The BBC was created out of the ether in 1922. Its first director general, Lord Reith, inhabited a cupboard some six feet in length and presided over a staff of four people, operating out of one long room. Reith confessed that he did not actually know what broadcasting was — an affliction which you might say, a little cruelly, has been shared by one or two of his successors over the years.
The parsimonious approach was not to last, of course. Ten years on and the corporation was ensconced in the Stalinist art-deco edifice of Broadcasting House; today the BBC employs more than 20,000 people — some of them actually involved in making programmes — and struggles by on a budget of £5.1 billion. Perhaps its days are numbered; with every year that passes the licence fee seems a more arcane and frankly unnecessary imposition upon the population, while the BBC itself — bloated and often badly administered — is assailed on a daily basis by commercial rivals who resent its vast and protected income and despise its politics.
The Guardian journalist Charlotte Higgins can see the end coming, I think, in this beautifully written but flawed and brief history of the corporation. As she says at the close of her book, the BBC must continue to keep reinventing itself: ‘We cheer it on, but we urge it to do better. We still believe. We do not wish to see it stumble. We do not wish to hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.’ She is speaking for herself and her newspaper here, I think. The BBC buys 80,000 copies of the Guardian every year — much more than any other newspaper.
Higgins leads us through the early days, when Lord Reith envisaged an institution which would be the citizen’s ‘guide, philosopher and friend’, utilising a new technology which would ‘cast a girdle round the earth with bands that are all the stronger because invisible’. Fittingly enough, given Reith’s own disposition, the early BBC was often pompous and always patrician, but its popularity exceeded expectations. At its inception, pilots complained about radio wavelengths being commandeered for ‘trivial’ purposes; but soon there were nine million radio sets around the country, from which jabbered economical recipes and many uplifting talks. Much as the pilots had complained, so later did Lord Reith cavil when television came along — he couldn’t see a future for the medium.
Higgins deals with the BBC’s history in a rather rapid 90 pages — and much of that is taken up with lengthy portraits of prominent BBC women who the author clearly believes to have been left out of the history books, egregiously so. These pioneering blue-stocking lesbians and eccentrics might well have made an interesting book by themselves — which may have been what Higgins at some point intended. As it is, we are told precious little about the programmes put on air in those first 60 or so years. Instead we have 20 pages on the Head of Talks, Hilda Matheson — more than even poor old Reith merits.
Poor old Reith. He left the BBC in tears in 1938; some have suspected a plot to get him out, although there is scant evidence for this. Either way, though, the job of being director general rarely ends well, as Higgins observes. Greg Dyke was defenestrated by New Labour after the Today programme’s sloppily managed — but undoubtedly correct — story that the intelligence community was aghast at the way in which Tony Blair (and Alastair Campbell) ‘sexed up’ their evidence about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. George Entwistle deliquesced on the same programme ten years later, the ghost of Jimmy Savile flapping about over his shoulders. And most brutally of all, perhaps, Alasdair Milne was stabbed in the front by the BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey — a peremptory and shocking eviction of one of the best director generals the BBC ever had.
What about the bias of the Beeb, then? Higgins concedes that the corporation has indeed begun to show an unseemly political leaning in recent times. Yes, it is biased towards the political right, according to Higgins. She is particularly annoyed that the corporation did not clamber on board the Guardian’s bandwagon by publishing the leaked classified information from the American CIA renegade, Edward Snowden. The suggestion that the BBC might be biased to the left does not enter her head. It simply isn’t, and that’s that.
The truth is that the BBC has tended, over the years, to be biased in favour of the mores and opinions of whatever establishment holds sway. Not the government, but the establishment. Today’s establishment is liberal, politically correct, politically naive and gullible. It’s no surprise that Charlotte Higgins is incapable of recognising this, seeing as she is part of it.
This is an extract from this week’s issue of The Spectator.
This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC by Charlotte Higgins is available from the Spectator Bookshop, £11.69 Tel: 08430 600033