Academic journal article New Formations

The Great War and British Broadcasting: Emotional Life in the Creation of the BBC

Academic journal article New Formations

The Great War and British Broadcasting: Emotional Life in the Creation of the BBC

Article excerpt

I have become increasingly interested in the issue of moods, not as a cultural theorist but as an historian of broadcasting. Yet work on moods and work on histories of broadcasting have evolved in mutually exclusive domains. To open up a dialogue between the two, as I attempt to do here, still involves a fair bit of speculation. Whatever solid underpinning I offer comes not from theories of affect but from certain strands of historiographical work, much of which has very little to do with broadcasting - at least overtly.

In my own field, for example, the birth of the BBC in 1922 is something of a year zero - and is therefore pretty well trodden territory. But whenever the historical context of this event is discussed, it has invariably been seen in terms of a response to a cluster of relatively familiar technical, political, or sociological forces. Those with a tight focus on the development of radio as a new medium, for instance, will have their own unique starting point when untangling this cluster. Seán Street, in his history of early British broadcasting, begins with the technical experiments in wireless conducted by the Marconi Company and Lord Northcliffe's Daily Mail, and moves on to describe the Post Office's decisive role in pulling these initiatives together to create a state-directed monopoly in the public service. Hence, for Street, broadcasting's 'Prehistory' covers the years 1919-1920. When the historical context is widened, it is class, age, and geography that are the three social divisions which he identifies as broadcasting's greatest challenges: its evolution through the 1920s and 1930s is driven largely by attempts to navigate, and if possible transcend, these divisions.1

Other accounts of the BBC's creation place more emphasis on it coinciding with a radical extension of the electoral franchise. As such, the story of broadcasting becomes entangled with the story of mass democracy and political debate. Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff, for instance, make clear in their pioneering 1991 account that the issue of 'particular interest' to them in their work on the early BBC was 'news management and the orchestration of public opinion'. - They identify other themes too, of course. Clearly influenced by Habermas's notion of the public sphere and Benedict Anderson's concept of imagined communities, they also offer a convincing account of broadcasting's ability to forge a shared national culture. As with its nurturing of democracy, the achievement of the BBC's founding figures was to see in radio a means of allowing millions of ordinary men and women to 'take an interest in many things from which they had previously been excluded' (British Broadcasting, p7). The story subsequently becomes one of showing how programmes were planned and policies formed through broadcasters' careful - if imperfect - contemplation of their audience. Programmes thus 'bear the marks of institutional assumptions' made at 'the point of exchange between producing institutions and society' (ibid, pxi).

What is clearly conveyed in this highly influential account is the BBC's role in carrying forward what we might call the emancipatory project of the Enlightenment. Scannell and Cardiff see in the BBC, as forged under its founding director-general John Reith, an essential tool in the creation of an 'informed and reasoned public opinion' (ibid, pp8-l 1, emphasis added). They point for instance, to Reith's own manifesto, published in 1924, in which he describes broadcasting as a means of spreading knowledge, of enlarging opinion with 'reasoned arguments', and of providing 'satisfactory answers to legitimate and intelligent questions'. This focus accords neatly with Nicholas Garnham's broader argument, namely that historically the media are 'both affected by and implicated in - by some reckonings a key creator of - the death of tradition and the rise of critical rationality'.3 For Garnham, the central narrative must be the role of broadcasting and other mass media in constructing a sensus communis by fostering the kind of public discussion and debate that, by the twentieth century if not before, neither the church nor the universities were capable of fulfilling. …

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