BBC Broadcasting House | Photo: Zizzu02 | CC BY 3.0 | Cropped from original BBC Broadcasting House | Photo: Zizzu02 | CC BY 3.0 | Cropped from original

The BBC has always been a contradictory organisation; a pillar of the establishment, but sometimes also a force for social progress, argues John Mullen

In November 1922, the fledgling BBC broadcast for the first time. Almost nobody knew that broadcasting would transform the everyday lives of people from all social classes. A century later, left activists in the UK seem to be divided between defending a public service which provides cheap popular education and entertainment and useful news coverage, and denouncing a state-supervised body always predictably on the wrong side when it comes to strikes and popular revolt in Britain.

The domestic view in the UK is often different from that in other countries. Generations who lived under Eastern Bloc dictatorships with drastically filtered news were often grateful for the services of a less biased BBC. People in countries with little public-service broadcasting are delighted with BBC documentary output in science, history and art, decades of which are now freely available on YouTube, or with the vast variety of quality podcasts of a sort that commercial radio has no interest in producing. Activists in Britain, seeing BBC News effectively supporting the latest government anti-refugee hatefest, misrepresenting strikers year in and year out, glorifying enterprise culture, or building the smear campaign which destroyed Corbyn, often feel less generous. ‘I won’t lift a finger to defend the BBC’, one of my activist friends recently declared.

In 2023, the BBC director-general’s decision to suspend Gary Lineker as BBC presenter because of his tweet about government policy on refugees showed the organisation’s potential to act as a shameless lackey of the powerful. In 2021, former BBC chair Richard Sharp helped his appointment along by facilitating a huge loan to Boris Johnson (he had previously donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservative Party). He became BBC chair after a long career as an investment banker, so we may assume that his main priority is not what broadcasting can do to further the interests of working-class people. And the recent Guardian article entitled ‘Sunak under pressure to stop choosing Tories for BBC jobs’[1] shows up the BBC’s official ‘impartiality’ as often farcical. We have plenty to be unhappy about.

At the same time, millions of Britons are attached to the BBC for often excellent reasons, whether it be entertainment somewhat less controlled by short-term ratings and profits, or world-class documentaries creating new audiences of millions for historical or scientific conversations.[2] Although Mitch Benn’s 2010 song ‘I’m Proud of the BBC’, in praise of the corporation, was not a top twenty hit, it did get significant, and thought-provoking, traction.[3]

In this article I want to look at the roles the BBC has played over the last century as a broadcaster: at what content has been shared with tens of millions, and how it might have helped or hindered our class interests. The BBC is also a workplace, pummelled and stimulated by class tensions, union activity and management crackdowns, but that would be the subject of a different article. I am, furthermore, concentrating on the patterns and effects of BBC output in the UK. Listeners and viewers in dozens of other countries received a small, carefully selected part of this in a different political context: I am not analysing this here.

The titles of some recent books on the corporation show the breadth of the centenary conversation. David Hendy’s impressive The BBC – a People’s History[4] tends to defend the organisation. While Hendy acknowledges its many weaknesses, in particular in connection to ignoring the voices of working-class and non-white citizens, he concentrates on transmitting many stories of the workers who kept its wheels turning, and who were generally committed to popular cultural education. Another influential work, BBC: Myth of a Public Service, by Tom Mills[5] focusses on the role of BBC News as a defender of the status quo, in particular in times of crisis, whether it be the General Strike of 1926, the Suez crisis in 1956 or the Miners’ strike of 1984-5, but it also shows the growing power of neoliberal ideas and creeping privatisation. David Sedgwick in his book BBC: Brainwashing Britain – How and Why the BBC Controls Your Mind[6] presents a hard-right denunciation of the BBC and the dreadful influence he claims that ‘cultural Marxism’ has in its ranks.[7]

A contradictory institution

It has become a truism that the BBC is criticised from the left for its approach to economic life, since it is generally harsh on strikes and unions, and treats neoliberal markets as the natural Gods of our world. It is criticised from the right for its approach to ‘culture’, paying, they claim, too much attention to women, non-white citizens and LGBT people, and to contemporary art. It is traditional for leaders of the corporation to sit back relaxedly and explain, speaking to us slowly, that because they are attacked both from the left and from the right, they must actually be getting the balance correct.

So, for anti-capitalists, should the BBC be defended against the threats of privatisation or abolition? And how much is it an institution we can celebrate? What analysis can we make of it, beyond the vague idea that it would be better if it was managed by us revolutionary socialists?

We should not be surprised to discover that the BBC is a contradictory beast, which does not speak with one voice and does not act with one will. It could not be otherwise. A hugely influential organisation that has weathered a hundred years of war, crisis and social change, yet remained popular with the British people, and which has never been detested enough by any government to be abolished or privatised, had to be extremely flexible. One should recognise its overwhelming success. In 2020, its weekly global audience was estimated at 426 million people; 61% of the British population now have a positive opinion of the BBC; 91% of them use the BBC’s services at least once a week. BBC Radio 2 is the UK channel with the highest weekly audience, and four million people use the BBC Sounds application every week. David Hendy, in his history published in 2022, highlights one aspect of the complexity of this organisation:

He writes:

‘Its status as a noble national body, closely involved in the world of high politics, has always coexisted with a role in our own domestic lives and individual emotional landscapes…’[8]

One hundred years of existence, millions of hours of programming, a worldwide reputation; how is it possible to characterise this history in one article? My intention is to focus on the BBC as a public service. I will trace the roles it played in the inter-war period (1919-1939), in the post-war boom (1945-1975) and in the long crisis (1975-). I will try to avoid the mistake that seems to me very common in the debates about the BBC: that of reducing it to its news and current-affairs programmes, to its political vision as the major interpreter of the events of the day. Let’s not forget that by far the majority of its programmes are not about current affairs.

The first period, the inter-war years, saw paternalism as the major characteristic of the BBC, while at the same time its innovators invented a hundred important tools of modern broadcasting, from the DJ to the outside broadcast, and from the soap opera to the radio lecture. The second period, after the Second World War, saw the welfare state give more importance to working-class people’s lives. The elitism became more muted, commercial competition, the balance of class forces, and left-wing broadcasters ensured that mass interests were more frequently taken into account. Finally, in the period since the 1980s, Thatcherite counter-reforms put neoliberalism in control, though social movements for liberation could also influence programming.

My article will be structured around the interests served by the BBC. First, I will look at some of the ways it served the state, and generally the government in office over the whole hundred-year period. Then I will look at how consumers and citizens were served and helped, or not. Finally, I will consider whether the BBC could play at times a progressive or even radical role.

Serving the state: John Reith and the interwar public service

The corporation’s first leader, who imposed his own idea of public service (receiving remarkably little guidance from above), was John Reith, director of the BBC from 1922 to 1938. He was a true patriarch, a crusader, a devout Methodist with considerable sympathy for far-right political ideas (he expressed support Hitler at times in the 1930s), and he was a sworn enemy of the trade unions.[9] But he was also a man who had the energy and the vocation to build this new thing called broadcasting (Cecil Lewis declared that running the BBC in the 1920s felt like ‘somebody had given us a tiger and we were obliged to ride this tiger down Piccadilly’)[10]. Reith had an innovative approach to popular education; and he was initially a champion of getting women into creative leadership positions at the BBC.[11] Hilda Matheson was recruited personally by Reith to one of the most important positions in radio at the time: director of talks (though later she was too left-wing for him). Hendy explains:

‘Under Matheson’s influence, “Talks” rapidly became the most exciting part of the BBC in which to work. Its efforts to get leading figures before the microphone involved “constant alertness” and hyperactive social mixing.’[12]

Reith was also an advocate, in the 1920s, for equal pay for men and women in local radio departments.[13]

His view of the use of broadcasting is expressed in the memorandum he wrote for the Crawford Committee on Broadcasting in 1925, though naturally our view of the ‘interests of community and nation’ would not correspond to Reith’s.

‘The BBC had founded a tradition of public service and of devotion to the highest interest of community and nation. There was to hand a mighty instrument to instruct and fashion public opinion; to banish ignorance and misery; to contribute richly and in many ways to the sum total of human wellbeing. The present concern of those to whom the stewardship had, by accident, been committed was that those basic ideals should be sealed and safeguarded, so that broadcasting might play its destined part.’[14]

The BBC in the service of the state

The BBC’s public service involved crucially the service of the state and, in the first decades of the empire, defending it against foreign enemies and potential domestic revolts, spreading soft power and propaganda.

Periods of mass popular revolt have seen the BBC act as a reliable ally of the state, and its role in the defence of the empire was important. The BBC serves the state on a daily basis, but in times of major crises, this is much more visible.

The usefulness to the ruling class of the BBC gradually became clear to them, and the 1926 General Strike was a key learning experience. During the strike, the BBC opposed the workers’ action, and the almost complete absence of printed newspapers meant that its influence was even greater than usual. By refusing to broadcast certain pro-striker material, including a speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the BBC provided essential opposition to the strike.

A minority of those in charge on the government side in 1926, notably Winston Churchill, wanted to requisition the corporation, but Reith managed to avoid this, and even to convince the government that a measure of independence and balance would make the BBC more, not less, useful in the battle to influence the public. So, Reith insisted on making a distinction on air between government announcements and BBC reporting, while still making it clear whose side the BBC was on.

After the strike, a letter by Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, who had travelled the country doing public meetings, was published in Radio Times. She told of workers’ bitterness about BBC bias.

‘Everywhere the complaints were bitter that a national service subscribed to by every class should have given only one side.’[15]

Throughout its history, the BBC will always present strikes as a problem, and not as an opportunity to achieve necessary change. When TV interviews are invented, the CEOs will be interviewed in their offices, the trade unionists in windy car parks. All the media information tools for setting the agenda, telling the public what issues are important, valuing and selecting, will be deployed almost identically by the BBC and commercial radio and television. As an important study noted over fifty years ago: the media ‘may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers [and listeners and viewers] what to think about.’[16]

Returning to the broadcasting of the inter-war period, John Reith certainly believed that the BBC would defend the state. When radio coverage reached the whole of Wales in the mid-1920s, he declared that broadcasting to the coalfields would do much to counter ‘the doctrines of Communism and Bolshevism so sedulously preached there.’[17]

Next, we can examine the history of the BBC Empire Service, which was created in 1932. Its very name marks it out as a defender of the status quo. In its early days, this channel was quite clearly aimed at white British expatriates in India, Africa, Canada or Australia, and aimed to enable them to stay in touch with the mother country… In his first Christmas Message (1932), King George V characterised the service as intended for ‘men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them.’ God forbid that they should have a dialogue with the local peoples!

Public service in full swing, after the ‘people’s war’

The Second World War, controversially dubbed ‘the people’s war’ by historian Angus Calder,[18] dealt a real blow to the elitism of radio, a blow that came on top of the competitive pressure exerted by the popular-culture output of commercial radio stations of Normandy and Luxembourg in the 1930s. Faced with the fact that British soldiers (and civilians) in 1939 frequently listened to German radio, largely because it played more popular music than the BBC, and given the need to be more interested in popular taste when mass mobilisation of civilians was required for total war, the BBC created ‘The Forces Programme’ in January 1940, which was infinitely more in tune with popular culture and was also widely listened to by civilians.

‘Early feedback from troops on the ground revealed an appetite for news at breakfast and lunchtime, very little enthusiasm for religion, and requests for a lot more Variety and music.’[19]

This was the beginning of a rapid change in BBC output. By VE day in 1945:

‘There were broadcasts from the streets of Cardiff, Swansea, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Portsmouth. There were messages from miners in South Wales and dockworkers in Belfast. There was community singing from Bangor. The effort to transcend boundaries of class and region and taste was obvious.’[20]

After the war, as the establishment of the welfare state reflected this need for the elite to treat the people a little better, we saw the development of a pyramid structure of programming at the BBC under its new Director General William Haley. The radio service was divided into three channels: the Light Programme, the Home Service and the more intellectual Third Programme. The Light Programme was developed from the Forces Programme, and this post-war renewal of an entire channel based on mainstream popular taste was a sign of the declining strength of elitism. Yet its very name, ‘the Light programme’, showed the attitude of the BBC authorities. No one suggested that the third, more intellectual programme should be called ‘the heavy programme’!

Elitism was nevertheless in gradual decline. After the Second World War had been handled as ‘the people’s war’, it was no longer possible to have the watchdog committee on oral English, and the body was disbanded. Sunday afternoons were no longer reserved for Bach cantatas. The attitude towards consumers and even towards citizens had changed.

The gradual arrival of television, with its far more immersive viewer experience, increased the power of broadcasting on people’s worldview, and this strengthened at once its capacity to promote state propaganda, and its capacity to educate, entertain and provoke thought and debate. Although the very first TV programmes were produced in 1936, it was not until the late 1960s that TV became as important as radio for the BBC. Half a million households had a television in 1950; by 1960, ten million households had one.

During the ‘thirty glorious years’ of the post-war boom (as the French call them), the BBC’s service to the state naturally continued unabated, though the British empire entered a phase of rapid but controlled decline. On some occasions, BBC management defended a certain independence from governments, feeling this was in the long-term interests both of the BBC and the British state. Thus, in 1956 during the Suez fiasco, the BBC refused to broadcast only the government point of view, even when it was faced with explicit threats of being commandeered.[21]

More typically, the BBC’s coverage of events in the military conflict in Northern Ireland from 1969 onwards was largely subordinated (with occasional exceptions) to the objectives of the British state. For example, during the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British soldiers shot dead thirteen peaceful protesters, the BBC followed the government’s position that the soldiers had acted in self-defence.[22] Throughout the years of the military conflict in Northern Ireland, the BBC, day in, day out, played the same role, on TV and on radio, as did commercial broadcasting.

Similarly, during the magnificent strike wave of the early 1970s, the high point of workers’ collective power, BBC television news angled its coverage to pull viewers away from siding with the strikers. The Glasgow Media Group’s classic study Bad News, published in 1976, explained:

‘[…] in the coverage of strikes … the blame was firmly laid at the door of the work force for the problems of the economy. This was far beyond the reporting of facts; it was routine commentary and judgement. Similarly, wage negotiations were routinely monitored, and news judgements were made as to whether they had broken government guidelines. The problem of high inflation was regularly, almost exclusively, attributed to wage push factors.’[23]

The BBC management sometimes revealed itself to be more a part of the state than just a supporter of it. The secret vetting procedures of BBC recruits, run by MI5 from the 1930s to the 1990s, (and which the then Director-General lied about in an interview in the Sunday Times in 1968), were not imposed on a reluctant corporation.[24] These procedures, which ensured the BBC did not employ in positions of influence men and women who were associated with radical-left parties such as the Communist Party or the Socialist Workers Party, were fully supported by BBC management. When MI5 proposed relaxing some of these procedures, the leadership of the BBC expressed a desire that they be kept to strictly!

The neoliberal era and the dynamics of social justice and technological change

Readers will not need reminding that from the mid-1970s, neoliberal politics gradually transformed the entire UK public sector, from prisons to hospitals, from schools to television. This had deep effects on policy and programming. All BBC official reports on broadcasting before the 1980s had focused on the idea of public service, but after the Peacock Commission, set up by Thatcher in 1986, with plenty of right-wing economists on the committee, the situation changed. Instead of claiming that it was offering what the private sector could not, BBC management felt obliged to try to show that it was helping the British private sector. The BBC was, in addition, forced to buy many of its programmes from private production companies and to produce fewer programmes in-house.

Margaret Thatcher would have loved to privatise the BBC, and the Peacock Commission of 1985-86, stuffed with quack economists, was set up to facilitate this. But it was politically too risky, and even sections of the Conservative party were opposed. In the end, the Peacock Report only recommended the privatisation of Radio One and Radio Two (the popular music stations). Even this was not carried out; the stations were no doubt too well-liked. Thatcher settled for requiring the corporation to give priority to the markets and to suffer major cuts in funding.

During this period, the BBC obviously continued to support the state. In the miners’ strike of 1984-5, the BBC did not differ much from the print media in its campaign against the strike.[25] But the BBC defence of British capitalism in every crisis did not mean that it was necessarily endorsed by the various governments. Margaret Thatcher’s anger towards the BBC was well-known. During the Falklands War, she castigated the BBC for sometimes putting a little balance or context into its reporting. Thatcher would have preferred it to follow the Conservative press.

The BBC has served the state every day in its hundred-year existence. The recent treatment of the Queen’s death and funeral is another clear example of this. Hundreds of hours of tributes, and strictly no visibility for the views of the 22% of the population who are strongly opposed to the monarchy, nor of the 18% who are not sure they support the monarchy.

Consumers and Citizens

Nevertheless, it would be quite wrong to suggest that the BBC was only a propaganda machine for the British state. It also responds to perceived needs and demands of its users, and the general balance of class forces influences its programming, as it endeavours to maintain legitimacy and popularity. Unlike private broadcasters, the corporation is not at risk of advertisers pulling the plug on any programme that is not getting the number of viewers and listeners they want. However, if the size of the audience were to be steadily decreasing, the political pressure on the government to get rid of the BBC would clearly increase. The BBC has generally applied every ten years for a renewal of its charter, and needs to be seen to be producing a good deal of popular programming.

Might its public service, then, also be about serving citizens? Does the BBC nurture the education of individuals who wish to be conscious and informed actors of their time, or who aim to become relatively fulfilled modern humans through the widest possible access to culture? Might it encourage people to participate in the limited democracy which capitalism offers?

Mass education

For Reith, public service meant, in his well-known slogan, originally heard in US radio, ‘to inform, to educate and to entertain’. As Matthew Arnold had put it in his best-selling 1869 book, Culture and Anarchy, Reith felt he wanted, ‘to make the best of what has been thought and known in the world common everywhere.’ This ‘best’ was generally conceived in an elitist way. People ‘should’, in his view, listen to more opera and classical music, less music hall and dance music. People should honour the Lord’s Day, respect the elites and seek to improve themselves.

All of this was mixed with Reith’s strict idea of religious practice. For many years, Sunday radio broadcasts were particularly austere, with Bach cantatas, church services and charity presentations being the only programmes allowed.

The elitism of Reith and his milieu limited their provision of what people wanted or needed. For decades, great efforts were made to prevent working-class voices and accents from being broadcast on the BBC. The corporation’s Advisory Committee on Spoken English controlled the airwaves until the Second World War.[26] A parallel distaste bloomed at the BBC for popular culture (jazz and crooners in particular were frowned on). The obsession with class distinction could sometimes seem positively paranoid: for a number of years, BBC radio news presenters were ordered to wear dinner jackets on air. In the offices:

‘For men, dark suits were the rule, along with pin-striped trousers, spats and bowler hats – except for Saturday mornings, when plus fours might be worn.’[27]

The ideal BBC radio presenter resembled the Eton-trained British gentleman. Aristocratic phlegm was the order of the day and emotional expression was not allowed. In the 1930s, a man auditioned by the BBC for a position as a radio newsreader was told that he sounded too involved in the news. When it was suggested that women might read the bulletins, it was objected that they would no doubt be too emotional. ‘Imagine if the king died and the female presenter burst into tears’ was the tone of management thinking at the time. Thus, in terms of both cultural content and style, Reith’s BBC reinforced elitist conceptions of culture.

Reith’s elitism nevertheless came from the liberal wing of the elite. His dream was to make ‘high culture’ accessible to all. A much more conservative wing of the elite was convinced that educating the masses was unnecessary or even dangerous, or that the task was impossible. However, the liberal wing of the elite had wanted, since at least 1830, for members of the working class to be able to ‘better themselves’ culturally through lending libraries, evening classes and penny classical-music concerts in the new municipal concert halls.

The BBC could not ‘give the consumers what they wanted’ in the inter-war years because, with radio being so new, no one knew what to expect from it. Moreover, it must be said that John Reith was not very keen on ‘giving people what they want’, even if it had been possible. ‘Few know what they want, and very few what they need’ he wrote.[28] The BBC read carefully thousands of letters from listeners every week, but it was not until 1936 that a research unit was set up to study public opinion about broadcasts, and the service was set up somewhat John Reith’s wishes. In general, therefore, it was more a matter of giving the citizen what the BBC thought was useful.

The BBC talks were organised for some years by Hilda Matheson, who was hired by Reith as director of the talks. She was moderately left-wing. Guest speakers included George Bernard Shaw, Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf. Matheson set up the programme A Week at Westminster which invited the few female MPs to explain political processes and controversies to a female audience, many of whom had only recently, in 1928, gained the right to vote. Right-wing politicians and newspapers criticised the BBC’s talks for being too much, too boring and too left-wing. In 1931, the Daily Mail claimed that BBC talks promoted socialism, communism and the USSR.[29] This comment is obviously to be considered a good sign!

Another example from ten years later: The Brains Trust, produced from 1941 onwards, featured a panel of intellectuals who tried to answer, unrehearsed, questions sent in by listeners. Participants included Catholic novelist C S Lewis, left-wing historian A J P Taylor, philosopher Bertrand Russell and Isaiah Berlin as well as economist Barbara Ward, actress Anna Neagle and a number of leading scientists. The Brains Trust was one of the most popular BBC programmes, and was broadcast at peak times. It was heard weekly by about 29% of the British population and generated 4,000-5,000 letters from readers each week! It was impressive mass education, presented in an entertaining format.

From early on at the BBC, the idea of bringing the best to all included scientific culture and knowledge. The BBC thus continued a tradition of giving scientific lectures in local halls to interested laymen, but the audience was multiplied a thousandfold. In May 1923, for example, a talk by a chemistry lecturer on ‘The Chemistry of Life’ was followed up a few weeks later by a talk ‘The Chemistry of a Washing Day’, bringing together scientific knowledge and everyday trials (before detergents, small families, and washing machines, washing day was infinitely harder work). In November of the same year, a series of talks on the history of mathematics was programmed, whereas two years later a series of programmes by a Nobel laureate in physics began with ‘What is heat?’

On the question of more traditional culture, the BBC was also tremendously ambitious. By the late thirties, they were broadcasting a hundred different theatre plays every year, bringing theatre to very large numbers of workers who might not have otherwise had access to it.

Autodidact’s paradise

BBC radio in the post-war boom, now that almost every household finally had a radio, was, among other things, an autodidact’s paradise. Hendy points out:

‘For a generation of naturally curious, state-educated, working-class or lower-middle-class Britons like Richard Hoggart, the Third [programme] seemed to embody the most generous of gifts that a hungry autodidact might wish for at a time of material austerity: cultural enrichment in the form of a free supply of the “best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement”.’[30]

We must not forget to look to other programming areas too for services produced for the citizen. The BBC’s innovative sports programmes greatly expanded the range of different sports seen on television and encouraged popular sports participation to go well beyond the two or three most popular sports. Gymnastics, for example, was first broadcast on the BBC in 1954, women’s cricket in 1955, and canoeing in 1955. In 1976, the Women’s Football Association cup final was first broadcast on the BBC. The rise of TV coverage of women’s football in the UK was led by the corporation, and this was an important step forward, helping underline the crucial idea that women’s place is everywhere. Similarly, cooking shows allowed citizens to broaden their experience of world cuisine. The fact that immediate success was not required by advertisers certainly helped these initiatives. There is no reason not to appreciate these aspects of the BBC, or to have a superior attitude towards people for whom cooking or sports programmes are important.

In the field of music, BBC Two radio in particular made efforts to provide programmes for minority interests; but these minorities, all added up, represent a lot of people. Specialised programmes for dance music, folk music, brass-band music, organ music, or blues, jazz, country, etc. were provided by the public service in a way that could not have interested the commercial stations. After its establishment in 1967, Radio One, the station dedicated to the latest popular music, could also have a different role from that of the commercial players. For several decades, the renowned disc jockey John Peel presented a programme of relatively unknown artists and their unknown works, with the aim of exploring the creative world of the latest popular music. It was not unusual for Peel to be the first to broadcast the next influential trend on the radio, and he himself often said that his work could not be done anywhere else but on a public-service radio.

It is still the case today that BBC music radio is more adventurous than its commercial rivals. A study in 2016 showed that four UK commercial radios played on average a total of 1,857 different songs a year: Radio 1 played 13,729; for Radio 2 the figure was 21,329.[31]

It has always been part of left tradition to work for mass popular education, and it is no surprise that institutions such as the Open University, more accessible to working-class people than were standard universities, attracted large numbers of left activists as teachers. The role of the BBC in this domain is to be celebrated. Once television became important, such programmes as Horizon (1964-2022, over 1200 episodes to date) helped millions to explore scientific conversations. Recent episodes include explanations of the Coronavirus vaccine, the Webb telescope and addiction to painkillers. Earlier years’ productions included explorations of Fermat’s last theorem, male suicide statistics and speculations about multiple universes. From the very beginning, the Horizon team was determined that the science should not be oversimplified.

For 38 years (1965-2003) Tomorrow’s World presented innovations in science and technology in a popular magazine format, with segments often only a couple of minutes long. For example, they talked about the first digital watch in 1972, an early mobile phone in 1979, and the robot vacuum cleaner in 1996. But of course, they also presented many inventions that never succeeded.

The last fifty years

The period when neoliberal policies came to dominate did not stop the production of quality popular education at the BBC. If we look at the radio programmes and podcasts of 2022, we see, for example, a tremendously rich science content. The shift to the internet has made these even more widely available. BBC Radio 4 show The Life Scientific interviews a scientist each week, focusing on how they became interested in the particular project on which they are working. Recent episodes range from black holes, beetle behaviour and coral reefs to anorexia, dinosaurs and false memories.

An impressive group of short TV series on the history of science was one of the gems produced in recent years. Precision, the Measure of All Things tells of the search over millennia to measure more accurately. Presented by Marcus de Sautoy, it is made up of three episodes: ‘Time and Distance’, ‘Mass and Moles’ and ‘Heat, Light and Electricity’. The series Secrets of Size looks at subatomic particles and at super-galaxies. The presentation is often popularised and playful: the presenter inflating a series of rubber gloves to illustrate one aspect of theory. But the science is not oversimplified.

All BBC science and history of science series avoid earnest talking heads; they try to interview young scientists at work in a laboratory, trusting a friendly presenter to explain an adventure, rather than an intellectual voice-over. Naturally, this does not mean that quality popular science programmes are exempt from capitalist ideology. One of the main characteristics of much science programming is the attempt to make the programmes as much about the scientists as about the science itself.

From the beginning of the programme Horizon, there was pressure to focus on the personalities of the scientists and how they influenced their research. The early Horizon scientists were rather sceptical about this. Today’s The Life Scientific radio programme went much further on the biographical approach. As we know, this approach has a downside; science is often explained through the life of the individual ‘pioneer’, the ‘disruptive entrepreneur’ who is the hero (or, occasionally, heroine) of late capitalism.

There is also a tendency to try to make the history of science more melodramatic and thrilling in the individual lives of the scientists. This should not be surprising: we are accustomed to experienced political or trade-union leaders being interviewed as if their personal passions and ambitions were the only important motor of their decisions: this is the all-encompassing individualist philosophy of our times. Similarly, in history series such as The Tudors, change is often reduced to court intrigues and distorted personalities. So, the BBC history of science series are excessively peppered with comments such as ‘Rutherford was obsessed with radioactivity’, ‘Einstein hated Bohr’s ideas’ or ‘Heisenberg and Schrodinger hated each other’.

In any case, in the question of mass broadcast education on science, only public service television and radio do this job. Neither the old-fashioned commercial companies nor the new providers such as Netflix make much of a contribution. The situation is the same in other fields. In art history, political history or social history, almost allthe British content is on the BBC. Social history series such as The People’s Century, political history such as The Fall of Eagles, art history such as The Shock of the New. Unsurprisingly, the political history series are often weaker than the others. Social history series such as A House through Time (2018 to 2021) or The Secret History of Our Streets are generally of superior quality. One crucial aspect of these programmes is that they are not made to appeal to a known audience, an established market, they are made to create an audience.

A progressive force?

Obviously, socialist activists are in favour of such publicly funded and broadly based popular education. And the BBC also played an important role in inventing new ways to criticise the status quo. From ITMA (It’s That Man Again) in the 1940s to The Goon Show in the 1950s, Monty Python, Drop the Dead Donkey, Not the Nine O Clock News, Goodness Gracious Me, Have I Got News For You, or the Now Show, healthy satire owes an awful lot to the BBC.

However, was it ever possible for the BBC to go further and act as a genuinely progressive force? There are plenty of moments when the BBC was clearly acting as the opposite: specific decisions were sometimes made to support racism. In 1950, Controller of Television, Norman Collins, (after viewer complaints about a show where a black man sang a love song to a white woman), ruled that from then on ‘love songs between white and coloured artists must be very scrupulously considered’. And despite a campaign and petition against the blackface series The Black and White Minstrel Show from 1962 on, the BBC continued promoting and broadcasting it until 1978. There are a number of other equally shocking examples.

Nonetheless, given the leeway given to broadcasters, the huge number of hours produced, and the existence of a certain number of left-wing people inside the BBC, a fair number of radical programmes could be put forward, and their influence could be very significant. For his 1934 series of programmes on industrial Britain, John Hilton was sent to visit a hundred factories, mills and mines to get an idea of the workers’ views and working conditions. A little later, a series of four reports on the major industries of the North was produced, entitled Steel, Cotton, Humanity, Wool and Coal. These programmes mixed music, poems and location recordings to create evocations of working life. David Hendy’s recent book gives a series of other examples from the 1930s to demonstrate that not all BBC productions reflected establishment values.

Some radical content was possible during the boom years. From 1958 to 1964, BBC radio financed and broadcast a series of Radio ballads by Ewan Maccoll and Peggy Seeger, folk singers close to the Communist Party of Great Britain. These programmes, a mix of interviews and original songs written in collaboration with the workers involved, were innovative forms of radical culture.[32] The ballad, each one hour long included ‘Song of a Road’, the story of the workers, often immigrants, who built the M1 motorway, ‘The Travelling People’, songs and stories from Travellers adapting to changes in society, ‘On the Edge’, about teenagers in Britain in the early 1960s  and ‘Singing the Fishing’, about the lives of fisher folk in the North East of England. This innovative format was taken up again by the BBC in 2006, when six more programmes were broadcast, including one on AIDS and another on the Troubles in Northern Ireland, while in 2010, a ‘Ballad of the Miners’ Strike’, dealing with participants in the 1984 conflict, was made.[33]

In 1964, the season of nineteen radio programmes entitled The Negro in America, co-edited by Geoffrey Bridson and by African American poet Langston Hughes, played an excellent role in that crucial year for the civil-rights movement. And when Malcolm X visited Britain in 1965, a few months before his assassination, BBC coverage was considerable, and his ideas were taken seriously on air.

Another well-known example, from television this time, is The Wednesday Play series which ran from 1964 to 1970. The series caused many management headaches by airing sharp social dramas on television that exposed conditions and oppressions that much of the establishment would rather not have seen on air. Up the Junction, by a young Ken Loach, was about abortion (a year after its legalisation), Cathy Come Home, also by Loach, was about homeless families, and was hugely influential. The Big Flame was about dockers’ strikes. The programme Fable, directed by John Hopkins, presented a fictional situation where black people were in charge in Britain and white people systematically mistreated in an apartheid system. Management was tempted to pull the plug to avoid controversy, but the antiracist broadcast went ahead in January 1965.

Some of these examples are well-known, indeed, in the case of McColl and Seeger and Ken Loach, they are even classics of left-wing broadcasting. There were quite a number of less well-known and no doubt less brilliant examples, though one would not of course claim that left-wing content was typical of BBC output in this period.

Fighting oppression

What then of the period since 1980, when neoliberalism gradually took over as official ideology? The BBC was detested by Thatcher and her ministers, but they never dared privatise it. Nevertheless, the fact that the corporation was not prepared to surrender lock stock and barrel to neoliberalism, but defended a wider debate, is important. Thatcher’s minister Norman Tebbit famously described the organisation’s values as:

‘[that] insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naïve, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of third-rate minds of that third-rate decade, the Sixties.’[34]

History being a complex process, the period since 1980 cannot be reduced to the rise of neoliberalism. The great social struggles of women, LGBT and black Britons in the 1970s and 1980s produced results, slowly, as public attitudes changed, and people kept fighting for their rights. Only 3% of MPs were women in 1979, and 6.3% of MPs were women in 1987. This figure rose to 18% in 1997 and to 29% in 2017. These figures are symbols of an increasing respect won by women in the world of work and politics.

Homosexuality for men was reluctantly legalised in 1967; in 2015 a Conservative government passed a law allowing access to marriage for gays and lesbians. This is important progress. BBC programmes have sometimes been involved in this ongoing drive for social justice, not in an organised, coherent and deliberate way, but in a disorganised but often powerful way, as creative teams have found ways to encourage change.

A good example was the first gay character in the extremely popular soap opera, Eastenders, in 1986. The show introduced a new character, Colin Russell, and it was only after he had been in the narrative for several months that the audience discovered he was gay. This inclusion of a gay character, in a type of television programme where viewers (and in particular British viewers) are extremely attached to all characters, may well have done more to advance gay rights than a dozen intellectual documentaries broadcast on BBC Two at 11pm. Right-wing MPs complained loudly about the plot line.

In 1992, the treatment of the homosexual character of teacher Mr Brisley in the school drama Grange Hill could be seen in the same way, as could the first trans character in Eastenders in 2015. In several other ways, the BBC has played a role in advancing social justice, and generally far more than the commercial channels.

Defending the BBC

Over the years, campaigners have intervened to defend aspects of the BBC, or to put pressure on it. As early as 1937, the journal The Left Review published a pamphlet entitled The BBC exposed, which denounced the pro-capitalist values of the BBC and insisted that the majority of the Board of Governors should be chosen among representatives of the organised working class.[35]

In 1957, the Third Programme Defence Society (1957) opposed cuts in broadcasting hours and the removal of more highbrow content. The campaign was supported by TS Eliot, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Laurence Olivier. In 1969, the Campaign for Better Broadcasting (1969) opposed proposed cuts in Radio 3’s speech output. In 2014, the campaign ‘Save our BBC’ opposed Tory Prime Minister David Cameron’s attacks on the public service.[36]


Perhaps the best way to evaluate how much our class has to celebrate amidst a century of BBC productions is to compare it with other huge state-funded institutions which have transformed worker’s lives: the National Health Service and the education system. Socialists obviously defend schools and universities and their public funding, since they can give workers the tools needed to work for individual flourishing, social progress and revolt, and they keep young people out of the hands of grubby employers for a few years. Yet, at the same time, we are aware that in a hundred ways the education system serves capitalism; making sure the ‘right number’ of low-grade workers are churned out, and the ‘right number’ of engineers or managers. Teaching children to sit still in groups for long periods, keep quiet and obey, and sorting young adults by bizarre examination systems and endless elitism are also at the heart of the education system. In a similar manner, the National Health System makes a tremendous contribution to the quality of life of almost everybody, while being soaked in racism, sexism, class discrimination and all the other horrific stains on our society.[37] The history of the psychiatric establishment in mistreating women and LGBT people is just one example of this. The BBC is contradictory in a similar manner.

David Hendy, author of A People’s History of the BBC, points out that the BBC is an integral part of the establishment ‘but’, he writes, ‘in many ways it belongs to us too’. And he ends his book with a call to defend the BBC’s public service against neo-liberal options that propose ‘the market, the whole market and nothing but the market’.

The corporation today faces a freeze on the licence fee by the Conservative government, and a budget that has been cut by a quarter in ten years. Most recently, it announced the loss of around 1,000 of its 22,000 employees, the closure of several local radio stations and the restriction of the children’s channel CBBC to internet broadcasting. It needs defending.

The BBC has been criticised for a hundred reasons for bias, censorship and reactionary attitudes, and most of the time the criticism is justified. But I have shown in this article a very small selection of the large number of good reasons for anti-capitalists in the UK to defend the BBC, without, naturally, neglecting our own job of explaining how media, including public-service media, support a status quo we think needs overthrowing.

John Mullen

John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist living in the Paris region, and a supporter of the France Insoumise. His website is at


Audit, George, The BBC Exposed (London, Left Review 1937)

Benn Mitch, ‘I’m proud of the BBC’ [song]:

BBC News, ‘The vetting files: How the BBC kept out “subversives”’, BBC News, 21 April 2018:

Calder, Angus, The People’s War: Britain 1939-45 (Vintage 2012)

Cohen, Bernard, The Press and Foreign Policy (Harcourt 1963)

Eldridge, John, ‘The Contribution of the Glasgow Media Group to the Study of Television and Print Journalism’, Journalism Studies 1:1 (2000): 

Gallet, Elodie, ‘La BBC et l’information sur le conflit en Irlande du Nord (1960-1995)’, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique XXVI-1 (2021):

Hajkowski, Thomas, The BBC and National Identity in Britain, 1922-53 (Manchester University Press 2010).

Harris, Trevor, ‘John Reith and the BBC 1922-1939: Building an Empire of the Air?’, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, XXVI-1 (2021):

Hendy, David, The BBC: a People’s History (Profile Books 2022)

Mills, Tom, The BBC, Myth of a Public Service (Verso 2016)

Mullen, John, De Carvalho, Lucie and Armao, Frédéric, eds, ‘The BBC and Public Service Broadcasting in the Twentieth Century’, special issue of the French Journal of British Studies XXVI-1, (2021):

Murphy, Kate, Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC (Palgrave Macmillan 2016)

Naylor, Tony, ‘Twenty Reasons Why I Love the BBC’, Guardian 18 October 2007:

Potter, Simon, ‘100 years of the BBC: the rebels who reshaped broadcasting – and paid the price”, The Conversation, 6 April 2022:

Powell, Martin, ‘Socialism and the British National Health Service’, Health Care Analysis 5(3) (1997): 187-94:

Reith, J.C.W., Broadcast over Britain (Hodder & Stoughton 1924)

Schwyter, Jürg Rainer, Dictating to the Mob: The History of the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English (Oxford University Press 2016)

Sedgwick, David, Brainwashing Britain – How and Why the BBC Controls Your Mind (Sandgrounder 2018)

Stacey, Kiran and Waterson, Jim, Jim Waterson and Kiran Stacey, ‘Sunak under pressure to stop choosing Tories for BBC jobs after Sharp row’ Guardian 28 April 2023:

Tranmer, Jeremy, ‘The BBC and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5: Coverage of the Battle of Orgreave”, Mimoc Journal 27 (2022):

[1] Stacy and Waterson, 2023.

[2] Naylor, 2000.

[3] Mitch Benn, 2010.

[4] Hendy, 2022.

[5] Mills, 2016.

[6] Sedgwick, 2018.

[7] See also Mullen, Armao, De Carvalho (Eds), 2021.

[8] Hendy, 2022, p.104.

[9] Harris, 2021.

[10] Hendy, 2022, p.42.

[11] The forgotten story of women in the early BBC is told in Murphy, 2016.

[12] Hendy, p.51

[13] Murphy, 2014. 

[14] Harris, 2021.

[15] Hendy, 2022, p.116.

[16] Cohen, 1963, p.13.

[17] Quoted in Hajkowksi, 2010, p.171.

[18] Calder, 2012.

[19] Hendy, 2022, p.201.

[20] Hendy, 2022, p.284.

[21] Hendy, 2022, p.390.

[22] Gallet, 2021. 

[23] Eldridge, 2000.

[24] BBC News, 2018.

[25] Tranmer, 2022.

[26] See Schwyter, 2016.

[27] Hendy, 2022, p.65.

[28] Reith, 1924, p.34.

[29] Potter, 2022.

[30] Hendy, 2022, p.360.

[31] Hendy, 2022, p.553.

[32] Several are available on YouTube, including ‘Song of a Road’,


[34] Hendy, 2022, p.459.

[35] Audit, 1937.

[36] Right-wing forces also intervened, most famously through Mary Whitehouse’s Listeners and Viewers Association in the 1960s, which ran a powerful ‘Clean up TV’ campaign.

[37] See for example Powell, 1997.

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John Mullen

John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.