Magazine article The Spectator

'This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC', by Charlotte Higgins - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC', by Charlotte Higgins - Review

Article excerpt

This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC Charlotte Higgins

Guardian Books, pp.274, £12.99, ISBN: 9781783350728

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. …

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