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. Would that, could that, have happened anywhere else?
Over on the World Service, Phil Maguire, chief executive of the UK’s Prison Radio Association, gave us a graphic example of what happens when a radio station is too dependent on government for its survival. He was in Trinidad and Tobago for the launch of Rise Maximum Radio, a radio station devised by and presented by prisoners for prisoners. Yet even while Maguire was still in Port of Spain, just a few days after the station’s first broadcast, the future of RMR was under threat because the cabinet minister who had spearheaded its creation had just lost his job. Would RMR survive a change of government wondered Maguire?
Reality Radio (Sunday) told the story of Garth St Clair, a former soldier who began taking drugs, which led him into crime and ultimately to a maximum-security prison. ‘Radio has the power to change people’s lives,’ St Clair believes, with good reason. He’s now presenting his own talk show on national radio.
St Clair came across the prison-radio project run by Maguire in the UK and was determined to do the same for prisoners in Trinidad and Tobago. ‘Almost all prisoners will stop being prisoners one day. Do you want them to come out more bitter, more angry, less skilled?’ he asks. Government support for the project was secured by promising that radio could cut crime (which is a major problem in these Caribbean islands). Why? Because it teaches prisoners how to communicate with other people. Because in just one broadcast from a prison chaplain, visitor, psychologist, you can reach out to thousands of prisoners all at once. ‘You can unlock minds.’
Now, though, St Clair is worried that RMR is just another political tool whose survival will depend on factors other than whether it’s good for prisoners, good for victims and good therefore for the community. Let’s hope St Clair turns out to be made of Reithian stuff.
Meanwhile, is there nothing we can do to save Ambridge? I have tried several times (as part of my critical duties) to stay tuned in for an entire episode of The Archers. But I’ve only ever managed a few minutes before being forced to reach for the off button in desperation. At the weekend I caught James (Lilian’s formerly invisible son) chasing Leonie round the bedroom with nothing on but a bath towel, followed swiftly by a scene in which Tom Archer was transformed by some kind of wireless magic from Pig Man to Medallion Man.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 November 2012