Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Carry on Broadcasting

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Carry on Broadcasting

Article excerpt

By some strange, freakish coincidence, just as the biggest story to hit the BBC in recent years was about to cut through the airwaves on Saturday night, Radio 4 was discussing the question, Who's Reithian Now? It was as if, by some act of God, Lord Reith, the corporation's creator, was speaking to us direct from the upper ether (or maybe the lower furnace? ) and reminding us of why the BBC was set up as a licence-funded organisation in 1927, and what it is supposed to do in a crisis: carry on broadcasting.

The Archive on 4 programme (produced by Karen Pirie for the independent company Whistledown Productions) replayed clips of Reith himself, proudly boasting that when he was director-general he used to read, and approve, every news bulletin before it went out on air. He also 'hand-picked' all his staff, most particularly checking out 'their hobbies'. Anything suspect might, according to Reith, 'affect the intellectual content of the programmes', or lead to programmes that were less than the best. Above all, he was fascinated by the notion that ideas generated in a studio run by engineers could somehow travel into 'the infinities of ether', and he understood the power, and the responsibility, this engendered.

Reith, we can be sure, would have withstood, like an ageing warrior, the constant attempts by the government to limit the BBC's powers. He would also have known how to take his corporation into the digital age. Not because he was a great man (he was riddled with personal flaws) but because he was inspirational, urging those over whom he was boss to work to the best of their abilities in the cause of something that was greater than them: public broadcasting.

'The BBC is not the nation's newspaper, ' declared Reith. Its job was not to chase after controversial stories, but to report the news in an impartial and impersonal way.

He knew that this was the only way to protect its independence, and its funding by the licence fee.

I suspect (in spite of John Humphrys's blatant astonishment that George Entwhistle hadn't been keeping up with the tweets on the Beeb) that Reith would have banned all his journalists from Twitter, and his programme-makers and editors from blogging. It's just so tempting otherwise to get swept up by rumour, gossip, self-promotion. Perhaps what Humphrys should have been astonished by is the fact that on Saturday morning he was tearing his BBC boss to pieces in public, on air, in the hope he might resign, without any fear of losing his own job. …

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