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This is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain, 1922-2022 by Simon J. Potter

This is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain, 1922-2022
by Simon J. Potter


The British Broadcasting Corporation celebrates its centenary this year. The beloved institution has always had a paradoxical identity: part monopoly and government organ, part commercial enterprise and government critic; part bringer of change, part defender of the status quo. Here Simon Potter, Professor of Modern History at the University of Bristol, talks us through the history and the transformations the BBC has undergone since it was first founded in 1922.

Interview by Benedict King

This is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain, 1922-2022 by Simon J. Potter

This is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain, 1922-2022
by Simon J. Potter


Before we get on to your books, could you tell us about the circumstances of the BBC’s foundation? Was there any kind of broadcasting in Britain before that?

Radio as a technology goes back to before World War I: some people understood then that radio could be used to ‘broadcast’, sending out a signal from a single transmitter so that lots of different people would be able to pick it up and listen. But there was a lot of hesitation about allowing broadcasting, due to fears that it would interfere with military uses of radio, for example. The idea of a broadcasting service didn’t really take off until after World War I.

It was amateurs who then championed broadcasting, from ‘stations’ which they built themselves in their lofts, attics and sheds. They broadcast to each other in a strange private language. Also, some big electronics companies—Marconi is probably the most famous—set up their own experimental radio stations to see what broadcasting could do. Probably the most famous early broadcast in Britain was when Dame Nellie Melba, the opera singer, was brought by Marconi to their station at Chelmsford on 15 June 1920, with the backing of the Daily Mail. It was a publicity stunt. She sang at the Marconi studio, and they broadcast her voice across Britain to whoever could pick it up.

At the time, the British Post Office regulated all radio communication, and they were worried that if lots of people continued to broadcast from their own stations, there would be total chaos. They looked at what was happening in America, where amateurs and entrepreneurs had set up lots of little stations, and they decided instead to go for a much more restricted solution. They entered into talks with the radio manufacturers who made the equipment to transmit and receive signals, and the result was the creation of a single company to do all broadcasting work in the UK, to be jointly owned by all of the radio manufacturers. Marconi took the lead in suggesting this. It was formed on 18 October 1922 and first broadcast on 14 November 1922, and was christened the British Broadcasting Company—it didn’t become the British Broadcasting Corporation until 1926.

In a nutshell, the Post Office granted a monopoly to a cartel of radio manufacturers to provide a radio service. The manufacturers would make sure that broadcasting operated smoothly, and by doing so hoped to create a market for their equipment. The Post Office also agreed to impose a ban on sales of imported radio equipment, to protect the UK manufacturers. And they banned on-air commercial advertising, because they worried that advertising would devalue and debase the service. The manufacturers helped finance broadcasting, but they also received money from a 10-shilling listener licence fee that all radio owners were supposed to buy. This was the origin of the modern television licence.

And why, for a historian, is the BBC an interesting institution to study?

I think most obviously because the very existence of the BBC is so controversial today. Most historians tend to say that they are not present-minded, but you can’t study the history of the BBC without seeing its relevance for today’s debates about how broadcasting is funded, the way it is run, and about the nature and impartiality of its political coverage.

Also, over the last 100 years, the BBC has shaped our politics, culture, and society in so many ways that to explore the history of the BBC is basically to consider the history of the last century of British life.

Finally, from my own perspective, as somebody who is really interested in international broadcasting, we must not forget that the BBC has posed as the voice of Britain in the world since at least the 1930s. People in Britain tend to focus on the BBC’s role in entertaining and informing us, as our own national broadcaster. We don’t dwell on the fact that it has also played a crucial role in projecting British culture overseas, British ‘soft power’ if you want to use that phrase. In many ways it has acted as the key voice of British public diplomacy and propaganda. This has often involved a close relationship with the British government.

Presumably, during World War II, it had a very overt role in government propaganda. Has it been able to move in and out of that role easily? Or is that a problem for it as an institution?  It would claim to have an independent voice most of the time, wouldn’t it, in contrast to, say, Russia Today?

If there is a British way of doing propaganda, it is to have lots of different channels, lots of different organisations and individuals involved in propaganda, and all doing it in different ways. The BBC has been a key part of this arsenal. It has been closely linked to the state, and in some ways part of the British state, with BBC staff often working in a close relationship with civil servants.

But it presents itself to the outside world as an independent voice, and it has, it is true, enjoyed some measure of autonomy. Civil servants and governments have been unwilling to rein the BBC in too publicly, because that image of independence has been a really useful asset for Britain. Many listeners around the world still turn to the BBC as a trusted source of news, and that almost inevitably benefits Britain. It is a subtle and ambiguous relationship.

“To explore the history of the BBC is basically to consider the history of the last century of British life”

You can see this going right back to 1938, when the BBC first started international broadcasting in foreign languages, in Arabic for the Middle East and in Spanish and Portuguese for Latin America. Sir John Reith, who was BBC Director-General at the time, made an unwritten ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with the Foreign Office. Although the BBC retained the editorial independence set out in its royal charter, it agreed to take the requirements of the Foreign Office fully into account in running its international services. None of this was put down in writing or made public, and additional state funding for international broadcasting was initially routed through the Post Office so as to reduce any appearance of government influence. A loose and eminently deniable relationship was what was required, and this approach essentially continued through World War II and the Cold War, even when the Foreign Office began to fund BBC international broadcasting.

Let’s get on to the books. The first is by Michele Hilmes, Network Nations: A Transnational History of British and American Broadcasting. Tell us about this one.

Michele Hilmes’s book gets to grips with some of the basic justifications for the existence of the BBC, but in quite an unusual way. Right from the beginning, supporters of the BBC have argued that we need a powerful public broadcaster to act as a bulwark against the flood of imported American culture. The BBC would use its dominant position in the media landscape to produce British content, cater to the interests and requirements of British audiences, and promote British national identity and culture at home and overseas.

Of course, the BBC could not keep America off the British airwaves entirely. Its aim was instead carefully to curate the flow of American culture into Britain broadcasting. During World War II, for example, to support the idea of an Anglo-American alliance and to cater to the needs of US servicemen stationed in Britain, there had to be a lot of American programming and many performances by American artists on British radio. But as soon as the war finished—indeed even before it finished—the Director-General was telling schedulers to cut back on American and American-inspired programmes, and to increase content from Britain and its empire and from Europe.

This idea about limiting and curating American culture remains central to how the BBC justifies its continued existence today. A key part of the BBC’s pitch is the claim that only a big, publicly-funded national broadcaster can provide enough original British content to counterbalance Netflix, Amazon, and the other global streaming giants, which are bringing to British screens huge amounts of American culture.

Hilmes looks at the debates and arguments about these issues from the 1930s to the 1960s and, more subtly, at the interplay between British and American broadcasting. She shows that while the BBC was seeking to limit the influx of American culture, it was also carefully watching what the Americans were doing and learning from US broadcasters. The big American networks were doing exactly the same thing: claiming that they were about free enterprise and giving American audiences the entertainment that they wanted by avoiding the paternalistic approach of the publicly-funded BBC, while at the same time monitoring and selectively copying the BBC. Hilmes traces this transatlantic interplay and finishes up by looking at the close links between the BBC and the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Learning from American broadcasting was particularly important from the 1960s onwards, when the BBC really tried to compete with ITV. Commercial television ended the BBC’s monopoly of British broadcasting. The BBC knew it had to entertain viewers if they were to be lured away from commercial television, so it began to employ American techniques, formats, and imported programmes to provide a more attractive offering.

When did the BBC’s monopoly end?

The monopoly in radio lasted longer than the one in television – unauthorised pirate radio stations started to make inroads into the BBC’s monopoly in the 1960s. The BBC and the British government cracked down on the pirates, but they knew the game was up. Radio 1 was founded in 1967 to head off further challenges by providing plenty of pop and rock music, aimed at a young audience, and Radio 2, Radio 3, and Radio 4 were created at the same time to serve various other groups of listeners. Legal commercial radio broadcasting started in Britain in 1973.

The monopoly in television lasted until 1954. The BBC had started a regular television service towards the end of 1936, but only for viewers in London, and hardly anybody at the time could afford a television set. There were probably only a few thousand viewers, and the BBC decided to shut down the television service during World War II to focus resources on radio. After the war, the American networks threw a lot of resources into the rapid development of television, but the BBC hesitated. It continued to prioritise radio. This was partly because of post-war austerity: it had limited resources, and few families could afford television sets, so it made sense to focus its activities on radio, which almost everyone could access. More generally, many senior BBC executives continued to look down their noses at television as a medium: they thought it was demotic, vulgar, crass and American. They were much more interested in the Third Programme, for example, a new radio service that the BBC had established after the war and which focused on classical music, talks by intellectuals, and high culture (it eventually became Radio 3). For the BBC after the war, the Third Programme seemed a higher priority than the television service.

This was a serious mistake. By the early 1950s, as austerity eased, the BBC’s approach to television seemed much too timid. Churchill’s government announced that commercial television would be introduced to give viewers a better service, and also to open up opportunities for advertisers. By 1954, ITV was up and running, and the BBC’s monopoly was over.

How did the BBC respond to the American challenge that it was monopolistic? Was that seen as a weakness from the beginning or was it defended as a strength in those early decades?

I think BBC managers were always aware that it was a potential vulnerability. The monopoly always had to be defended and justified. Even after the end of the monopoly, they knew that they faced criticism due to the powerful position that the BBC occupied in the British media landscape, subsidised by the licence fee. The debates we are having today about this are nothing new: right from the 1920s onwards, critics of the BBC argued that it was a source of unfair competition, distorting the market mechanism and denying opportunities to would-be commercial broadcasters.

Initially, the BBC tried to justify its monopoly by arguing that it provided a universal service to everyone. Commercial broadcasters, it claimed, would just have focused on the most profitable areas of the country, the big cities, leaving everyone else without radio. The BBC thus prioritised setting up a national network of transmitters, so that everybody in the country would be able to pick up its service. It did this really successfully.

Later in the 1920s, it also tried to justify its monopoly by claiming that it was providing programmes of the highest possible standard, including plenty of classical music, opera, and talks by leading academics and public figures, mostly taken from London. This approach was much less successful: many listeners resented a boring diet of high culture, and some also disliked the imposition of London perspectives and attitudes. They wanted radio to reflect and serve the places they lived in.

During the early 1930s, the BBC faced an early form of attack from pirate radio stations, operating in continental Europe and including stations like Radio Luxembourg. Many British listeners started to turn to these stations, particularly on Sundays, when the BBC provided a notoriously sombre schedule of programmes. On Sundays, the BBC did not start broadcasting until the afternoon and even then offered only religious music, religious services, and sombre talks. Radio Luxembourg meanwhile played dance music and other programmes in English, all sponsored by the British companies who weren’t allowed to advertise on radio because the BBC was non-commercial and had a monopoly. Advertising agencies in London took contracts from British advertisers, recorded programmes in England—including some of the most famous British stars of the day—and then shipped them over to Luxembourg to be broadcast back to Britain. In the end, the BBC had to start providing more entertaining programming to win listeners back, because it knew that if it did not, it would eventually lose its monopoly.

Let’s move on to the next book, which is by Darrell M. Newton. This is Paving the Empire Road: BBC Television and Black Britons.  What does this book tell us about the BBC?

This brings us on to thinking about the BBC and the shaping of British culture and society. Newton’s book explores a theme that is implicit in a lot of the writing about the history of the BBC. For most historians, the BBC is a progressive, liberal, socially transformative force in British society—it is on the side of the angels, creating a more open and progressive and educated democracy. However, there is another way of viewing the history of the BBC—that it has actually been on the side of the Establishment, a socially conservative force, catering to the existing opinions and tastes of the majority and failing to serve minorities.

Darrell Newton’s book helps us think about this by focusing on the issue of race. There is another good book about this—that I’d talk about if I had space—Gavin Schaffer’s The Vision of a Nation. What you really see coming out of both Newton’s and Schaffer’s books is, on the one hand, the BBC self-consciously taking on an educative role. From the 1950s onwards, BBC executives and programme-makers wanted to explore issues of racial inequality in Britain, exposing prejudice and getting white listeners and viewers to think about Commonwealth migrants to Britain in more positive ways. The BBC sought to promote tolerance and help create a multicultural society.

However, on the other hand, the BBC was arguably slow and inconsistent in implementing this strategy and failed to put programmes on air that addressed the concerns and reflected the needs of Black and Asian people. When it did put Black people on air, it was largely as singers and entertainers—Black performers could find few other roles. In doing research for my own book, I’ve been struck by the fact that going right back to the 1920s, Black singers and entertainers featured quite prominently in BBC programmes, but largely as musicians and entertainers. This continued to be the case for a very long time. The BBC’s most popular programme on television during the 1960s was, notoriously, The Black and White Minstrel Show, involving blackface performances by white singers and comedians. It remained on television until 1978.

When Greg Dyke became Director-General of the BBC he famously described it, in 2001, as ‘hideously white’: very few executives were Black or Asian. These debates haven’t gone away: one of the accusations levelled against the BBC today is that it does not reflect the concerns of Black and Asian viewers. They have disproportionately abandoned the BBC and moved to alternative media services. Although the BBC royal charter now mandates it to reflect and champion diversity, its audience is increasingly middle aged, middle class and white. Darrell Newton’s book helps us explore the roots of those debates and controversies.

Was Rising Damp BBC?

It was ITV, but there were many BBC and ITV comedy programmes, particularly in the 70s, that picked up on the same themes that Rising Damp did, and often treated them much more crudely. Gavin Schaffer’s book looks at this in some detail. Till Death Us Do Part was the classic BBC engagement with the theme of race through comedy and it was very controversial at the time. For some viewers, Alf Garnett was a character who lampooned racial intolerance and racism by epitomising prejudice and holding bigots up for ridicule. However, other viewers laughed with him rather than at him, and critics accused the show of celebrating racism.

Let’s move on to Kate Murphy’s Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC.

I’ve picked this because, again, it gets us thinking about the ambiguous cultural and social role of the BBC, sometimes reinforcing existing inequalities and hierarchies, and at other times helping to challenge them. Kate Murphy’s book examines this through the prism of gender. She looks at the social history of women’s employment at the BBC, particularly during the 1920s and 30s. She also considers some key figures at the BBC at that time, women who are already quite well-known among BBC historians. One example is Hilda Matheson, who was a really influential talks producer and brought more controversial cultural and political programming to the BBC in the 30s. Murphy also considers the careers of Mary Somerville, a pioneer of BBC Schools Broadcasting, and Isa Benzie, who played an important role in the BBC’s international work. Murphy considers how ‘ordinary women’ experienced life at the BBC, and also how some ‘extraordinary’ women made a measurable impact on British broadcasting.

The BBC was seen as quite a progressive employer in the 1920s and 30s in terms of its attitude towards women. People like Somerville, Matheson, and Benzie were given a significant amount of responsibility and were paid well. However, they also faced prejudice and institutionalised inequality. Up until World War II, the BBC operated a ‘marriage bar’: if a female employee got married, they were expected to resign. Inequality was also apparent in the way that women were put on air. They were asked to give talks and to perform as musicians, and particularly appeared in programmes aimed at children and other women. Women were not employed as announcers: only men were used to provide the continuity announcements between programmes. There was one attempt to put a woman announcer on air, but she was taken off within weeks, supposedly due to complaints from listeners. This only changed during the Second World War, partly because of shortages of male staff, but also because it was clear that soldiers stationed overseas wanted to hear female voices from home.

Another reason why I picked Murphy’s book is because it relates to continuing debates within the BBC about unequal pay. Recently the BBC has taken that challenge very seriously and has worked to address it, and its record on inclusion in the workplace is a lot better than that of many other big companies today in Britain. But it’s not perfect. We also need to relate this historic culture of institutionalised sexism to the tolerance of sexual harassment and assault that existed at the BBC in the 1960s and 70s. This was exploited by abusers like Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall, and produced scandals that have rocked the BBC over the last decade.

The marriage bar sounds outrageous now, but I think it was probably quite common across lots of organisations, wasn’t it?

Yes. I think the BBC was, relatively speaking, a progressive employer in the 20s and 30s—but only relatively.

You’ll often hear conservative politicians complaining about the BBC having a left-wing bias. Has that always been the case? Or was the BBC seen as a fundamentally conservative organisation in earlier decades?

There’s a great quote from one Postmaster General in the 1920s—he said that ‘If once you let broadcasting into politics, you will never be able to keep politics out of broadcasting.’ For the first few years of its existence, the BBC was not permitted to cover any controversial issues in its broadcasts. Also, only a very limited amount of news or current affairs broadcasting was permitted. Once those restrictions were relaxed, the BBC almost immediately started to be accused of political bias. This came from all sides, but perhaps the most common claim, from the early 1930s onwards, was that the BBC was dominated by left-wing cosmopolitan types from London. I’ve already mentioned Hilda Matheson, the early BBC talks producer. She was accused of left-wing bias, of promoting socialism, and pressure from Reith to change the balance of what talks were broadcast led to her resignation in 1932.

What becomes clear when you survey the whole century of the BBC’s history, is that politicians from both the major parties have believed that the BBC was biased against them. Harold Wilson certainly thought the BBC was prejudiced against the Labour Party, and there were of course later notorious clashes between Tony Blair and the BBC, culminating in the Hutton Report and the effective sacking of Dyke as Director-General. The BBC gets it in the neck from both sides all the time. We’ve seen this again recently, in the debates about Brexit and the consequences of the Brexit referendum. Both sides fundamentally believed that the BBC was biased against their particular viewpoint. The BBC has always found it difficult to convince people that its political coverage is balanced and, in the increasingly vitriolic political debates of today, the BBC finds itself in an almost impossible situation. A newspaper can very legitimately and very easily pick a side, and speak to the people who it sees as its tribe, but the BBC cannot.

Let’s move on to the next book, Gordon Johnson and Emma Robertson’s The BBC World Service: Overseas Broadcasting 1932-2018. Tell us why you’ve chosen this.

This book brings us to the BBC’s international role, which I mentioned at the beginning. Johnson and Robertson provide a panoptic view of BBC international broadcasting that goes right back to the foundation of the BBC’s services for overseas listeners. The first regular BBC international service was the Empire Service, which was established in 1932. It was designed to serve listeners around the British Empire. The exact words used in the BBC’s proposal to establish the service were that it would target the English-speaking ‘white population’ of territories ‘under the British flag’. There were several reasons for this focus, but essentially the BBC saw its overseas role as uniting white colonial settlers, ex-pats and ‘Old Commonwealth’ countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. This was how the BBC interpreted its imperial role. It tells us a lot about contemporary attitudes to race and empire, within and beyond the BBC.

In 1937, the BBC entered into discussions with the British government about providing broadcasts in Arabic for the Middle East and in Spanish and Portuguese to Latin America. This was a direct response to Italian and German fascist propaganda. The BBC very much wanted to ensure that it preserved its monopoly of broadcasting, and the Director General (Reith) was willing to work closely with the government in running international broadcasting in order to achieve this. From 1938, the BBC simultaneously operated as Britain’s broadcaster for audiences in the UK and as the voice of Britain overseas. Johnson and Robertson’s book is good at reminding us of this very bizarre fact. The organisation that viewers and listeners in Britain see as their broadcaster, as primarily providing programmes for them, is also an enormous transnational media operator, projecting British soft power and propaganda.

There was inevitably leakage between these two roles, as was demonstrated very clearly during the Cold War. The people running the World Service, as it later became known, were separated by paper walls from other parts of the BBC. A fascinating example was Hugh Carleton Greene, the brother of the novelist Graham Greene. He worked at the BBC German Service during World War II, coordinating radio propaganda against Nazi Germany. He then went on to set up broadcasting in the British sector of occupied West Germany after the war, and was seconded to the Colonial Office to run the ‘hearts and minds’ radio propaganda campaign during the Malayan Emergency, targeting Chinese Communist insurgents. He ended up as BBC Director-General, running the whole show: a former propaganda warrior became famous as the man who introduced progressive programming to the BBC in the swinging sixties, including the satirical That Was The Week That Was and social realist dramas like Cathy Come Home.

So in Malaya he had a straightforward government role?

Yes. Quite a few other BBC people were seconded to government departments during World War II and then, during the Cold War, to work in propaganda roles and to help set up broadcasting in Britain’s colonies in the 1940s and 50s, for example. People moved backwards and forwards between government and broadcaster.

Did that survive 1989? How have things developed since the end of the Cold War?

Since 1989, the World Service has worked hard to find new roles for itself, with some success. It has engaged with new audiences through television and internet platforms, and with NGO activity through the World Service Trust/Media Action. It has had to do this to justify its continued existence and continued government funding. This is another thing that we don’t often acknowledge: that the BBC up until 2014 received a very large chunk of Foreign Office money to do all of this international work.

The World Service also faced a significant threat from the more commercial way of doing things that was introduced by John Birt as Director-General in the 1990s. Birt was determined to impose internal markets on the BBC, and the World Service was very resistant to that. Nevertheless, despite this hostility, and despite the withdrawal of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office grant in 2014, the World Service has survived. Within about a year of losing the FCO grant, the BBC had received a huge chunk of overseas development assistance money to keep doing a lot of the things that were otherwise going to be cut back, and to set up a raft of new services to priority areas, particularly in the Middle East, but also China and Russia, to advance British foreign policy goals. When the charter was last reviewed the BBC announced its aim of reaching a global audience of half a billion people, and it has now pretty much achieved that. Its next goal is a global audience of a billion people. The BBC still has an impressive international reach and major global ambitions.

Let’s move on to Alban Webb’s London Calling: Britain, the BBC World Service and the Cold War. This book is a deep dive into a specific area of what we’ve just been talking about, isn’t it?

Yes, Webb’s book really focuses on the period between the end of World War II and 1956, when the dual shocks of the Hungarian Uprising and the Suez Crisis took place. I’d recommend it as a good read if you are interested in the high politics of British broadcasting, but as you read it, I’d urge you continually to pinch yourself. The book reveals the uninterrogated or unspoken assumptions that underpinned the working relationship between the BBC and the government. At the time, people accepted it as perfectly natural that there should be an extremely close link between civil servants and broadcasters: they inhabited a common world of shared assumptions and beliefs and everyday cooperation. I think if you read some histories of the BBC, particularly official histories, you can come away with a heroic interpretation of the BBC, nobly standing up for its independence against attempts by civil servants to tell it what to do. Sometimes, for example during the Suez Crisis, they did indeed resist. But on a day-to-day basis, for most of the time, the BBC worked very closely with the government in the field of international broadcasting. And people didn’t question that. As you read Webb’s book, you can slip into thinking that all this was perfectly natural and fine. However, it would be helpful to think more critically about what it means that the British national broadcaster was working with the government every day on such a close, direct basis of collaboration for so much of its history.

Is there any other country in the world that has a comparable model?

The obvious comparator would be the United States and the approach there was somewhat different. On the one hand, the US operated the Voice of America, which since World War II has been clearly state-sponsored, effectively a state-run international broadcaster. But the Americans also established stations like Radio Free Europe, which broadcast across the Iron Curtain from Germany. For the first 20 or so years of its existence, Radio Free Europe was supposedly funded by private donations from American citizens who were concerned about the spread of communism. It was supposedly independent, part of a great private crusade against communism. However, it was then revealed in the late 1960s that the whole operation was funded by the CIA. This was potentially a disaster, compromising the station. However, in many ways, it just confirmed what many people had suspected all along, and Radio Free Europe weathered the storm and continues to operate to this day, with direct funding from the US government. It continued to do its job in probably much the way that the BBC did.

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I would be surprised if any international broadcaster anywhere in the world has ever been as independent as the BBC claimed it was. One insight into this comes from some of my own earlier research on how the Canadians and Australians set up their own international broadcasting services. They sent people over to Britain after the war to examine how the BBC did it, and they reported back to their governments in glowing terms, saying that the BBC got its money from the British government but was totally independent. Officials in Canada and Australia did not believe a word of it.

Finally, tell us a bit about your book, This is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain 1922-2022.

It’s a centenary volume, and I was aware as I wrote it that there’s going to be a lot of celebration of the BBC in 2022. I wanted to make sure that it was critical and analytical, not just a record of the BBC’s many achievements, but also a discussion of its key failings. I emphasise in the book that we shouldn’t mistake endurance for continuity. Just because the BBC has survived for a hundred years, it doesn’t mean that it is the same thing now as it was a century ago, or even ten or twenty years ago. To overcome the many challenges it has faced, the BBC has been obliged continually to transform itself. So I trace the changing nature of the BBC over time, how it has been organised, what it does, the programmes that it produces. I show how these transformations have been driven by the BBC’s deep-rooted institutional desire, since the 1920s, to expand and to survive.

One of the questions I kept asking myself as I was finishing writing the book—and particularly as I was considering the last two decades and the most recent debates about the future of the BBC—was whether the BBC that we think exists, still actually exists anymore. When we think about the BBC, we tend to think about the public Corporation, existing by virtue of a royal charter and funded by the television licence fee. However, in many ways, the public Corporation and the licence fee have become less important as the BBC has progressively commercialized itself and outsourced a lot of things it once did to other companies and to freelancers. In effect, the Corporation now makes news and sports programmes for itself, but commissions much of its other content from commercial companies. Much of what we watch on BBC television and (to a somewhat lesser extent) what we listen to on BBC radio is not made by the BBC. Indeed, recently the Corporation founded a wholly-owned subsidiary called BBC Studios and put almost all of its production facilities into this commercial company. BBC Studios makes programmes for the BBC, but also for a wide range of other providers, including some of the US-based streaming services. This is more than an accountant’s trick: it is, I think, a way of ensuring that something of the BBC survives if and when the licence fee is abolished.

What I argue in the book is that this is but the most recent in a series of transformations that have reshaped the BBC again and again across its history. I think we can expect further transformations in the decade ahead, particularly as terrestrial broadcasting becomes a ‘legacy’ medium, and as we move into a post-broadcasting media landscape.

Interview by Benedict King

March 4, 2022

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Simon J. Potter

Simon J. Potter

is Professor of Modern History at the University of Bristol. He is the author of numerous books on the British media, includingThis is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain? 1922-2022Wireless Internationalism and Distant Listening: Britain, Propaganda, and the Invention of Global Radio, 1920–1939 and Broadcasting Empire: The BBC and the British World, 1922–1970.

Simon J. Potter

Simon J. Potter

is Professor of Modern History at the University of Bristol. He is the author of numerous books on the British media, includingThis is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain? 1922-2022Wireless Internationalism and Distant Listening: Britain, Propaganda, and the Invention of Global Radio, 1920–1939 and Broadcasting Empire: The BBC and the British World, 1922–1970.