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The Culture of the BBC: A Personal Appreciation

La culture de la BBC : Une appréciation personnelle
Lord Asa Briggs


Cet article entend apporter une vision personnelle et indépendante de l’évolution des valeurs affichées par la BBC depuis sa création en 1922. Les premières années de l’histoire de la BBC ont été influencées par les centres d’intérêt de son fondateur Lord Reith – allégeance à l’Écosse, à la religion presbytérienne, à sa formation d’ingénieur et au souvenir de la Première Guerre mondiale. Par la suite, la BBC n’a plus véhiculé une culture mais des cultures, son monopole sur le discours concernant la culture et la société ayant été remis en question sous l’influence de changements dans la composition de la société dans les années 1960. Dans les années 1980, au moment où se développe la radiodiffusion commerciale, la BBC a résisté à la tentation de considérer son audience comme un marché. La BBC ne peut donc selon Asa Briggs entrer dans les problématiques de l’École de Francfort. Au début du vingt-et-unième siècle, si l’impact de la philosophie de Reith est encore palpable (attachement à la notion de service public, refus du profit comme justification), la hiérarchie des missions de la BBC a changé : alors qu’initialement, la mission de la BBC était régie par une « sainte trinité » où se succédaient dans cet ordre divertissement, éducation et information, cette dernière a maintenant acquis la première place ; l’éducation reçoit une importance nouvelle. En revanche, si l’émission la plus ancienne à la radio britannique était une émission religieuse, la BBC n’affiche plus de mission ni envers la religion, ni envers le sport. La possession de compétences technologiques prime désormais sur l’articulation d’une vision lorsqu’il s’agit de recruter des dirigeants pour cette institution.

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Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

20th century, XXe siècle
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Notes de la rédaction

Comments made in 2000 and reproduced by kind permission of Lord Asa Briggs.

Texte intégral

1Let us begin with an advertisement or rather with two advertisements. You all know that the BBC does not have any advertising, or at least it does not use advertising to finance its programmes. It depends on a licence fee, fixed by the government, which is paid by everyone who has a television set. Although it has often been under review, this kind of licensing system goes back to the very beginning of the BBC. The Corporation carries no advertising, yet I am going to quote you an advertisement, which appeared in the house magazine of the BBC, just this month when I was preparing these remarks. It is an advertisement, which is at the top of the page:

Director General
The BBC is to appoint a new Director General from April 2000. Applications are invited from candidates who are committed to the BBC’s public service purposes and have a track record of visionary leadership in a large, complex organisation. Candidates must be experienced in attracting and retaining creative people, understand the impact of changing technology on broadcasting and be knowledgeable about the media industry. Strong strategic managerial and financial skills are required together with the personal resilience needed to lead one of the world’s most successful broadcasting organisations.CVs should be sent in confidence to Margaret Salmon, Director of Personnel, Room 206, BBC.

2It is an interesting advertisement, which may usefully be compared with an advertisement which I quoted in Volume 1 of my history of the BBC and which appeared on October 13th, 1922. That is why I am starting with two advertisements, not one. It was a very short advertisement in the Times. There was of course then no BBC, no house organ. The four vacancies were:

General Manager, British Broadcasting Company,Director of Programmes, British Broadcasting Company,Chief Engineer, British Broadcasting Company, andSecretary, British Broadcasting Company.

3None of those people were in office when the advertisement appeared but there had been some broadcasting in Britain for a few months before. There were no details about the jobs. There was no reference to vision. It simply said that only applicants having first-class qualifications need apply. One of the people who applied for the General Manager’s job was an engineer. He did not know what broadcasting was, he had never heard the word before, he had merely read the advertisement. He was aged 34. He said when he wrote later about the period that he had been wanting for a long time to have an opportunity in this direction. He disliked smooth-running soft jobs and wanted one with a challenge. So he applied. When he wrote his application at the London club of which he was a member and had described what he wanted and what he hoped he would do, one of the phrases he used was: “I feel capable of discharging the responsibilities entirely to your satisfaction”.

4That was the phrase that he put in at the end of his application. He suddenly realised that the man who was really in charge of the interviews for the job was from Aberdeen and, since he was a Scot himself and he had strong connections with Aberdeen, he did something which most people would not dare to do, and which would almost justify being given the job of head of the BBC if you would do it. He had the post-box opened in which he had placed the letter, took it out again and corrected it and said that he was a Scot and came from Glasgow and made a great deal of his Scottishness. Anybody who is prepared to have a post-box opened to take out a letter and substitute a second one is clearly a man of some distinction. His application was successful: he got the job, a job, he said: “of the nature and degree which I came to London largely to obtain and I would not apply for, did I not feel capable of discharging its responsibilities to your satisfaction.

5This man, John Reith, is interesting because he did not really ever entirely discharge those responsibilities to the satisfaction of the people who were first of all the Directors of the Company and then after 1927, members of the Board of the Corporation. He did not really have a great desire to satisfy them. He had a great desire to lead. He wanted to turn the organisation to which he applied, without knowing what the word broadcasting meant, into something whichwould be unique. Still, in my view, the most interesting book which has been written on the philosophy of broadcasting in its very early stages was written by Reith in a few months and it was called Broadcasting over Britain. It appeared in 1925. He had never written anything before. But it is a very, very revealing book about the philosophy of broadcasting. Nobody thought then of the sociology of broadcasting. It is important first of all to understand that Reith was a Scot and not an Englishman, and that the BBC therefore has borne a very strong Scottish imprint from the start. Secondly, he was the son of a Presbyterian minister in Scotland. Religion—although he was never an orthodox Presbyterian or Calvinist—played very big part in his life and he wanted it to play a big part in the institution. Thirdly, he was an engineer, but one who did not know anything about the engineering side of broadcasting. There were people who knew an enormous amount about that and one of the other people who did apply and got the Chief Engineer’s job was a man called Peter Eckersley, who had worked with the Marconi company and was actually broadcasting programmes before the BBC came into existence from a small Marconi station at Writtle in Essex. The last thing about Reith which is worth taking into account is that he was an ex-serviceman. Like many of the people who joined the new BBC, he had been in the First World War. He had an enormous scar down the side of his face. When once he was subjected to a remarkable television interview by John Freeman, at the end of the broadcast, he told John Freeman: “I do not know why you did not ask me about the scar down my face. The scar was a psychological scar as well as a physical scar and the war was there in the background.

6The job which is being advertised now, a job which requires a man of vision, was described in rather more detail by the present Chairman of the BBC, Sir Christopher Bland. He describes it as being one of the most difficult and one of the very best jobs in the entire United Kingdom. In an interview in Ariel, the house magazine, he stated: “The most important job that we have to do, as governors of the BBC, is to have the right man placed into the position of Director General. We must get this right. […] This is a very demanding job under constant and relentless scrutiny from both Houses of Parliament, from the press, from the public and internally too. We clearly need a robust character. But we are also looking for someone who has demonstrated that they can have a clear vision about the direction in which their organisation should be travelling and a record of having taken it there.

7Now who is the man who is in the job at present and who retires in the year 2000? He has been in the BBC since 1987. He went there from commercial television, although in England we do not refer to it as “commercial television”, it is “independent television”. From 1987 to 1992, John Birt was Deputy Director General of the BBC. From 1992 to the present, he has been Director General and he will be Director General down to the time that the new man is appointed. Reith was 34 when he was appointed. John Birt was born in 1944, so he was 10 years older than Reith when he took over the job. Like Reith, he had read engineering, but at Oxford, which is quite interesting. Reith was always extremely sad that he had never had an Oxford education, which he thought would have been a cultural education. When he talked about the word“culture” he realised that he had never been taught any. He had done some Latin and Greek at school, he had had a classical education, but wished he had done more philosophy and he always felt like a man who had never been given his own full opportunity in life. Birt never doubted the fact that he had the right education for the job. He began his television career with Granada, which at the time was the best of the British independent television companies. The first programme that he produced was with Kenny Everett and Germaine Greer, so he was in the thick of the feminist changes of that period. From 1969 to 1970, he was Joint Editor of World in Action, which was one of the great news programmes. From 1971 to 1972, he produced the Frost Programme and David Frost certainly fits into any picture of the culture of broadcasting in the 20th century in Britain and in America. Birt then became producer of Weekend World; in 1974, he took over as Head of Current Affairs at London Weekend Television. In 1975-1976, he wrote a series of articles in the Times on broadcasting and news programmes in particular, arguing that current affairs programmes on television had a built-in bias against understanding and that you had to find some way of getting round that problem with some supplementary information. He was Director of Programmes at London Weekend Television before he joined the BBC. One of his programmes then was very different indeed from the programmes he had been involved with before; it was called Blind Date, which is based on an American programme, and Blind Date with Cilla Black is one of the most popular programmes in the country. So that is John Birt’s pedigree. It is very, very different from the pedigree of Reith, when Reith took over the BBC or, for that matter, when Reith had reached the age that John Birt has now reached.

8I should now like to move on to the question of how we look at the BBC and culture.

9It seems to me that much depends on whether we view it from the present and look backwards at the story or whether we start the story at the beginning chronologically and look back to before it began. I think this is true of almost all historical questions. They do look different, with the benefit of hindsight, from the way they looked when the sequence of events began. I have been sufficiently influenced by French historical scholarship to know the difference between L’histoire des événements and the kind of total history which took its place. I belong to the camp of being interested in social and cultural history, not quite in the way Annales was, but certainly in that tradition. I have never got anything of value myself, in anything I have done on broadcasting, from the Frankfurt School.

10I was given the job of writing the history of the BBC, while the history was unfolding. I was asked in 1958 if I would write the history of the BBC, something which had never been done before. I met the then Director General, Sir Ian Jacob, who had been a General during the war and who had been one of Churchill’s main right-hand men. And I said to him—I was young at the time and I did not really quite know what I was taking on any more than Reith did in 1922—: “Well, I will only write it on one understanding, which is quite clear between usthat it will not be the official history of the BBC. It will be called a history of broadcasting in the United Kingdom. I have often been described as the officialhistorian of the BBC, but it is totally wrong. Nobody in the BBC ever told me what to write or influenced it in any way. I actually gave scripts of the volumes to people to read but they read them entirely at my request and I was free to accept or reject what I was told. Perhaps with one exception, dealing with Reith was a very different matter from dealing with anybody else. I had no idea when I accepted this assignment how many volumes there would be. I have now written over a million words on the history of the British Broadcasting Corporation alone. These volumes really have a double element in them which I think does link up the story with economic sociology and psychology as well as with L’histoire des événements. We are now in a different phase of a continuing communications revolution and how the different aspects of that revolution are related to each other is not certain. And how we will move into the 21st century seems to me to be full of mystery. In fact I wrote five volumes and I stopped the story in 1974. The BBC, which is not very much interested in its history at present but which is extremely interested in its technology, has not pursued the question of its history since 1974. Whether it will is an open question.

11It was very easy to write the first volume in a sense because the materials for it were restricted. There was no sound recording, for example, at that time and there was no television. You were entirely dependent upon written materials in the way you would be in any kind of history. I called it The Birth of Broadcasting. The second volume led me through from the birth of broadcasting through the change of the BBC from being a commercial company into a public corporation on January 1st 1927, which is a very important date. They did not even need to change their notepaper. It still said BBC at the top but the C meant “Company” in the first case and “Corporation” in the second. Reith is continuous through this period. I really thought I probably would end the second volume with Reith leaving the BBC in 1938 but I decided I had better go down to the war. I would still stand by the title of that volume, I called it The Golden Age of Wireless. It was wireless in England, not radio. Radio was thought to be an American term. They would never use in Britain the word “sound” in front of radio or “sound” in front of broadcasting. It was broadcasting or it was wireless. Wireless was the mechanism, broadcasting was the medium, although they did not use the word “medium” at that time either. It was fairly clear then that in that period I was talking about radio as it developed. I use the word “radio” now since I have been strongly influenced like everybody else by the United States. That volume really dealt with the golden age.

12The third volume was the most interesting to write and stands in its own right as a relevant element in an understanding of the Second World War. For example, there is just as much in that volume about broadcasting to France and broadcasting from the French to Britain as there is about broadcasting even to English audiences in some fields. I called it The War of Words and that is a phrase which has taken on a lot since. It was not my own phrase but it is now being used in relation to many other phases. It is a very, very important period in the history of the BBC because it does establish its role in Europe and in the world as a broadcasting organisation which was thought, probably with a certain amount of exaggeration, to be only telling the truth. We do know of course that the word propaganda, which was a word which was loathed in Britain in the 1930s, will include implicit as well as explicit propaganda, andmuch of the story of the Second World War has got propaganda elements in it. I found it very interesting to compare British and German broadcasting in particular. Through that comparison I think I learnt a great deal about the way in which British broadcasting was distinctive. London was the host to other broadcasting organisations. The French, for example, had very considerable freedom in Britain to develop their own broadcasts to France, which did not always entirely please General De Gaulle.

13It was clear to me that the fourth volume should deal with the impact of television on an existing radio organisation. Television had been introduced in Britain—the Dutch actually led the way first—on a regular basis in 1936, but only for a very small audience concentrated in London. If you picked up a television programme somewhere else, it was entirely by accident. London was the base and there were very, very few viewers. It was a luxury medium. But after the end of the war, even though many people in the BBC, like people in the United States, were not too keen, if they were involved in radio, to develop television too fast, it did develop. I therefore called this volume Sound and Vision. I looked at the relative ways in which radio and television affect people. One word that I have always refused to use in my own sociology of radio and television is the word “effects”. It has been used a great deal, in the first instance by Americans, when they turned to research on television. I think there are a whole series of interdependencies and I have never found it entirely easy—nor do I think could any historian find it easy—to separate out the influences of television on society from other influences. Their interdependency and their networking seem to me to be of crucial importance, but that was an interesting volume to write: Sound and Vision.

14The history of the BBC down to the mid-1950s was the history of a monopoly, a monopoly in every sense of the word. And that monopoly was broken in 1955-1956 in some of the most bitter cultural debates that have ever taken place in Britain in the 20th century, debates about the whole nature of society and culture. The BBC had thought in terms of an audience, not a market. It was not involved in commodification, at all, in its early history. It did not advertise, it was not dependent on sponsoring, it gave people no market advice. But the people who wanted commercial television got it after an extremely bitter debate which divided the Conservative party. The people who got commercial television did not get it on American terms. There had to be—and this is part of the cultural situation in Britain—an Independent Television Authority, note the word “authority”. There had to be an Independent Television Authority, working in parallel with the BBC and learning certain things from the BBC, which kept an eye on the way in which the commercial companies, which were free to develop in their own way, operated. The Authority even laid down conditions in relation to their programming. The BBC has never had any conditions laid down in relation to its specific programming. So we are in the paradoxical situation in Britain now that most of the companies are subject to a greater degree of supervision in what they do than the BBC is. I called the fifth volume Competition, a title which wrote itself. So those are my five Volumes.

15As I was writing these volumes, I realised that my approach could not be entirely chronological, it had in a sense to be thematic. I would like just to mention five main theme elements without going into any of them in any detail.

16First of all, technology was important in the origins of the BBC, as it is now. If there had not been thought to be and was indeed a spectrum scarcity, the BBC might never have had the monopoly at all. The monopoly was based on a technological argument. America was a warning at that stage: the chaos of the ether in the United States, as it was described, made people in Britain feel that they did not want to have that. So, after very complicated talks in the Post Office—I should just say that nobody can write about the history of radio in Europe without talking a lot about Post Offices and that leads you back into the 19th century—the BBC was brought into existence through a consortium of radio-producing firms, the British Broadcasting Company. Its main interest was in selling sets and not in devising programmes. That is the first theme that I would stress.

17The second theme is that from the start Reith was determined to organise the body of which he was head in such a way that his own philosophy would count. Therefore we invented in Britain the adjective Reithean and it still exists: he is a man who gave his name to an adjective! He left the BBC in 1938 but his shadow hovered over it long after. The two points that he made were that you had to have public service broadcasting and, in public service broadcasting, the first thing he stressed was there should be no profit motive. In fact, the British Broadcasting Company had its dividends limited by Government, when it was set up, to 7½ per cent. The British Broadcasting Corporation did not have that kind of problem to worry about at all, as it obtained the money from the licence fee. Reith did not just mean that it was non-profit making, however, but he meant that it really had a sense of public service. In the charter of the British Broadcasting Corporation, there was what has been called a “Holy Trinity” of functions.

18The “Holy Trinity” was education, entertainment and information, in that order. The entertainment element was to be only one element in the British Broadcasting Corporation. Really for Reith, if that had been the only element, it would have been, and Reith used a very strong word, a “prostitution of the powers of the new medium”. He did not dislike entertainment, he was rather a good and very popular amateur actor himself, but he did not want the BBC to be concerned solely with entertainment and he censored a good deal of the entertainment that did exist. There was a very strong element of self-censorship in the Reithean regime. Information was very, very limited. There was no proper independent news broadcasting by the BBC until the war. That means that the golden age of wireless was not a golden age of regular news. The news bulletins were all prefixed with the words that the information had been supplied by the news agencies; it was not the BBC itself that had collected this news. How it presented it was its own responsibility, but it was very cautious about that. It was not allowed to broadcast any news of the day before 7.00 p.m. so that the evening newspaper sales were not affected. The BBC had strong press opposition at the beginning, and only gradually did it work out a relationship. There were very few journalists working in the BBC before the Second World War. The war altered all that, but not immediately. The idea thatthere would be a 24 hour news service, which there is now in the BBC, would have been anathema to Reith. As far as education was concerned, Reith wanted to leave that to other people. They did develop forms of broadcasting which have been written about extremely well by some of my French colleagues. The idea of the talk as a medium, as an art form almost, is of great importance. The best writing about the talk as a form of communication has been done by French writers on British radio and television rather than by British writers.

19Point three is that, however powerful a personality Reith was, the BBC was never monolithic: it was never created in his image. You could not control broadcasting in the way perhaps that Reith might have liked. In fact his first Board of Management was called a Control Board. How could you control this medium? We now talk about not being able to control the Internet. People could not control broadcasting in its early days. Therefore a wide variety of different types of people came into the BBC. Reith thought that what they most needed was a certain kind of discipline. When applicants went to the BBC they were given a very curious interview by him and by a certain Admiral Carpenter whom he put in there because he thought that admirals would understand about discipline. They were very, very strange interviews. If an interview of the kind Reith gave to people was to be used when the new Director General for the year 2000 is appointed, heaven knows what kind of person we might get, but we will not have that kind of interview. In fact they are now using business consultants to get hold of their team. Our reliance upon business consultants and headhunting agencies is something which would have been unthought of in 1922, or in 1939, or indeed when the BBC lost its monopoly.

20The fourth theme is that the BBC was always involved in a national and regional set up. It very quickly dropped local broadcasting. Although the first broadcasting really went through local stations with a very limited range, simultaneous broadcasting quickly developed between these different stations and regional broadcasting. And the fifth of the themes is that the BBC became also—through the British Empire as it was called then before the word Commonwealth came into general use—a world organisation as well as a national organisation even before 1939. It started the Empire Service in 1932. This was very much Reith’s own personal idea and he had to fight Government to get it. It began broadcasting in German, Italian, Arabic and Spanish for Latin America in the years just before the war and during the war it became genuinely a service broadcasting in a huge variety of languages, out of which was ultimately to emerge the World Service of the BBC. In fact, when studying the BBC, I have been forced to look into sport and religion just as much as I have looked into politics or education. And being interested in education professionally, I have spent a lot of time working on the history of the Corporation as an educational agency.

21So that was what I had to do when I started looking at broadcasting from the beginning, without any benefit of hindsight. There is another important distinction to be made before I come to looking at broadcasting and the role of broadcasting in culture from the present looking backwards, with the benefit of every kind of hindsight, and that is that how you look at the history of the BBC depends upon whether you are in it or out of it and if you are in it, whether you are at the top or at the bottom. It is a large organisation: 21,000 people areworking for it now. When Reith went in originally, there were seven. Therefore you have got an institutional history to deal with. Very, very quickly the BBC became an institution and not an organisation. Therefore the sociology of institutionalisation as well as the sociology of organisations is relevant, just as the sociology of professionalisation is relevant as well as the sociology of trade unionism. In fact, professionalism and the development of professionalisation is one of the major themes in the story. But how you look at all this depends on your place in the institution. Recently there was a debate on broadcasting in the House of Lords which was introduced by a very well-known and distinguished British broadcaster, Melvyn Bragg, who was made Lord Bragg by New Labour when it came into power. In the course of that debate a speech was made, highly critical of the BBC as it now is, while praising its history as an institution, by Lord Hussey, who had been the Chairman of the BBC, put in specially I think to ensure that John Birt got the job of Director General. Hussey criticized many aspects of the BBC and his speech was quoted in Ariel in a letter which was written by one of the people working in the middle-ranks of television at Television Centre of the BBC. Ariel still allows a reasonable degree of freedom of opinion and one really rather remarkable edition of Ariel was produced by critics of the BBC who thought that it was a declining and awful institution. The fact that they would allow that issue to be produced is quite interesting. This is what the person who wrote the letter said:

So the present Chairman [Christopher Bland] thinks the previous Chairman is completely, woefully, out of touch with what it is going on in the BBC now. This, [the writer said], must be a condition, which goes with the job. In other words, Hussey himself would have felt that other people who had been Chairman before him were woefully out of touch. And now the present Chairman thinks that the previous Chairman is out of touch.

22That is the view of the BBC from above. The view from below really takes you through a hierarchical structure, less hierarchical than it was, but a structure, which, because it is not monolithic, is a structure, which does allow for a considerable amount of difference of view.

23When I was trying to get at the way one understands the BBC as an institution from inside, I looked at a man who is a very important figure in the BBC now called Alan Yentob who is the Director of Television, BBC Broadcast. He was born in 1947 in London, so he is way after the Reithean period. You will be interested to know that his first university was the University of Grenoble and he was there before he went to Leeds University. He has worked in the BBC for the whole of his professional life, unlike Birt. He joined it as a general trainee and was trained within the system. He then worked in the World Service, to begin with, as a producer and a presenter of Radio Features. He then joined Arts Features, Television. He became Assistant Director in Drama Production and a Producer Director of many arts programmes. He was the Producer Director of Omnibus which is one of the BBC’s main cultural programmes. He did a number of films including Cracked Actor with David Bowie and Getting Away With Murder, a drama documentary about the French film director Chabrol. He created Arena, a new weekly strand of arts and musicdocumentaries and he was editor of the programme until 1985. In that year, he became Head of Music and Arts, Television, with overall responsibility for televising music and arts. In 1993 he became Controller of BBC 2, the more “highbrow” of the two main television channels. But in 1993 they moved him to BBC 1. So he had a very, very short time as Controller of BBC 2. In 1996-1997 when Birt reorganised the structure of the BBC he became Director of Programmes, BBC Production. Since 1997 he has been Director of Television, BBC Broadcast. He has one superior in the BBC between him and the Director General, Will Wyatt, who is Chief Executive, BBC Broadcast. If you want to know the BBC’s role in relation to contemporary culture you need not look much further than the careers of Yentob or indeed Will Wyatt. Yentob was never involved in what has become in a sense the mainstream activity of the BBC, leading up to the 24-hour News Service, the development of BBC news. There was a radical reshape of BBC news organisation a few years ago which reminds us of the internal history of the BBC. It is not a history of evolution but a history of conflict. If you look at the debate upon news organisation in September 1997—when Birt for the only time in his life as Director General of the BBC had to retreat somewhat from what he originally said—you will see really how important journalists are in the internal structure of the BBC now, how their debates, which involve questions of professionalism and indeed of trade-unionism, affect BBC output and the balance of BBC output.

24I would like to end with two final remarks. First of all, I believe myself that if you want to look at the history of the BBC’s contribution to culture and to British culture and also in a sense to world culture—because the American PBS depends to a very considerable extent on BBC programmes, as indeed we depend in Britain on American programmes—you have got to look away from personalities and institutional and organisational questions to the programmes themselves. Huw Weldon—who was a remarkable BBC producer who I think should go into any history of the BBC with very prominent attention being paid to him—has one thing in common with me: we shared the same birthday so that gave us a kind of horoscope interrelationship. Weldon said that the BBC is the sum of its programmes no more, no less. It is a simple, basic phrase. The BBC was created to put on programmes, it was not created to sell goods. Ratings which are so important in commercial systems did not matter at all in the BBC and there was no listener research until the mid-1930s. In the recent debate in the House of Lords that I have just mentioned, people were at great pains to say that the BBC would not get very far if it concerned itself with ratings and thought it was involved entirely in a ratings battle with ITV or, for that matter, with Rupert Murdoch.

25Let us then consider the question of programmes. The oldest programme was a religious programme which was the Evensong Service. That just beat by a very short head some of the other programmes: weather forecasts come very early in the story. I saw an interesting film that had been made about Swiss radio in which the main selling point for Swiss radio when it started was really that it gave good weather forecasts for people living in the mountains. Farmers could use them and that sold many radio sets at the beginning in Switzerland. Weather forecasts in Britain were quite important even if they were never right.

26In the programming schedules there is always a question of continuity and change, of tradition and innovation. I was very interested to read that the new Head of BBC 2, Jane Root, says that she wants to see that elusive commodity, the innovative programme. That, she thinks, will be her main job when she is in BBC 2. But then—and this satisfies me and brings out very clearly the notion of tradition and innovation—she said that their greatest strength was in history programmes and that she was going to have more history. So she is faced with the ironical situation of wanting to be innovative and historical at the same time, traditional and doing new things, at the cutting edge of new things while looking back to the past. We are a very nostalgic, backward-looking society in many ways including curious nostalgia for the war, which I think does mean that Jane Root has found an interesting way of stating the job. It is amazing to be able to deal with programmes so quickly.

27We also need to reflect on the notion of public service. The debate on public service was characterised by one very remarkable speech by a member of the House of Lords who is not well-known in Britain. I must confess that I do not quite know who he is myself. His name is Lord Lucas. This is what he said in the course of his statement:

 I shall concentrate my remarks on the BBC. It is suffering from a lack of focus and direction, typified by the material that was sent to us before this debate began. The front of the document The BBC Beyond 2000 contains a mission statement which is an example to everybody of what a mission statement should not be. It is a lot of guff, motherhood and apple-pie. There is almost nothing in it which can be a day-to-day guide to the people within the Corporation on how they should make programmes or indeed conduct their lives. What is needed is a much more hard-edged understanding of what public service broadcasting should be and how it should be governed.

28The mission statement is printed in Ariel every month and I must say it is best described in the terms that Lord Lucas applied to it.

We aim to be the world’s most creative and trusted broadcaster and programme maker, seeking to satisfy all our audiences in the UK with services that inform, educate and entertain and enrich their lives in ways that the market alone will not do. We aim to be guided by a public purpose to encourage the UK’s most innovative clients and talents, to act independently of all interests, to aspire to the highest ethical standards, to offer the best value for money, to be accountable to our licence payers, to endeavour to be the world’s leading international broadcaster and to be the best, or learn from the best, in everything that we do.

29It is fine, it is rhetoric of a kind that we have grown very familiar with in the Britain of the last two or three years. But I think Lord Lucas was right that it is not exactly what a mission statement should be if you want really to get it down to earth. A very good statement was made—summing up the debate—by the Minister who is in charge of broadcasting, Lord MacIntosh. He really has noinfluence over the BBC at all—but he is the Minister  who deals  with broadcasting questions—what he said is, I think, a pretty good statement:

There are five key principles that should apply to the BBC. One: it should act as a benchmark for quality, driving up standards across the board, what my noble friend referred to “vital standards”. Second: it should provide something for everybody, making the good popular, and the popular good. Third: it should inform, educate and entertain, expanding people’s horizons with new and innovative programming. Fourth: it should operate efficiently and effectively and provide value for money for licence fee payers. Last: it should stimulate, support and reflect the diversity of cultural activity in the United Kingdom, acting as a cultural voice for the nation, in other words, minority programming, ethnic programming, things that would not necessarily be there through the market.

30We should also bear in mind, and this is my last word, as people in this debate were at pains to say, that the BBC had been pushed out of sport, of some of the most important fixtures in British sport, in order that Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB should have it, and sport in Britain has got some of the characteristics of a religion. And also, as one of the bishops said in the course of the debate, that the broadcasting document called Broadcasting Beyond 2000 does not mention the word religion at all.

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Lord Asa Briggs, « The Culture of the BBC: A Personal Appreciation »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Média, culture, histoire, Images et média, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2004, consulté le 30 juin 2022. URL :

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Lord Asa Briggs

(Lewes, Grande-Bretagne)
Professor Asa Briggs studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and began his academic career in 1945 as Fellow of Worcester College Oxford. He subsequently became Reader in Social and Economic History at Oxford, before returning to his native Yorkshire as Professor of Modern History at Leeds University. On leaving Leeds, he took up a similar post at Sussex University where he went on to be Dean of Social Studies, pro Vice-Chancellor and finally Vice-Chancellor. In 1976, he returned to Worcester College Oxford, this time as Provost, a post which he occupied for 15 years. He has also been active in a variety of fields related to history, education and the media: as Vice President of the Historical Association, President of the Social History Society, a Governor of the British Film Institute and Chancellor of the Open University, a post which he still occupies, to name but a few. His numerous publications include Victorian People, Victorian Things, Chartism, Marks and Spencer, A Social History of England, Open and Distance Learning in the Developing World, The Channel Islands: Occupation and Liberation 1940-1945, The Absurd and the Brave, Pictorial History of the 20th Century and, of course, the History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, the fifth volume of which was published in 1995.

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