In its hundredth year, the broadcaster maintains a near-total reach—and faces a threat to its existence.
On the first weekend of May, 1926, the Trades Union Congress, which represented more than three million workers in Britain, voted for a general strike. Factories came to a stop. Trains stayed in their sidings. Cities fell quiet. Volatile crowds gathered, ready to block roads and head off strikebreakers. Virginia Woolf, who was writing “To the Lighthouse,” saw a column of armored cars roll down Oxford Street. In the House of Commons, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, accused the unions of “going nearer to proclaiming civil war than we have been for centuries past.”
But it was hard for Baldwin’s words—anyone’s words—to travel far. National newspapers had ceased to print. Unions and strike councils put out their own pamphlets, under the threat of police raids. The government was producing the British Gazette, under the editorship of Winston Churchill, the hawkish Chancellor of the Exchequer, but everyone could see that it was propaganda. “One believes nothing,” Woolf wrote in her diary. “So we go on, turning in our cage.”
The task of reporting the strike fell to the British Broadcasting Company, an experimental private monopoly of the nation’s airwaves, which had no journalists. The company had been formed three and a half years earlier, after the government, the Post Office, and the nation’s radio manufacturers agreed to avoid the “American experience” of a wireless free-for-all.
By June, 1922, the U.S. had three hundred and eighteen radio stations; starting at 6 P.M. that November 14th, when the BBC began broadcasting—“Hullo, hullo, 2LO calling. 2LO calling. This is the British Broadcasting Company”—Britain had one. The new company was funded by royalties from the sale of radios and a ten-shilling “licence fee,” paid annually to the state.
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The earliest days of the broadcaster, captured vividly in “The BBC: A Century on Air,” by David Hendy, a media historian at the University of Sussex, were scrappy and utopian. Its first headquarters was a warren of offices and studios not far from the River Thames. “If you sneeze or rustle papers, you will DEAFEN THOUSANDS,” a framed notice next to the microphone read. Shows went out live and unrehearsed: dance music, stories for children, George Bernard Shaw reading his new play.
The BBC’s original staff included a disproportionate number of pilots from the First World War, who believed that the air held limitless possibilities for society. The news was an afterthought. “I wasn’t wild about what was happening in the world. . . . I didn’t really care what was happening in Abyssinia,” Cecil Lewis, a former fighter ace, poet, and founding employee, recalled. “We were hooked on the idea of entertainment.” BBC bulletins, which were rehashed from news-agency copy, were forbidden before 7 P.M., to avoid competing with the newspapers.
The general strike changed all that. John Reith, the BBC’s first general manager, broke the news that the strike was imminent, broadcasting from his apartment, around the corner from the Houses of Parliament. With Fleet Street out of action, a team of ten improvised the BBC’s first newsroom, to handle the gush of telegrams, letters, messages, and speeches sent in by unions, strike councils, and government departments. The Post Office lifted the BBC’s reporting restrictions: news bulletins went out five times a day. “The sensation of a general strike centres around the headphones of the wireless set,” Beatrice Webb, the sociologist and a co-founder of the London School of Economics, wrote in her diary.
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For a hundred years, the BBC has been in the complex embrace of the British state. Photograph from Getty Images