A Social History of British Broadcasting, vol. 1, 1922-1939: Serving the Nation.
The authors first sketch the framework of broadcasting in Britain, explaining how the service grew from an organization that was established at the behest of the British Post Office. Radio manufacturers, who had begun broadcasting in Britain at the end of the Great War, were convinced to gather into a consortium which would be granted an exclusive license by the state. Scannell and Cardiff point out that the monopoly service which was established, was created without an ideological rationale. The ideology of British broadcasting developed as the service grew. In fact the notion of radio as a "public service" was grafted on to the BBC after the service had been up and running. The authors succeed in providing a comprehensive overview of the Victorian concept of "service" and explain how this influenced the BBC in its efforts to provide programs that would impart "high culture" on the listener. In 1923 the Sykes Committee was established by parliament to consider the future of radio in Britain. The Committee commented on the social implications of radio and concluded that broadcasting should be defined as a "public utility." The Committee also emphasized the enormous potential of the medium and stressed that any such service should remain under government control. The first Director General of the BBC, John Reith, has been seen as the single most influential force at the BBC during this critical period. In fact Reith, whose tenure stretched from 1923 to 1938, built on the conclusions of the Sykes Committee and advocated the need for radio to be a service that would offer a, "... cultural, moral and educative force for the improvement of knowledge, taste and manners...".
The narrative effectively conveys an understanding of how the staff tested the ill-defined limits established to govern the content of programs. An excellent example of this process is detailed in examining the area of news and "talks" programs. Scannell and Cardiff concentrate on the difficult relationship the service experienced with governments which were sensitive to the content of broadcasts. The desire not to antagonize the government meant that the service imposed upon itself a certain degree of self-censorship. The painfully slow development of the news department is discussed in detail as it grew from an unorganized appendage of the service into a more professional organization which demanded a more prominent role in broadcasting.
The authors indicate that a historical consensus has developed that paints the BBC during the 1930s as an out of touch institution that did not respond to the contentious political issues of the day. Reith and the BBC have been blamed for ignoring economic and political crises both at home and abroad. However Scannell and Cardiff argue that this interpretation is much too simplistic. They present a more complex explanation of the BBC and its reporting on the two most important issues of the 1930s, unemployment in Britain and the growth of fascism in Europe. It is argued that the failure of the service in these areas was not simply the deliberate policy of Reith and the BBC to avoid politics in general, but was the result of, " . . . the nature and effect of external and internal pressures on broadcasting news and controversy . . . ". While sincere efforts were made to produce comprehensive programs on the plight of the unemployed and the growth of fascism in Europe, the best efforts of programmakers were often defeated as the service wished to "contain controversy."
The goal of the BBC was to develop programs of quality that would appeal to the entire nation. However those who created programs, and who defined the "quality" of national broadcasts came from distinctly middle-class backgrounds. The result was that much of the programing that was produced, had little appeal to the working class. While the national broadcasts tended to stress the importance of classical music and "informed" discussions on a wide spectrum of topics, it avoided material it regarded as vulgar or popular. The London based personality of the service which developed was detached and aloof, and subsequently had a great deal of difficulty in appealing to the masses.
If the national programs were deficient in appealing to listeners from a working class background the same cannot be said of regional broadcasts. Scannell and Cardiff argue that regional broadcasts, devoid of the "stuffed shirt" persona of London, succeeded in attracting a loyal audience. The authors indicate the staff had the freedom and the energy to produce challenging and innovative programs that workers could in fact relate to. Free of the shackles of London, the Northern Region, based in Manchester, developed programs that addressed topics of concern to working people in the industrial heartland of Britain. Programs such as Cotton, Wool, and Coal, all explored the lives of those who worked in the mills and mines of the north. These innovative features were geared to an audience that could readily relate to the lives of workers and the problems and issues that affected their lives. In fact Scannell and Cardiff argue that these programs represent the most critical contribution the regions made to British broadcasting.
One issue that is not fully developed concerns actual working-class participation in program making. While the authors indicate that regional programs were successful in providing material that appealed to the laboring classes, it would appear that the writers and producers of these programs also came from predominantly middle-class backgrounds. One can only wonder if something might have been missed here. Can a service that was (and one may argue still is) dominated by an ideology of the bourgeoisie succeed in reaching and holding a working-class audience? And if so, how does one measure the extent of that success? Scannell and Cardiff indicate that in regional programs, at least those emanating from Manchester, the service did appeal to the working class. This conclusion is drawn without convincing documentation, as "listener research" did not measure the popularity of these specific programs. However the authors succeed in arguing that regional broadcasting differed markedly from the national program, broadcast from London. "At its best Northern Region regularly succeeded in making enjoyable, unpretentious, programs for its largely working-class audience".
Unfortunately the only regional example that is discussed in any great detail is the Northern Region. One would like to see other regions examined. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales would be areas that might offer a great deal of insight into the opinions of local leaders on a number of contentious issues, yet these regions are scarcely mentioned. Local expressions of culture and identity in these regions might provide insight into how these areas viewed both themselves and London between the wars. However to be fair the authors point out that their intention is not to provide a comprehensive account of all regional services. In focusing in on Manchester one is able to see an important component of broadcasting in the United Kingdom.
It is the stated intention of the authors to, " . . . catch the unity and diversity of broadcasting, the parts and the whole, and to understand it as the expression of a new set of social relations between broadcasters, programs and audiences" (ibid). This is an ambitious goal. While perhaps falling short of exploring entirely the "parts and the whole" Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff have produced an important contribution to our understanding of broadcasting in the United Kingdom between the wars. One can only hope that the second volume is as informative as the first.
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|Author:||Savage, Robert J.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1993|
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