When John Reith launched the BBC’s English-language Empire Service in 1932 – the Corporation’s first foray into overseas broadcasting – he warned its listeners that in the early days they should not expect too much from the programmes, since they ‘will neither be very interesting nor very good’. Reith, who had long championed the potential that the wireless offered to bring together and bind expatriates to the ‘mother country’, refused to speculate about the Empire Service’s longer-term significance. In 1999, 67 years after ‘not very good’, Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, judged its progeny, the BBC World Service, to be ‘perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world this century’. Annan’s endorsement was welcomed by the BBC – influential allies have always been important to the Corporation – but it tells us little about the journey from ‘not very good’ to ‘greatest gift’, and beyond. This paper examines this journey and its implications for discussions about Global Britain and the future of the World Service.
Following the recommendations of the Crawford Committee in 1926, the BBC was established as a public corporation supported by revenue from the licence fee with Reith as its first Director-General in 1927. The Corporation’s remit was ‘to carry on a Broadcasting Service within Our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (but not including the Irish Free State)’. This mapped the boundaries of the BBC’s domestic services, while the partition of Ireland marked, as far as the British State was concerned, a settling of relations between the UK’s four nations. 1926 was also the year of the General Strike when the BBC was judged to lack independence or even the appearance of independence from Baldwin’s Government. Reith’s subsequent account of the relationship between the BBC and the Government is instructive in that he links what he judged to be the Company’s ‘considerable measure of independence’, with the Government’s ‘gratifying trust in the Company’s loyalty and judgment’. Without this we can reasonably assume that the BBC would have been commandeered by the Government for the duration of the strike, as Churchill (Chancellor of the Exchequer) argued for at the time.
The formative years of the BBC were strewn with constitutional crises, and social and political unrest. To this was added Reith’s conviction that broadcasting had a vital role to play in supporting and binding together the UK’s ramshackle mix of self-governing dominions, colonies and overseas territories. In 1924 and 1925, before the Corporation was established, he had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the India Office to take overseas broadcasting to India seriously. An entry from Reith’s diary recorded that ‘there is neither vision nor recognition of the immense potentialities of broadcasting in this affair; no ethical or moral appreciation; just commercialism’. Reith speculated in a subsequent memoir, published in 1949, that ‘events in India might have been very different’ if regular broadcasting had started earlier. Reith fulminated on a regular basis against the parsimony, ignorance and apathy of politicians, particularly with regard to broadcasting and the empire. Such was his frustration that in October 1931 the BBC agreed ‘to carry the cost of Empire broadcasting’. The Empire Service, the BBC’s first overseas broadcasting service was funded by revenue from the licence fee because neither the British Treasury nor the Dominions and Colonies were prepared to pay for it.
The Empire Service audience was English-speaking, white, predominantly male, living in exile and often geographically isolated. The indigenous communities of the British empire were only targeted in their own languages by the BBC following the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1936 the Ullswater Committee recommended that the Empire Service should be expanded and that consideration should be given to foreign-language broadcasting. In the 1930s, foreign-language broadcasting was associated with the output of German, Italian and to a lesser extent Russian state broadcasters. One of the consequences of this was that foreign-language broadcasting was regarded, with few qualifications, as propaganda. The concern of the BBC, including Reith, was that foreign-language broadcasting would damage the credibility of the Empire Service, and compromise the Corporation’s reputation of being independent of Government. Within Whitehall, the Colonial Office and the Dominions Office concurred, arguing that the prestige and reputation of the Empire Service would be ‘impaired by the use of foreign languages’. It was left to the Foreign Office to argue that irrespective of any damage to the Empire Service, foreign languages ‘should be introduced by whatever means necessary’. Senior officials at the Foreign Office opposed appeasement and argued that the BBC had an important role to play in combatting foreign propaganda, and in better informing the public at home about the international situation. In other words, they argued that the BBC was being too passively independent in the face of serious threats from abroad.
The Foreign Office pressed for an Arabic service and Spanish and Portuguese services to South and Central America, while drawing a distinction between the two. The latter was not likely to involve the BBC in any controversy. However, the Arabic service, where the Foreign Office favoured a simple propaganda vehicle, was likely to prove so controversial that it would be simpler, ‘more satisfactory and more expeditious if the machinery for doing so was under Government control’. The BBC remained firmly of the view that if the government wanted a Home, Empire and Foreign broadcasting service it should be undertaken by the same organisation – the BBC – and that the independence of the Corporation must be maintained. The BBC also provided the assurance that it could be relied upon to ‘give full weight to Foreign Office views’ but insisted that it ‘could not become merely the organ of the Government for broadcasting to the world’. The Foreign Office acknowledged that the BBC had gone some way to address its concerns, but that it would be ‘essential to put across propaganda’ in the Arabic broadcasts and that the BBC with ‘its standards of impartiality and objectivity’ was not best placed to undertake this work. The matter was subsequently resolved, in the BBC’s favour, with a ‘gentleman’s agreement’.
The Foreign Office became the BBC’s main interlocutor on foreign-language broadcasting in the years before the Second World War. It was in this period too that the BBC won the argument that it couldn’t reasonably be expected to pay for overseas broadcasting from its licence fee revenue. The Foreign Office was well aware of the BBC’s constitutional position, and some quarters understood the benefits that the Corporation’s editorial independence conferred. Yet successive Foreign Office representatives also expressed frustration that the BBC seemed unwilling or unable to take guidance or follow a Foreign Office lead.
Without the Second World War it is unlikely that the BBC would have the reach and reputation that it enjoys today. At its height in 1944, the BBC was broadcasting in nearly 50 languages on over 40 short-wave transmitters for 130 programme hours daily. The success of the BBC as a wartime broadcaster, capable of chipping away at the morale of the enemy and mobilizing resistance to it, was dependent on the ebb and flow of the military situation. By 1945, the Corporation had come to enjoy immense authority and good will across the world, particularly in Europe.
Such an outcome seemed unlikely in 1940 when J. B. Priestley complained that the under-valuation of the BBC was ‘one of the most serious weaknesses’ of the war effort. According to the Director of European Broadcasts, in the early phases of the war ‘there was never any real faith in the highest quarters in broadcasting as a war-winning instrument’. The country was led by a generation of politicians who were sceptical about the value of propaganda, because most had grown up in the pre-democratic era before 1928 when the views of the majority were unimportant politically, and largely ignorant of the opportunities that broadcasting afforded to conduct it. This indifference was compounded by the organizational arrangements that were put in place for the BBC.
The Government had decided not to take over the BBC during the war, relying instead on ‘a very close liaison between the Ministry of Information and the Broadcasting Corporation’. However, the authority, remit and competence of the Ministry of Information was routinely challenged by other departments, including the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Economic Warfare and the Secret Intelligence Services, all of whom claimed expertise in propaganda work and some degree of authority over the BBC. As came to be recognised, departmental agendas were apt to conflict, and guidance from different official sources was often contradictory. The result was friction, resentment, and dissatisfaction on all sides. The BBC was heavily criticised for its coverage of Dunkirk and the Norway campaign. On the latter, the BBC responded that it could not do its job if it was provided with intentionally misleading information by the War Office; information which if broadcast, only served to undermine trust in the BBC and its reputation for reliability abroad.
The Political Warfare Executive was formed in August 1941 to unify the control of propaganda to enemy and enemy-occupied countries. The BBC European Service was part of the Political Warfare Executive and benefitted from the simplified political environment that it provided. The BBC was clear too as to where it stood on a broadcasting spectrum that ranged from the deliberate spreading of false rumours and false information to truth telling. The former was rejected, while appearing truthful, and hence trusted and reliable, were accorded more importance than the telling of truth for truth’s sake. Trust became increasingly important as the scope of the BBC’s wartime role increased. On D-day, the broadcasting orders for the European Service were to bear witness, undermine the opposition and ‘ensure that through the trust we have established, the peoples of Europe act according to our instructions’.
From December 1942, the BBC engaged its European audiences with broadcasts on Europe’s future and the role that Britain would play once victory had been secured. It was acknowledged that British prosperity would be dependent on European prosperity which in turn would require a prosperous world. To that end Britain would act as a link between the Dominions and the USA on the one hand and the countries of Europe on the other. Despite the ambivalence of the War Cabinet , the BBC provided a more concrete sense of the future when it broadcast summaries of the Beveridge Report in 22 languages. The BBC was conscious too that much of its wartime audience was likely to prove temporary, with listeners returning to pre-war patterns of listening. Opinion differed within the BBC as to the future of its overseas services. Douglas Ritchie who worked for the European Service argued that the BBC had two jobs of equal importance: a broadcasting service for the UK and ‘a first-class British broadcasting overseas to Europe and the World’. In February 1944, the BBC’s Director-General, William Haley and his predecessor, Robert Foot argued that the BBC should retain its monopoly position with regard to domestic and overseas broadcasting, but that in order to preserve the Corporation’s independence the whole service should be funded through revenue from the licence fee alone. The link between financial and editorial independence was explicit. In subsequent representations, Haley proposed to broadcast in just three European languages – English, French and German – on the grounds that the BBC’s programmes would only be of interest to an ‘educated class’, whose members would be fluent in one or more of the broadcast languages.
At the start of the war, broadcasters had charged politicians with failing to understand the contribution that radio could make to the war effort. At war’s end, the leadership of the BBC could justifiably be charged with failing to understand the peace. The Foreign Office was scathing and argued that in the absence of guidance on how to ‘fulfill its national duty in international affairs’, the BBC looked set to retreat into its domestic market. For the Foreign Office, the BBC was one of the few resources that the country possessed that was commanding and world-leading; to squander the capacity to shape and influence opinion abroad would be foolhardy. The subsequent White Paper Broadcasting Policyowed more to the Foreign Office than the BBC. The value and importance of the BBC’s wartime role was acknowledged. A commitment was given to maintain and develop the Empire Service. The foreign language services were retained in the national interest, ‘in order to maintain British influence and prestige abroad’. Funding for the Overseas services would be through an annual allocation of grant-in-aid and while the BBC was to ‘remain independent in the preparation of programmes for overseas audiences’, it was expected to consult on a regular basis with relevant government departments, including the Foreign Office.
Broadcasting Policy offered an altogether bigger, more ambitious vision of the future of foreign-language and overseas broadcasting than the Corporation’s leadership anticipated, or perhaps even wanted. Haley worried too, and with good reason, that grant-in-aid provided the Foreign Office with the opportunity to meddle and interfere. A Foreign Office official noted at the time that the Government ‘would be fully entitled to bring pressure to bear on the BBC in order that the service should accord with the aims of Government policy. The ultimate sanction would be a financial one’.
Overseas broadcasting was shaped by two further developments. First, in September 1946, Sir Ian Jacob, the controller of the BBC European services, joined the Russia Committee which had been established by the Foreign Office earlier in the year to monitor and review the development of Soviet policy. The Russia Committee played a central role in framing the debate about the Soviet threat and in shaping the policy response to it that Bevin announced in January 1948. Second, in arguing that Britain must provide a lead to the forces of anti-Communism in Europe and Asia, Bevin indicated that ‘the fullest co-operation of the BBC would be desirable’. This is the language of influence, threat and expectation rather than a statement of control. Months later Jacob could confirm that the BBC’s influence and reputation would be maintained by foregoing ‘blatant propaganda’, in favour of the truth, objectivity in reporting the news, and support for constructive aims.
From the late 1940s, overseas broadcasting was shaped by the rhythms of the Cold War, the contraction of the British empire and the fluctuating economic fortunes of the nation. In the 1950s some of the European language services were closed down or their broadcasting hours reduced. New language services were launched in Hausa, Swahili and Somali, and the hours for the Arabic Service were increased. Jacob argued that the abolition of any language service compromised the ‘world wide nature of our service’. The paradox of the 1950s, particularly after Suez, was that while Britain’s political and military influence was on the wane, the BBC possessed a highly regarded global voice. What was never posed was whether this global voice, appropriately nurtured, might compensate for Britain’s loss of face and the diminution of its standing in the global pecking order. Should the BBC’s external services be scaled back to a level that was commensurate with the country’s changing circumstances, or expanded and rolled out in mitigation?
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s and beyond, well into the administrations of Margaret Thatcher, successive reports, culminating with the Perry Report in 1984, sought to recalibrate the BBC’s relationship with the Foreign Office. Such was the suspicion and ill-regard that characterised the BBC’s relationship with successive Conservative governments after 1979 that the Perry Report was only published following written confirmation from the Foreign Secretary that the editorial independence of the BBC’s External Services would not be diluted. In opposition Margaret Thatcher had expressed support for the BBC’s Russian and East European Services, but the reduction in language services proposed by her first administration was such that Jimmy Carter, the American president, was advised by his National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, that they would have a detrimental effect on ‘Free World information efforts out of all proportion to the money saved’. The New York Times warned that Britain was ‘jamming its own voice’. In 1981, a further round of cuts blocked by cross-party opposition, prompted Lord Carrington, the then Foreign Secretary, to declare that ‘it is vital to re-establish our authority over the BBC’.
Margaret Thatcher’s antipathy towards the BBC was evident in her routine complaints about the lack of balance and objectivity in the Corporation’s journalism. Northern Ireland, the Falklands conflict, and the 1984/5 miners’ strike were particular flashpoints. More importantly, the Conservative party was increasingly of the view that much of what the BBC offered could be delivered by the private sector, and that advertising and subscriptions could augment and in time replace the licence fee. The Peacock Committee found in favour of the licence fee, but its conclusion that British broadcasting should move towards a market system based on consumer sovereignty did undermine the principle of public servicing broadcasting and the BBC’s overarching rationale. Such arguments were advanced when the World Service was a largely autonomous division of the BBC, separately funded through grant-in-aid. All this was soon to change.
The 9/11 attacks brought about a significant shift in the World Service’s priorities with a greater focus on the Arab world and South-West Asia. The need to free up resources to invest in these services, particularly BBC Arabic television, contributed to the decision in 2005 to close down eight of the European language services in which the Cold War had been conducted. What became known as the ‘war on terror’ came to fill the narrative vacuum left by the Cold War’s curtailment. This heightened anxieties about security and brought about a closer relationship between Britain’s aid, international development and national security policies. This convergence came to benefit the World Service from the access it provided to the Government’s aid budget, but not before the 2010 Spending Review transformed the way in which the World Service was funded and organized.
As a saving on the Foreign Office budget, the 2010 Spending Review cut the World Service’s budget and announced that from 2014, the World Service would be funded from the BBC’s licence fee. In 2015, White Papers on UK Aid and National Security announced that £289m would be made available to the World Service from the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget over a four-year period starting in 2016/17. The overall purpose was to increase the reach and provision of independent and impartial news across all relevant platforms for Arabic and Russian speakers, and audiences in Asia and Sub Saharan Africa. A typical project for Nigeria included new language offerings in Pidgin, Yoruba and Igbo on digital platforms and via TV partners. These projects were approved and monitored by the Foreign Office, as indeed was the case under grant-in-aid.
There is little evidence that any of this was subject to a process of planning. The BBC was given an ultimatum by politicians: a choice between funding the World Service from the licence fee or paying the licence fee for the over 75s. The Corporation ended up with both, and the latter remains unresolved. Some senior managers at the BBC saw advantages in the greater independence that the licence fee might afford; it was an old argument. The release of ODA funds was part of a wider exchange within Whitehall and with the OECD, over how the aid budget could be spent. The UK reached its target for ODA spending of 0.7% of gross national income in 2013. As a result, ODA spending doubled between 2005 and 2016 and is set to increase by a further £1 billion by 2021. DfID remains responsible for around 72% of ODA spend, down from 86% in 2014. The Government is committed to allocating more of the ODA budget through other departments, including the Foreign Office. As with the BBC, ‘aid’ money was being creatively repurposed to cover budgetary shortfalls across Whitehall.
In 2010 there were around 25 million licence fee payers. Would they accept that 10% of their licence fee was going to fund programmes they couldn’t access, in languages they didn’t understand? The response from the BBC was ‘yes’, if the quality of its domestic services, particularly the Corporation’s coverage of news and current affairs was improved with a greater contribution from its World Service staff. This provided a clear journalistic rationale for bringing together the BBC’s domestic and overseas broadcasting divisions, symbolised by the sale of Bush House and the creation of a single newsroom at Broadcasting House. While there had been earlier initiatives to foster a closer working relationship between the BBC’s domestic and overseas divisions, the World Service is now fully integrated into the quotidian routines of the BBC.
The BBC World Service is now available on multiple platforms in 43 languages, the largest number since the Second World War, with a weekly audience of 319 million and a target audience of 500 million in 2022. With increased competition from state broadcasters and commercial organisations, the World Service remains a global brand that is demonstrably trusted with a reputation that has accrued since the Second World War. From the 1930s, more than 50 years before the concept was invented, the BBC has provided the UK with a key soft power resource. The Corporation is uniquely placed to address concerns about fake news and misinformation, and to offer itself as a global public service provider of news and information. This is implicit across its history, and provides the BBC and indeed the United Kingdom with a clear global mission.
If the World Service’s reputation is one of high standing, the BBC’s domestic reputation is less consistent, more volatile, more closely tied to the vicissitudes of the domestic political cycle. When the BBC is criticised by politicians, it is failures of governance, domestic journalism and the business model that are highlighted, not the work of the World Service. Yet the BBC’s constituent parts, its domestic and overseas wings, are no longer insulated from each other. They are conjoined, knitted together in response to technological change, global competition and domestic pressures. The BBC could do more to explain the opportunities that these changes afford and the harmful consequences of any attempt to reverse them. Negotiations lie ahead over the level of the licence fee from 2022 and the principle of the licence fee is routinely queried by Conservative politicians, most prominently by the Prime Minister himself. When viewed alongside threats to decriminalize the non-payment of the licence fee, and the requirement that the BBC pay the full cost of the licence fee for the over 75s, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the BBC’s revenue base is being systematically undermined. This is short sighted.
Any British government seeking to mobilise the World Service to the cause of Global Britain needs to grasp that historically the World Service’s reputation has been based on the principle of its independence from government. Influence, particularly from the Foreign Office, has been exerted from the 1930s, probably more so than it is today, but editorial control if ceded would destroy the reputation and trust that the World Service enjoys. But having acknowledged this, it is difficult to see how the Prime Minister or his Foreign Secretary can have a mature conversation with the BBC about its contribution to Global Britain if at the same time they are scheming to kill off the licence fee. This is the same licence fee, in essence an hypothecated tax, which now funds around 75% of the World Service’s work, and which has historically provided the BBC with its measure of independence from government, and underpinned the principle of public service broadcasting. It is the latter, on a global scale, to which the BBC should aspire and which any UK government should be proud to support.
Bell, Emily, & Owen, Taylor, eds. Journalism After Snowden (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017)
BBC Trust, BBC World Service Operating Licence (pdf)
Johnston, Gordon, & Robertson, Emma, BBC World Service: Overseas Broadcasting, 1932-2018 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)
Potter, Simon, Broadcasting Empire: The BBC and the British World, 1922-1970 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)
Przeworski, Adam, Crises of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)
Webb, Alban, London Calling: Britain, the BBC World Service and the Cold War (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)
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