Lord Reith, paternalist of the airwaves

The Scottish Director-General of the BBC, John (later Lord) Reith was born on July 20th, 1889. His personality was stamped on the BBC, giving Britain its tradition of public service broadcasting. The BBC enjoyed a monopoly of both Radio and TV until 1955, when commercial television in the shape of ITV began broadcasting. Its radio monopoly lasted until 1973.

Lord Reith was raised into a strict Presbyterian family, and not only retained strong low church convictions, but sought, through the BBC, to impose them on the nation. While he was its head, the BBC stayed off the air on Sundays until 12.30 pm, so that people could attend church, and after that broadcast only religious programmes and classical music to keep the day serious. BBC staff who were found engaging in liaisons were fired, and anyone going through a divorce risked a similar fate. Reith had the air of a man who didn’t want people to enjoy themselves, and this rubbed off on the early BBC.

He strongly opposed commercial broadcasting, saying in the Lords at the time, “Somebody introduced Christianity into England and somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death. Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting.”

He was convinced that broadcasting should be a public service to educate the masses. He described the BBC's purpose as being to inform, educate, and entertain. In 1955, long after he had left, the BBC banned a Frank Sinatra song for containing the words “Miss Frigidaire” (advertising), and the 1954 Johnny Ray hit, “Such a Night” (sexual innuendo).

The BBC became the darling of the highbrow and the upper classes, delighted that less sophisticated people had to pay taxes and licence fees to support their own more refined tastes. The Reith legacy was one of paternalism, in which ordinary people had dished out to them what their betters thought would be good for them. At its best, Radio 4 (then called the Home Service) was civilized and urbane, presenting clever word game programmes that were half a league better than anything other nations, including the US, could produce.

Reith exulted in this. Radio news presenters had to wear black tie and dinner jacket, even though no-one could see them. The point is that the news was serious, and needed the right attitude. Lord Reith’s reputation was not helped by later disclosures from his diaries that he admired Hitler and Mussolini for their “efficiency,” or from his daughter’s revealing that her father in the 1930s “did everything possible to keep Winston Churchill and other anti-appeasement Conservatives off the airwaves.” Reith’s style was at once patronizing and paternalistic.

He detested Churchill because the latter never gave him a job that met what he thought were his abilities. He wanted to be Viceroy of India, which he would no doubt have governed with the strict authoritarianism that characterized his direction of the BBC. It retains to this day the marks of Reith’s tenure, with a patronizing culture that imposes a political correct woke agenda as if it mattered. It likes to regard itself as the guardian of the public conscience, but its remorseless anti-Brexit, anti-Trump, anti-Tory, anti-business agenda makes it more like liquid Guardian. Like Reith, it arrogantly supposes that it knows best, and regards it as only right that public money should be used to advance its view.

Reith in his diary referred to “that bloody shit Churchill.” No doubt history, looking at the personality, career and legacy of the two men, will decide which of them best deserves that epithet.