the nascent service was based – had some difficulty in persuading the old radio hands at Broadcasting House that television was a) worth taking seriously as a medium, b) worth the diversion of valuable BBC resources and c) involved different demands and techniques from radio. Their cause was not helped by the cumbersome and expensive nature of cameras required for outside broadcasts, and the gradual realization that the medium involved all sorts of issues about accurate representation of ‘the truth’.
Discovering television's limitations
Even at this early stage, it was clear to the beleaguered television forces that the use of visual material would have to be handled with care, rigour and integrity in order to preserve BBC standards of trust and impartiality. Vision could increase understanding, could avoid the unintentional bias of a radio reporter painting an inaccurate picture and could convey a different quality of truth. It was first-hand experience rather than second-hand impression. And it gave viewers the impression that they, too, were witnesses to televised events. But cameras could also be used carelessly or deliberately or even maliciously to convey an erroneous impression of the truth, a risk which Wyndham Goldie and her colleagues recognized early on:
If, for example, a cameraman, in giving a teleview of an election meeting, deliberately picked out for close-ups of the audience the faces of the disgruntled and the objecting and the bored, he might … give a bias to the teleview. And this would be more dangerous in television than in, say, pictures in a newspaper since television feels like seeing for ourselves and therefore more like the truth than anything seen in a newspaper or a cinema film.31
This was precisely the argument employed 35 years later when TV images of the 1984–5 miners’ strike were condemned for portraying a one-sided picture of violent strikers because cameras were positioned behind police lines. Moreover, as the Glasgow Media Group subsequently demonstrated, partial images of picture-dominated television journalism can have a long-lasting impact on those exposed to it. The abiding memory for those not immersed in that conflict was of daily and violent confrontations involving running battles, baton-wielding police and stone-throwing miners’.32 In fact, the vast majority of pickets were peaceful and uneventful, some even friendly and cooperative, but the cameras were not there and quiet conversations were not newsworthy. The partial reality conveyed by the television cameras created a popular and long-lasting misunderstanding of events, precisely the problem identified in the earliest days of television journalism.
It also became apparent that the presence of cameras would materially affect behaviour in the political sphere. While television ostensibly could serve democracy through coverage of party conferences and political activism, it soon became clear that electorates did not look kindly on live images of party dissent even if they were an honest representation of political reality or, indeed, evidence of a vibrant political culture. Rather, such images were interpreted as evidence of poor discipline and weak leadership, which created an electorally damaging impression. And so in Britain – as in the United States and democracies around the world – political managers began to manipulate and orchestrate the images available for broadcasters.
Gradually, the presence of cameras created a new political reality: one of acclamation, self-confidence, consensus and glorification of political leaders. The back-stabbing, ferocious argument and internal conflict was gradually replaced by televised theatre – events specifically created or meticulously stage-managed for the television cameras. Thus, Daniel Boorstin wrote in 1961 of the ‘pseudo-event’ which was being ‘planted primarily … for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported’.33 Although Boorstin cited Roosevelt as ‘the first modern master’ of the pseudo-event, even before the arrival of television cameras, it was for him the famous Nixon-Kennedy televised presidential debates of 1960 that epitomized the televisual artefact. In the glare of the television cameras, the substantive political issues of the day were subsumed beneath the youthful elegance of Kennedy and the contrast with Nixon's visible perspiration and ‘five o'clock shadow’. Famously, post-debate polls showed that radio listeners believed Nixon had won the debate, while television viewers gave it to Kennedy.
While television journalists over the next 20 years began to learn techniques for overcoming this manufactured ‘production’ of politics for the television screen, the battlefields of Suez, Korea and Vietnam during the 1950s and 1960s were to pose precisely the opposite conundrum: how to convey scenes which were uncontrived, raw and entirely representative but were so gruesome or graphic that no responsible broadcaster could beam them directly into people's living rooms. The problem of what might constitute acceptable boundaries in televised coverage of war, tragedy or disaster has been debated at great length since the arrival of television cameras potentially allowed the public screening of real death or injury, which the vast majority would never before have witnessed (and would certainly not wish their children to see). While institutional and regulatory expectations militated against conveying explicit images to television screens, some argued that such self-censorship on grounds of taste and sensitivity failed to convey the harsh reality that might in turn have had an immediate and adverse impact on public opinion. These omissions are not only relevant to war coverage: whether it be destitution in South America, famine in Africa, brutal murder in Indonesia or people throwing themselves off the burning towers of the World Trade Center, the reluctance to show reality in all its gory awfulness has been as important an influence on television journalism as its antithesis – creating a cleansed, antiseptic reality.
The BBC's institutional response
All these issues were being recognized, in different ways, as problems that moving pictures posed for the conduct of journalism, and the BBC worried about the impact on its sacrosanct news values. Led by Sir William Haley, a conservative Director General steeped in radio values, it rejected any accommodation to the new medium in favour of a radio news summary relayed from Broadcasting House and accompanied in vision by a clock. Haley's approach was endorsed by the man who took over control of a unified News Division in 1948, a dour New Zealander called Tahu Hole who ‘believed strongly not only in “objectivity” but in consistency: the BBC's news services must not speak with different voices’.34 The result was an institutional straitjacket which squeezed the life out of any sense of journalistic enterprise and compounded the delays in launching a Television News service.
One of the issues which concentrated the minds of these committed traditionalists was the idea of an on-screen presenter. The very notion of having a newsreader in vision was anathema because it would by definition entail a personalization that might undermine the strict canon of impartiality: a disembodied voice cannot impart meaning, but a visible newsreader will have expressions and body language that would detract from the purely anonymous delivery of a statement of facts. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, this may seem bizarre and endearingly quaint, but it is not completely stupid. It is impossible to see a face on television without thinking about the individual and the personality – let alone the colour of the tie or the state of visible inebriation. Television newsreaders quickly established themselves as ‘personalities’ whose marital status, family lives and private endeavours were – and still are – treated as legitimate material for tabloid gossip columns. And however much they may seek to distance their public persona from any personal or political opinion, it is at least a legitimate argument that an on-screen personality is incompatible with strict adherence to an impartiality doctrine.
While the news purists therefore maintained the cloak of anonymity for presenters of news bulletins, more adventurous spirits at the BBC found other outlets for developing more covert forms of television journalism. In particular Norman Collins, appointed Controller of Television in June 1947, was determined to make television more topical. He introduced ‘Foreign Correspondent’ in April 1949, featuring regular reporting on foreign affairs, as well as televised reporting of the general election results in February 1950. Given that there were no trained television reporters, ‘Foreign Correspondent’ relied on a combination of newsreel techniques (silent film with voiced-over commentary) and reporters reading their commentaries live in the studio. The first series were ‘picture portraits’ of post-war life in some European capitals, the second more overtly political and looking at the prospects for European integration. It was basic and crude, but it was the forerunner of the BBC's stable of current affairs programmes: ‘Tonight’; ‘24 Hours’; and ‘Panorama’.
This was followed, under the aegis of Wyndham Goldie, by ‘International Commentary’ in November 1950. Both programmes, in the words of Paddy Scannell, ‘avowedly experimental and both seminal for the development of the BBC-style current affairs programme’.35 Foreign affairs was a ‘safe’ area for a public broadcaster that still shied away from tackling anything contentious. Britain was still one of the great powers, its foreign policy did not divide the political parties and the world beyond Britain was still something of an unknown quantity to the great majority of British people. To offer a ‘window on the world’ – as ‘Panorama’ was subtitled – was an important element of public service journalism in the days before package holidays, cheap flights, satellite television and instant email to the other side of the world. Meanwhile, coverage of domestic politics was left to television appearances by politicians and print journalists. A programme called ‘In the News’ started in August 1950, featuring four politicians meticulously chosen to represent the main political parties. And in ‘Press Conference’, introduced in 1952, politicians were interrogated by a panel of print journalists who had no professional equivalents in broadcasting. In other words, the formal conduct of political news on television was conducted by the politicians with the BBC acting as referee and gatekeeper.
Another route to covering contemporary issues was, as Scannell has shown, through television documentary. This was partly achieved through drama-documentaries that covered social issues such as delinquency, marriage, old age, prostitution, strikes, women at work or legal aid. More significantly, it was achieved through a programme, which began in September 1952 called ‘Special Enquiry’, that attempted to cover issues of great national importance through local stories. According to the Radio Times, ‘Special Enquiry’, ‘was aiming to forge a new style of television journalism, something peculiar to the medium of television, but as honest and incisive as British journalism at its best’.36 The inspiration for this very new genre of television was a combination of the populist photojournalism of Picture Post and the studio presenter/commentator format of ‘See It Now’, which had proved so popular and influential for CBS in the United States.37 This format allowed the BBC to develop a form of almost covert journalism that carefully avoided explicit politicization but actually dealt with issues that lie at the heart of politics. It was a form of journalism that could avoid controversy partly because – unlike, say, in the 1980s – there was a broad political consensus about the problems of post-war Britain, and partly because politicians were being given their own overtly balanced platform from which to canvass political solutions.
These somewhat more populist approaches to television journalism were assisted by the gradual development of newsreel techniques emanating from the BBC's Film (rather than News) Department. Encouraged by a new Director General, Sir Ian Jacob, and more importantly the imminent arrival of a competitive television service in 1955, a new series entitled ‘News and Newsreel’ started on 5 July 1954. It was an uncomfortable compromise between the Film and News divisions and their respective – and very different – takes on virtually every aspect of content and presentation. Wyndham Goldie's view was that ‘neither Tahu Hole nor any of his staff had the faintest idea of how to present news in visual terms’ and that they actually despised the television medium. She famously described the long and ongoing battle between the two departments as ‘like a battle between a school of whales and a herd of elephants,’ which nevertheless contained within it a war of principles about the nature of television, the nature of news and the nature of the BBC.38 The BBC surely had to maintain its reputation for authoritative ‘hard’ news, but should the values of the television variant be subordinated to the entertainment needs of the medium, or should it maintain the highest journalistic standards even at the expense of the programme's intrinsic attraction?
BBC journalism after the 14-day rule
To some extent, proper coverage of ‘hard’ politics was severely constrained anyway by a rule that forbade the BBC from making reference to any issue that was to be discussed in Parliament over the following fortnight. With hindsight, this ‘14-day’ ruling seems bizarre but it speaks volumes about the suspicion with which politicians throughout the developed world viewed this developing medium and the jealousy with which they guarded their own power. A more common political response within Europe was to chain the public broadcaster more closely to the government of the day. In the United Kingdom, the response was more subtle: respect the BBC's carefully nurtured independence, but circumscribe the scope of its political reporting. In the immediate aftermath of the war, senior politicians were strongly opposed to allowing the BBC to engage in any political broadcasting, however impartially, beyond official broadcasts by government and opposition. Arguably, this was a prescient – if essentially anti-democratic – anxiety about the ultimate power of the legislature seeping away under the scrutiny of unelected commentators. Aware that the press barons were already exploiting their command of the printed word to mount a challenge to the legislators, MPs were extremely reluctant to surrender in addition their control of the broadcast medium. Because there was a real possibility of a complete ban on coverage of any domestic politics, the BBC accepted terms written into an aide-memoire in 1947, which stated that there were to be no BBC broadcasts ‘on any question while it is the subject in either House’ beyond the straight reporting of Parliamentary proceedings.39 This was later clarified to cover discussion ‘on any issues for a period of a fortnight before they are debated in either house’.
The BBC consistently argued that the restriction should be abolished, but in the immediate post-war period was in no position to stand up to the united front of Parliament. As late as 1953, Winston Churchill was arguing in a parliamentary debate that, ‘it would be shocking to have debates in this House forestalled, time after time, by expressions of opinion by persons who had not the status or responsibility of MPs’.40 Churchill's case was complicated by the prior existence of an unrestrained press; indeed, nearly 25 years earlier Churchill's predecessor, Stanley Baldwin, had famously borrowed the words of his cousin Rudyard Kipling to rail against the newspaper proprietors’ ‘power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’. Even so, there was a legitimate case that television was different. Baldwin's fury with Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail, and Beaverbrook, proprietor of the Daily Express, was aimed at the ‘direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths’ that he believed characterized their newspapers’ campaign to promote Empire Free Trade, but there had been other newspapers that expressed equally strong opinions in the opposite direction. Television was becoming more widespread; it was was already enjoined to be impartial and likely to be more trusted; and it was in people's living rooms. Moreover, it was immediate and by necessity selective: there would only be room to cover a given number of issues, which would be chosen by the broadcaster. MPs, said the party leaders, would become pressurized by the weight of publicity being given to issues being prioritized by an unelected, unaccountable body. It was neither surprising nor illogical that government and opposition leaders remained firmly opposed to what – as it turned out – was very accurately perceived as a threat to their own power and influence.
By the mid 1950s, however, the balance of power was shifting. It was becoming increasingly anomalous that a publicly funded media organization was prevented from disseminating any information about issues of immediate political relevance.41 Most important of all, preparations were already in train for a rival commercial (or ‘independent’) broadcaster with its own news provision: any informal arrangement for restricting political news would have to apply equally to the new channel, and would therefore surely have to be formalized. So, by 1955, the BBC felt sufficiently emboldened to make it clear that it was no longer prepared to follow a voluntary behind-the-scenes vow of silence. The government flexed its muscles by making the 14-day rule both official and public but was roundly condemned by the press as imposing an unnecessary restraint on free speech. The rule was ultimately doomed by a combustible combination of domestic politics and a wholesale transformation of the television industry. The Suez crisis of 1956 – in which television news was forced for the most part to stay eerily silent – and the initiation of the BBC's long-awaited competitor ensured that the 14-day directive lasted little more than a year.
Suez and BBC independence
In the folklore of British political television, it was the BBC's battle with the government over Suez in 1956 that is regarded as the watershed. It certainly represented a turning point in cementing the BBC's ability to resist government pressure, at least at times when Parliament did actually represent the differences of opinion that existed throughout the country. With the country deeply divided over the government's decision to invade Egypt after President Nasser had taken control of the Suez Canal, there had been mounting tension between the government and the BBC in the run-up to the invasion. The BBC Chairman, Lord Cadogan, was an old friend and former colleague of the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, and not unsympathetic to his foreign policy aims. The Governors agreed at a meeting in September 1956 that ‘the BBC should do nothing to underline the existence of party division and disunity at a time of crisis,’ which sounded suspiciously like an injunction to senior editors not to cover faithfully the division of parliamentary opinion.42
By this time, however, the ethos of independent journalism had become more internalized amongst the BBC hierarchy, and it continued to report both sides of the increasingly bitter debate. Even a threat from Eden's Press Officer that the Prime Minister's patience was running out, and that he ‘had instructed the Lord Chancellor … to prepare an instrument which would take over the BBC altogether and subject it wholly to the will of the Government,’ was to no avail.43 When Eden insisted on speaking to the nation on the eve of the invasion on 3 November to present himself as a Churchillian leader in the nation's hour of need, opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell demanded and was granted the right of reply – which he exploited to great effect the following night. The BBC Governors did not intervene.
In the event, the political and diplomatic fallout from Suez cost Eden his health and his job, and just two months later he resigned, leaving the BBC intact and its journalistic reputation enhanced. The threat to its journalistic integrity was certainly real, but so was the sense of editorial resistance from within. Writing about the events 12 years later, Harman Grisewood, who had been the Director General's chief assistant, was in no doubt about the importance of that moment: ‘If Eden had had his way, it would, in my view, have been the end of the Corporation as it had been known up till then. I believe most of the senior people would have resigned rather than try to carry out orders of suppression.’44 As we shall see, this row presaged a similar outcry in 1986 when BBC Governors did attempt to suppress a programme that the government had condemned.
This was the end of an austere decade for television journalism characterized, in the words of Jonathan Dimbleby, by ‘a doctrine of broadcasting which [terrorized] a young, enthusiastic and energetic News Room into petrified immobility [and] which was to be remembered with great bitterness by nearly all those who lived through it’.45 Nevertheless, in those first 30 years of the BBC and first ten years of soulless television journalism, it is extraordinary how many of the potential problems and crises of modern-day television journalism around the world were anticipated. The overbearing restrictions imposed internally by senior managers and externally by parliamentary diktat may now seem harsh and difficult to comprehend, but they were rooted in legitimate anxieties about how journalism might evolve within the television medium. The selective nature of camera images; the importance of decisions made by newsroom editors; the ability of television to set political agendas; the problem of trying to sustain a journalistic culture of impartiality; the slide towards entertainment-led bulletins; the dominance of picture-led stories; the need for sensitivity when covering tragedy or violence in such an immediate and powerful medium; the drive, within the BBC, to avoid the sensationalism and inaccuracy associated with tabloid journalism; the vulnerability of a publicly funded broadcaster to covert political pressure; and the danger of television undermining the sovereignty of Parliament – all have been criticisms levelled at contemporary practices of television journalism, and all continue to represent major challenges for the future.
Suez was a turning point for securing a BBC that had learned how to withstand government attempts at intimidation even if, at times, there were more subtle accommodations. In terms of hard-nosed political journalism and a reputation for accuracy and trust, the events of late 1956 were profound. But in terms of the more far-reaching impact on approaches to and definitions of television journalism over the next 40 years, there had been a much more significant development the year before Suez. On 22 September 1955, the BBC faced competition for the first time, when commercial television began transmitting in the London area and included the very first television news not transmitted by the BBC. Independent Television News (ITN) was created as a separate but integral part of the new commercial channel, Independent Television (ITV), and changed the face of British television journalism forever.
The Rise and Fall of Television Journalism - Notes and Bibliography:
10. Another account goes further, suggesting that there was ‘a large number of totally inaccurate reports of returns to work’, and that, more worryingly, immediate corrections sent over to the BBC by the relevant unions were never given air-time. Farman, Christopher, "The General Strike: May 1926." Panther London, 1974 p. 184
14. Briggs reports only one occasion in the early 1930s when the Postmaster General, Kingsley Wood, threatened a ban, involving a proposed talk by an ex-German U-boat Commander. In the event, and under huge government pressure, ‘the decision to cancel was taken by the Board of Governors, with Reith dissenting’. Thirty years later, when Reith asked Wood whether he would have used the ban, the answer was, ‘not on your life. I would never have done it’. Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol. II, p. 121. We shall come across this political reluctance to use express powers to intervene in the BBC's editorial discretion again – and the BBC's own institutional ambivalence about how to respond to severe government pressure.
22. Stewart Purvis, ‘News International Lectures on the Broadcast Media’, Lecture 1, Oxford University, January 2005. The critics were Henry Wickham Steed, a former editor of The Times, and A.J. Cummings of the News Chronicle. The newsreel had been shown in 100 cinemas by the time the Foreign Office had been alerted and had ‘met with considerable applause’. The Foreign Office approached the American Ambassador to London, Joseph. P. Kennedy, who in turn passed on the government's reservations to Paramount.
23. Purvis dates this report (undated in the BBC Written Archives) as from the month after Munich, but Scannell and Cardiff describe it as ‘compiled some years later’, Scannell and Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, p. 87.
27. Reported in World's Press News, as quoted in Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol. III, p. 35. Three years earlier, someone had written ‘The defeat of journalism by the BBC continues.’
37. These programmes were presented by high-profile figures such as Ed Murrow who were strong personalities as well as highly regarded journalists. Such a personality-led form of television journalism would have been anathema to the likes of Hole and Haley.
40. Quoted in Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol. IV, pp. 554–5. Subsequent Speakers of the House would have great sympathy. More than one government minister had to be warned during the ten years of Tony Blair's government about not pre-empting policy announcements to Parliament by first informing the nation via judicious leaks or exclusives.